The Power of Face to Face

Had a wonderful time at a small, specialty conformation show this weekend. Enjoyed reconnecting with my “tribe” of breeders, exchanging news, ribbing each other, bantering about our dogs, our hormonal states, our children and what wormer seemed to work best with that last litter of puppies. In the familiar bustle of preparation ( hurry up and wait!),  the laughter and the borrowing of shears and spray bottles, it was easy to overlook the newcomers hovering by themselves ringside and tentatively wandering through our set up areas. Occasionally, some – braver than others – would come up and introduce themselves and ask about puppies or club information. Most watched quietly from the wings and finally wandered off back to the agility rings or their cars.

In retrospect, I realize we, both as a club and as individual breeders, missed an opportunity to connect with interested potential puppy buyers, those new to our breed  and those just curious about the games breeders play. There they were – standing there – wide open to an invitation to join our “tribe” or at a minimum to feel less alienated from breeders as a group ( our image could surely use a face lift).

And we blew it – we let an opportunity  to educate, inform and connect pass by.

An opportunity for the public to meet local, ethical, reputable breeders face to face.

An opportunity for the public to actually pet the breeding stock they might then choose to get their next puppy  from.

It’s these kinds of opportunities that brokers and puppy mills don’t have. This is where our strength lies. This, our local presence, is what we need to capitalize on if we are going to try to help keep pet breeding out of disreputable hands. And dogs out of shelters.

So, given how busy we are at shows, how much we enjoy catching up with each other, how distracted by the competition and the camaraderie we are – is there a way we can do a better job of not leaving the public feeling like outsiders at our events? 

I think there is and I think we can do it without compromising our focus on nail trimming, which class is in the ring next and ( most importantly!) where we are all meeting for dinner later. Here are a few ideas. I’m eager to hear any others. Constructive comments always welcome.

1 – Provide club packets, complete with current breeder directories at several pivotal places ( entry tables, near the ring steward and available for any breeder to hand out) throughout the show site. These should be attractive, friendly, inviting and not in “breeder speak”.

 2 – Post light-hearted signs ringside informing the public that exhibitors really are friendly and NEVER bite, just that we are busy prepping and then also advising about our informational packets. Some clubs have tried handouts saying something like this, but the message often comes off like we are WAY too busy and IMPORTANT right now to talk to mere peons… It must be warmer. Newcomers must not misconstrue our lack of availability as snobbish or uninterested. I hear this complaint A LOT.

3 – We might all make more of an effort to walk up to newcomers and check in with them. Light conversation will likely easily reveal if they need help, direction or referrals. We might be able to briefly explain what’s going on in the ring and behind the scenes. Contact and connection with pleasant, real live, human breeders will help to keep them out of pet stores and off of internet puppy broker sites. Puppy owners love to know about their puppies’ “birth family”. It’s fun to have a breeder to send photos and updates to. Someone who cares, who can answer family related questions.

4 – This  “Meet and Greet” needs to happen not just outside the conformation ring. The public is often drawn towards the performance events ( my husband says watching conformation is like watching paint dry!) and those of us active in these venues might also join in connecting with newcomers. Club packets should be liberally spread throughout the event.

5 – Breeders should have contact information on hand. I’ve always been reluctant to carry business cards and printed material on my kennel and upcoming litters because it smacked of commercialism to me. It felt dirty somehow to be actively promoting my kennel to buyers. It seemed to violate the unspoken taboo on “pets as goal” that reputable breeders have internalized. One day I have to change that. My phone number on the back of an old armband does not help to steer a potential buyer towards one of us. Professionalism is not mutually exclusive with ethics.

6 – Club culture could begin to include a more primary focus on establishing connections with the public. Club meetings might include, along with reports about up coming shows, strategizing for improved communication with potential puppy buyers and prospective, novice breeders. Club websites should be evaluated for accessibility and ease of use by the non-professional.

Let’s actively engage in helping the public understand the value of working with local breeders. Let’s not miss opportunities that underscore the pleasure and ease of working FACE TO FACE with ethical, professional breeders. I’ll begin work in the near future on a template for what the aforementioned packets might look like. Input eagerly accepted. Stay tuned!

18 thoughts on “The Power of Face to Face

  1. Outstanding post and worthy goals, Alison! When I first got interested in showing, I felt so much like an outsider wondering how to get in. Of course, I had Sheila to guide me, but for a shy person like me, it was intimidating to talk to any of the “major breeders” ringside.

    • Thanks Kathy. If it felt like that for you, who had some guidance, I can just imagine what it must be like for pet people! Also, I might add, “major” or not, we all look the same to prospective puppy folk – a bit like aliens, I fear! We ALL can pitch in and ask if newcomers need any help, explain what the heck is going on in the ring if we have a few moments or refer to other resources if we don’t. It’s just plain good etiquette and may actually, in the long run, reduce the chances that person relinquishes an internet dog to a shelter one day. Practice rescue preventatively!

  2. Carolyn Joseph
    Great idea. Perhaps someone could volunteer to sit at a table to answer questions about the breed and the breeders, along with some printed information … which I will happily design for at any time pro bono!!!! Here’s a novel idea … it could even be a knowledgeable fancier who could answer puppy-buyers questions. Happy customers are the best advertisement! It would be living proof that buying a puppy from a breeder is no only the RIGHT way to go about it, but would show that there is a lasting relationship when you go that route. Connecting pet owners to each other is also one of the major benefits!!! I know that you do that Alison, which is great, but I don’t know of any other Aussie breeder in the area that encourages this.

    • By fancier, do you mean pet owner? Interesting idea – peer relations… common language…Thanks for the pro bono graphic work offer. You know I’ll take you up on that!

  3. Back in 2006 when we were looking into getting our first Aussie and exploring this and other breeds by frequenting various conformation venues, we felt that Alison was one of the most open and informative of all the breeders out there. Even in the midst of showing her pups. Which is what helped us learn about the breed and drew us to Paradox. The knowledge and mentorship she provided was extremely valuable, at this early stage, during our decision-making process and after. But she was one of the few. It made a huge difference for us.

    • Roma, Thanks! Flattery will ( as my mother is always fond of saying) get you everywhere! Seriously, though, I’m glad to hear you had such a good experience and would find it valuable to pass on specifics of what worked ( and didn’t) during your search. What could a new breeder learn? What points would you emphasize a prospective owner look out for?

  4. Willingness of breeders at shows and venues to be open and friendly to the public may also help to steer puppy buyers away from breeds that may in fact end up being inappropriate for their life style. So many dogs are relinquished because the owners just didn’t know what they were getting into. A more open means of communication between buyers/breeders could help prevent some of this.
    Dog shows are definitely an overwhelming venue for those not acquainted with them. I went to my first show just two weekends ago, and let me tell you if I was there researching dog breeds/trying to connect with breeders, I (as a shy person) would not have even known where to begin, and probably would have wandered off back to my car without speaking to anyone.
    And I also think it is a good idea to have a happy, educated pet owner hanging around to answer questions about the breed and perhaps have a knowledge base about local breeders. Anytime I’m out in public with Myles and people ask me about him, it’s hard to get me to stop talking about how wonderful his breeder is and how people need to make sure they do their research before buying. Hopefully I can make a difference to at least a few people!

  5. I attended that specialty conformation show last weekend and was one of those “outsiders” standing by. Alison had invited me and welcomed me warmly when I arrived, so I didn’t feel unwelcome. But having read this, I am kicking myself a bit for not trying to talk to anyone BUT Alison while I was there. I am looking for my first ever Aussie puppy and realize now that in being hesitant to interrupt anyone I robbed myself of the opportunity to absorb a lot of new knowledge (one of my favorite activities :0) ) from the concentration of experts all around me.
    I’m shy until you talk to me but then I’m fine, so certainly if breeders had been doing active outreach I would have been eager to speak with them. I definitely would have gone to a breed information desk had there been one. Also I’ll make a side note that I generally attend two or three dog shows every year and that was the first time I ever entered a parking lot to see sign that said “private event KEEP OUT.” My boyfriend and I actually drove by to make sure we weren’t at the wrong place. So that made us feel kind of weird on entry.
    Anyway I think this is a wonderful discussion. I think it’s challenging for prospective owners to find ethical breeders and there is a lack of knowledge of why they should be looking for them and for what to look. I am just getting started on earning my CPDT as a dog trainer, and I can’t tell you how many pet owners I have come across even in my limited experience who have ordered puppies from “breeders” online because they would “NEVER buy a puppy from a pet store.” There is such a need for education out there. People don’t know how to properly weigh all of their options. I’m very interested in ways to network with responsible, ethical breeders in order to help educate training clients about how to safely and ethically acquire a puppy that is right for their situation.

    • Marita – thanks for your input. Your perspective is a valuable one. Funny you should mention the Keep Out type signs. It’s exactly this kind of thing that we need to be more cognizant of. While I believe the signs were placed there by the Fairgrounds to reserve our space ( although I’m not certain of this), I, too, found them unwelcoming and confusing. Oddly enough, they have probably been there at each show we’ve had at that site and, until I began paying attention to things like this, I never even noticed them. Maybe in the future the first contact visitors have with our “tribe” can be much more welcoming! It’s on the list! Keep us in the loop as you continue your puppy search. I’m sure there’s plenty for us to learn and we may be able to help you stay on course!
      Please feel free to cross post to other dog-interested people you run into in your new life as a dog trainer.

  6. Hey Alison,
    I can tell you from past experiences the private event signs are placed by the fairground staff (Mark). I believe it started with the agility trials held there — people would drive down the road between rings and tents, and it was a hazard, especially with competitors running to get in the ring and not expecting cars. There were a few close calls. There were also some acts of vandalism, and problems with the BMX side of the grounds.

    You raise a good point. Perhaps the club banner (whatever club — there are many shows and trials at the site) as well as a sign for spectator info or such?

    • Thanks Laurie. Good info. I’m sure we’ll figure out a way to welcome newcomers AND keep exhibitors safe. It’s worth noticing, though, how used to that kind of thing we are and how we might unintentionally be driving prospective puppy owners away from what we have to offer. If anyone else has any other experiences/revelations on these kinds of instances – please, do share!

  7. Alison, love your blog and would love to have a link to direct people towards when the topic of “how do I decide who to get a dog from?” comes up. I think info for the general public also has to talk honestly about costs. There is an Aussie breeder near me who sells pups for $400 (roadside signs announce puppies); how do I explain to my neighbor who admires my dogs and wants an Aussie that it is actually *worth* paying three times that (at least) for my dogs? AND that paying MORE from a broker on-line doesn’t mean that it is that much better than my dogs? I think something that explains what dog shows are about — not just fussy ladies and their prissy dogs — would be helpful part of this. And would be more than happy to be the happy, educated owner to talk to people about how my dogs have benefited from having the great start that comes from a good breeder. Lucky owners should be careful not to act like we are in a privileged club that other people couldn’t possibly get into since they don’t know the right people…

    • Julie, You are on the “happy, educated owner” list! Thanks – I do think this idea of Carolyn’s is really good. Like when my kids start a new school and I get a list of current parents willing to consult… maybe not just at shows, but also on some kind of phone/email list. Maybe on a page of this blog. Hmmmm…
      Had to laugh at your “fussy ladies and their prissy dogs” characterization! It will be interesting to explore what shows are about for us, for the dogs, for the dog world. Could take me a while to wrap my brain about that discussion…
      Money and puppies…this is an important and complex subject as concerns hobby breeders. Lots of moving parts. I am working on a post on just that subject. Stay ( as they say) tuned!

  8. I love your blog, Alison. What a great idea!

    When I first entered the “dog show world” I definitely felt like an outsider. It took about one full year until I was somewhat accepted by other breeders. The acceptance part was almost reminiscent of middle school. There seem to be cliques of breeders and any new person has to be practically evaluated before becoming part of the group. A tactic that continues to work since I have been part of the show scene is that I stay very neutral with respect to any antics that occur between breeders. I am always friendly to everyone which I think really helps decrease some of the tension that can be lingering outside of the ring.

    One thing that is so remarkable about you (there are many things!) is that you are breeding to preserve the best attributes of Aussies. I wish that there were more people like you!

    Another thing I thought of with regard to educating the public is the influence and power that young people have. I have always been very friendly and honest to spectators and I am always happy to answer their questions. It is just amazing how kind and thankful people are when I am honest with them. As a young person, I am the next generation and I think that it is up to people like me to make change! We need to take the advice that we have learned from wise breeders like you and serve as ambassadors for the dogs.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Kristen. You are the future of the domestic dog – purebred, mixed breed, designer, whatever. What’s really important is that breeding pets stays in the hands of people willing to take their work seriously. It’s time to recognize the breeding of dogs for the important work that it is. It is certainly about the dogs, but also ( more than might be expected) about the ability of the breeder to connect with and support the puppy owner.

  9. Hi Allison,
    I have really been enjoying your blog, and I couldn’t possibly agree more. I remember when we first got Yukon, ( a golden) it was like jumping through hoops to feel connected to the “inner-circle” of breeders. I think that it is unfortunate that dog shows are not more of a family venue, that encourages possible puppy owners to “meet and greet” breeders, and dogs that will be bred. Now that I am a member of the golden retriever club, I certainly know a lot more really wonderful breeders, and they have given me so much encouragemnt and help than a puppy store could never offer. A good breeder is always there for you and your dog, through all the trials and questions… it has made me a better dog owner. Thanks so much for writing this blog, you’re exploring some really important topics.
    – Lia

    • Thanks Lia! Input from people in your position is so valuable to us all. I wish all those wonderful breeders that you finally connected with had been easier for you to find in the first place. Many puppy buyers would have found our dog show culture impenetrable and might have opted for a more familiar route – the retail establishment…

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