The Disappearing Art of Mentorship and Trust

I got a call from an excited “newby” to show breeding. The first litter to be born at her house in 3 years was about to arrive. There was a lot of excitement in the air. This was not their first litter by any means, but the second show litter as breeder and the first bred and born at their home, to be raised, cared for and evaluated by them.

Some fortunate souls started with a good mentor right away and started breeding show puppies from their first litter. Some started breeding pet quality dogs, loving the breed but not knowing any better. Some started with color fad focused breeding and have a long road ahead to rebuilding a reputation. The learning curve can be a long one without a guiding hand, and the search for a nice puppy can be endless without earning someone’s trust. 

Twenty or thirty years ago it seems there were more opportunities, there were more people willing to share their lines and help a new person get a start. It used to be easier. Breeders avoided puppy mill types, they added to the contract that they could not sell to pet stores, retailers or puppy mills.  And if they let the lines slip to an occasional backyard breeder, not much damage was done.

The Risks

Fast forward to present day where money talks and color sells and mixing breeds is justified by over the counter DNA tests that imply that after 5 generations, the other genes added have magically disappeared. We live in a day and age when preference wins over respecting tradition… where opinion is king, and when rules are broken you are “brave” or “innovative” rather than just someone who simply can’t follow direction. CAN a Boston be colored and purebred? Yes, in very rare cases, but even those lead to unknown lines from questionable origins further back in the pedigree.  The population explosion of colors in our breed 15 years ago was anything but “naturally occurring”. The numbers have never added up and the change in breed type was telling, especially among those early colored dogs who magically appeared en masse when it became apparent there was a market for them.

The pursuit and promotion of breeding whatever is marketable has permanently affected the overall look of the breed in just a little over a decade. The damage to the average pet Boston in terms of resembling the smart little tuxedo clad dog of 20 or 30 years ago has been done. We have more tails and floppy ears and long noses and light eyes in pet bred Bostons than we’ve ever had, and John Q Public doesn’t know the difference because of the sheer number of Bostons who don’t look like Bostons anymore. 

So with this new development in our breed and seeing the damage it does, we have to worry more about where our bloodlines end up. A show breeder fears their dogs ending up in a puppy mill only slightly more than the horror they imagine if their dogs ending up in a color breeding program. 

So we retreat. We mis-trust. We get paranoid. And it’s with good reason as many have been caught lying about their intentions for our puppies. So we retreat further and trust very few. But where does this leave the next generation? What happens if those who value the breed enough to breed to standard are slowly replaced by the breeders who value fad and preference over the Boston breed itself? What happens to a century of preservation when it takes only a couple of decades to change the look of the average pet Boston? It is a concern, and it is a shame what has been done to our beautiful breed by the careless practice of pursuing colors and fads. 

Taking a chance on someone is a scary thing, because you do not risk just your reputation, but the reputation of those breeders who entrusted you with their lines. Your decisions reflect upon their decision to trust you, and theirs upon the breeder before them, and so on. So we err on the side of caution. Who can blame us? But how many sincere individuals get passed over out of our own fear and paranoia?

Mentorship is a Must

Mentorship is so very crucial for the future of any breed. And it’s not just helping with understanding pedigrees and conformation and health testing, but also welcoming them to the show scene and helping to show them they’re among people who value them and will help them if they need it. A newcomer to the breed is “everyone’s” mentee. One breeder may have brought them in, but it “takes a village” to raise another good breeder. Can they ask the person next to them outside the ring how their dog looks? Can they ask the class order to a stranger and get help understanding when they need to be ready?  Can they feel comfortable about handing off a dog to someone if needed? Can they be in the ring and not worry that the whispers on the sidelines aren’t about them or their dog? Can they count on someone to help them feel comfortable and confident about walking in the ring? Mentors aren’t always on site. Mentors can be clear across the country, so it’s up to everyone to help where they can. A new person with sincere intent is golden. We should be treating them as such for the future of the breed is in their hands. 

On that same note, a mentor willing to work with a new person and take a chance on them is golden as well. The trust of a dozen generations is in their hands and they’ve chosen to hand that off to someone with a lot less experience and often not much of a track record to go on. The dog entrusted with that new person is that breeder’s blood sweat and tears. It’s a product of a breeding program they may have taken 10, 20, 40 years or more to develop. This is not just one breeding and that breeder can’t always just “breed another one”. That dog is the culmination of every breeding decision made, every bit of breed knowledge gained, every choice that breeder has made up until that puppy was whelped. And it was their eye that determined that puppy was going to have a future representing their kennel as a show and/or performance dog, and later a breeding dog to carry on the next generations. This is not something to be blown off when the ribbons go to the head of the one showing the dog. If not for the breeder, that leash would be swinging empty regardless of the new person’s big smile as they step into the ring. 

There is no dog show without the show dogs. There is no show dog without the show breeder. But there is no future without new people. 

“I would like to show but I’m afraid”

I have seen this so many times in forums, pet breeders say this all the time. They’re afraid of how they will be treated in the ring. They’re afraid of how they’ll be treated in general. They hear about the “show snobs” and how cut-throat and political the show scene is. There will always be politics and those who are wildly competitive, but when I go to a show I see a group of friends. I see people doing their best, helping each other, congratulating each other. Yes there’s often disappointment, sometimes bad feelings, but there’s celebrating as well and we’re drawn back to the camaraderie and the fun of seeing how our dogs stack up (literally) with the competition. 

And politics only need to matter to the extent someone decides to get involved with the drama. It does not affect us personally as much as the rest of the world thinks. Are people coddled and do people walk on eggshells? No. Showing isn’t about everyone feeling good about everything all the time. It’s about the evaluation of dogs involved in our breeding plans, and the evaluation of the efforts of our breedings. It’s our obligation as breeders focused on quality.  It’s not about the ribbons or the “glory” of winning as many  non-show breeders assume. I don’t feel terribly “glorious” lugging my cart in the 90 degree sun across hot asphalt, eating a $15 hot dog for lunch, sitting in a lawn chair for hours to gain a $1 ribbon that cost me a few hundred.  Our show clothes may be pretty but our feet are tired, our nostrils are filled with dog hair and chalk, and we’re running on about 4 hours of sleep. THIS is what new people should fear, not the politics. It’s the hard work they must be ready for and it’s the results they must be willing to accept in order to move forward. 

Are WE scary? I know we “can” be. But I don’t see it often at all. Can we be distracted, less than attentive, focused on our own dogs and oblivious sometimes? Yes. But are new people sent yelping back to where they came from because we’re such horrible snobs? I have only seen this when someone has been dishonest or incredibly disrespectful to the sport. And that behavior shouldn’t be fostered no matter who it is, newby or not. But in general, I think new breeders are pleasantly surprised with us “show snobs” when they get to know us. 

“I would like to mentor but I’m afraid of trusting the wrong person”

We’ve seen it happen. We’ve seen a good honest breeder put their trust in the wrong person and watched that person wipe their feet on their mentor once the dog was within their control. We’ve seen dogs sold to breeding programs where they were used in direct conflict with every rule of ethics the dog’s breeder holds dear. We’ve seen dogs who were supposed to be placed as pets end up in breeding programs that would make our hair stand on end. We’ve seen studs bred to anything and everything as long as the dam owner handed over the fees. We’ve even seen professional handlers take dogs whose breeders put them on as co-owner as a courtesy. 

It IS scary. We SHOULD be afraid. But we shouldn’t give up trying to find the right people with whom we can entrust the next generation and the one after that. Someone gave us a chance once. Someone gave everyone a chance. That doesn’t mean we hand out dogs like free lollipops but being a preservation breeder does not mean we are immortal and can simply “take them with us” one day.  It means we preserve the breed, we preserve the future of the breed, with or without us. It’s our responsibility to help new people get a start. And it’s their responsibility to treat that trust with respect. Finding the way to make that right connection is not always easy, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop looking.