It Takes a Village

My first introduction to structured, group dog obedience classes happened more than 26 years ago in Jacksonville, N.C.  We were a young Marine family, my husband newly transferred to Camp Lejeune, and along with our infant (human son), young Irish Setter Casey, and Irish Terrier Fiona, we moved into base housing.  I thoroughly enjoyed the "mommy and me" classes and baby playgroups during the day, but I wanted to do something with our dogs at night.  So I enrolled in my first dog obedience classes run by the Jacksonville, NC Kennel Club.  I'd always taught my dogs obedience and tricks on my own, ever since I was a little girl.  I was mostly self-taught, drawing on what I read from books I'd gotten from the library and had even won several pet contests run by our local 4-H.  But this was completely different.  I was introduced to the competition obedience Novice, Open and Utility exercises, and I have to admit, I was in awe. 

How did these people, these old ladies get their dogs to do that stuff?  Hey, that's how I viewed them.  I was 23 years old, and though I was married with a child, I felt young and insecure around them.  And not only were they older chronologically, they were confident, self-assured and knowledgeable.  They seemed to know everything there was to know about dogs.   If someone was having trouble with housebreaking, they had the answer.  They are the ones who taught me about crate training.  What?  Put a dog in a cage?  Seriously?  I went out and bought one the next day and have never been without one since.  They knew all the different breeds.  They knew all about structure, movement and even nutrition.  What, there's a better food than Purina Dog Chow?  How could that be?  It seemed every week I attended class turned into a light bulb moment.  Like a piece of furniture, I kept hanging around, and eventually they took a liking to me, noting "that kid has potential!"  Finally they invited me to accompany them to the mom and pop diner they always visited after dog class.  I'd been accepted, and I'd sit with them well into the wee morning hours sometimes just talking dogs.  My husband didn't mind.  After all, I was hanging out with a bunch of old ladies, what could be the harm?  You've heard the term football widow, right?  Well that's when my husband became a dog sports widower, but he still doesn't mind a bit.  These were wise, wise women and he knew I wanted to be just like them when I grew up.

Needless to say, dog training has changed by leaps and bounds today, and I certainly train using different techniques than those women taught me, but still, I realize they were instrumental in laying the foundation for the dog trainer I am today.  Unfortunately what hasn't changed is that dog sports, training and showing contines to be an older female dominated world.  Just attend any dog sport event or dog show and you're hard pressed to find many under the age of 30, even agility, which requires physical stamina and fitness of the human handler.  I've never quite been able to figure out the reason for this, but I do know that there is a lot more that those of us who share this passion could be doing to attract younger people to dog training.

  • Take a child or a young adult to actually see an actual dog show, agility, obedience or rally trial. Watching them on TV is one thing, but being right there in the thick of things and feeling the excitement is something entirely different.  Dog sports events are everywhere, but only if you know where to find them.

  • If you are a Canine Good Citizen evaluator, ask a child or young adult to assist you with the next testing.  Obtaining a CGC is a realistic and attainable goal for most dogs and people.

  • If you're an instructor, offer kid-centric classes.  Children often feel more comfortable around their peers.

  • Start a 4-H Youth Dog Program.  These can be very powerful in promoting a lifelong love of dog training, but unfortunately they are disappearing from many communities due to a lack of dedicated adult volunteers to coordinate them.

    Be accessible and approachable to newbies.  I think we sometimes forget that we were new and not so bright when it comes to dog training and behavior at one time too.  You can attract more bees with honey than vinegar.

I know that several of my early mentors who took me under their wings back in Jacksonville have since passed away, but I will always remember them for helping me find what has turned out to be not only a hobby but my true calling in life.  I still have the handmade dumbbell one of them made for me more than 23 years ago.  I can only hope that now that I am indeed all grown up, they'd be proud of me and the dog person I've become.  And not just for continuing to be involved with dogs, but for helping bringing new people into the fold.