From The August Issue of ShowSight. CLICK TO SUBSCRIBE.
The Seven Secrets to Show Success
Be a Great Owner
I used to think that when I thought of a vacation, I was getting ready to go to the City of Light—Paris. One of my favorite places, I got to know it well over the years, going there as often as I could. When Cathy and I spent our honeymoon there, she remarked that I knew my way around Paris better than I did Sacramento. Taking a carriage ride in Versailles, lounging around in a café enjoying a great aperitif was how life should be led, or so I thought.
BUT: When Cathy and I got married several years ago, I fell down the rabbit hole of dog shows; many, many dog shows. Now the vacation is more likely to be at the Los Angeles County Fairplex in Pomona for the five grueling days of the Mission Circuit. Instead of the famous “mistral” winds in Provence, I got to experience the Santa Ana winds of southern California. Ah, the life!
The Rookie Discovers a
Like most people who have one of the 80 million dogs that inhabit this country, I grew up with dogs as pets and enjoyed the simple pleasures and devotion that comes from a canine companion. Feeding them, brushing them out once in a while, bathing them when they got too close to a skunk, playing fetch; that was pretty much as complicated as it got. I considered myself a dog person, a perfectly good owner who took responsibility for the animal in my care. I mean, of course I had heard of dog shows and Westminster and wondered who those crazy people where who took that kind of stuff so seriously. I had no idea what the business of dogs was all about, but I do now.
Cathy has been breeding dogs successfully since 1987 and when we were seeing each other I got a glimmer of what the show universe was like. One of the first shows I attended with her was in Pleasanton, California, a pleasant simple enough place east of San Francisco. Wandering around a county fairground on a hot weekend, I began to think, “What the hell is this all about?” There were people, dogs, vendors and officials everywhere all working with deadly focus and concentration while dogs and handlers swept in and out of a show ring in some kind of incomprehensible order. I tried to follow and understand what was happening to no avail. Cathy tried to fill me in on the rules, classes, standards and judging rules, why some dogs got ribbons and others did not. She had a dog named Olivia who won sweepstakes and winner’s bitch out of the 9-12 puppy class, whatever that was. I was appropriately pleased and impressed even though I didn’t why. I thought, “Wait a minute, I’m a lawyer with an MBA and a masters in psychology, how tough can this be to understand?”
I was clueless. I was a long way from being a good show owner, much less a great one.
Cathy had been breeding dogs for many years and prior to that had bred and trained horses. Aviator Kennel finished several champions every year, almost always shown by Cathy or a friend of hers. She went to dog shows almost every weekend competing with good dogs and winning the occasional big championship. She rarely used a professional handler and was considered a successful breeder and owner of show dogs. She did virtually no marketing and had a small workmanlike web site. She spent a lot of time on her dogs and genuinely enjoyed the experience. Still, looking back over the last few years, we both realize that Cathy wasn’t a great show owner yet, even with her experience. Now, the trend is breeder-owner-handlers in the ring; something that changes almost everything—we’ll talk about that later.
So… What is a Great Show Owner?
Once we got married and I was fully committed to the life of dogs and shows I began to look at the business of pedigreed dogs and the world they live in. From my legal and business background, as well as a stint as an CAO of a web development start up before the Internet bubble burst, I started to sort out some of the variables of the competition. Ever the statistician, I looked at the numbers comparing what it cost to show your own dogs every weekend, traveling all over the west coast competing with professional handlers and dealing with the vagaries of competition judging.
I noticed that hardly anybody did any real marketing of their kennels, dogs, expertise or reputation. It was so, well, casual and civilized, or so I first thought. I began to realize that beneath all of this calm veneer of polite applause as dogs won in the ring was a caldron of fierce combat. Cathy won far more than other competing breeders, but she didn’t win best of breeds all the time, much less group and best in show wins. One of my first suggestions, carefully presented to the expert was that going to dog shows constantly and showing your own dogs wasn’t cost effective.
I had quietly compiled and compared two business models for the competitions. The first one was the way most people show their dogs; just as Cathy had done for years. The other model moved to a different level. At that level you hired a regular professional handler, carefully planned which dog show offered the most promise, judges and points, managed which dogs were going to compete when and developed goals and benchmarks to monitor success. In this model, you had the handler show all of your dogs except for those in bred by exhibitor or very young class dogs. Instead of going to shows constantly, we sent our dogs to show every weekend with the handler. We were going to shows in places like Monterey and let the handler go to Bakersfield (no offense to Bakersfield!).
Believe or not, the second model was actually less expensive than the usual practice. More important, our dogs finished faster, allowing Cathy the luxury of better planning about when dogs were actually ready to go into the ring. She had always carefully planned breedings; generally looking three years out to think about what she hoped to get for a particular breeding. Next, we started finishing seven to ten dogs per year, instead of two or three. That gave us a larger pool of champions and expanded the opportunities for breeding our own dogs in the future. Cathy now typically has ten bitches in the queue for breeding, allowing her to plan what the optimum time and best stud will give us what we want for competition.
We also began to look at marketing, beginning with our website AviatorKennel.com. We had had a perfectly suitable static website as do most small businesses. What we did not have what a “portal”, that is, a large up-to-date website that offers a huge amount of information about us, the dogs, the kennel, PWDs, shows, health links and articles. We started to think about advertising and developing better links and contacts with our owners, our customers. As with any business, your customers are your best source of positive marketing and sales. A happy owner walking around San Francisco with an Aviator dog is your best billboard. An owner invited to attend a dog show with you and watch as their pup wins a ribbon is very happy, indeed. At some of the big shows like the Golden Gate show in San Francisco, we started bringing as many as 17 dogs for competition and nearly 30 owners there for the party. With a formal set-up thirty feet wide with banners, photos, dogs on the bench and owners, Aviator presented our best face forward to the 20,000 people that attend that show every year.
Even with the move to the next level, we still weren’t fully prepared for what it takes to be a great show owner, prepared and willing to advance a unique dog like Ladybug. We had to really think about our answers to the hard questions confronting us to go to the next level.
So, Take the Quiz:
First, were we prepared to make a total commitment of time, money and effort to leverage the success of Aviator to create and produce top ten dogs? We’ll talk about the amounts of money it takes to do this later in this series, but for now suffice it to say it costs a lot of money. Vacations? Forget it. Goodbye Paris, Hello Pomona. Even prior to Ladybug we had some top ten winners, but it was a real learning process even for Cathy. I had lots of time picking
up waste in the kennel to think about how we could best market our dogs and our kennel.
Did I mention waste? One of the striking things I noticed at dog shows that there were few couples there with their dogs. Almost always the owner and handler would be a woman with a couple of dogs. As I got to know more people in the business, I figured out that in a lot of cases, the husband was playing golf or at home in the woodworking shop. Cathy and I had figured out how to share the dog business duties; she handled the intricacies of breeding, training and raising pups—I was the kennel boy. Whenever I talked to my sister in Texas, she would laugh about where destiny had taken me. More than once, she would ask, “Did you ever think your would be in the dog business, picking up waste?”
Did I mention waste again? To be a great show owner, you and your partner have to both completely commit to doing what it takes to win the big shows. We now make little mini-vacations out of the many shows that we attend. When the PWD National was in Rhode Island, we added a week to go to Cape Cod. Paris will always be there, I think. Because both Cathy and I are onboard to being as good of owners as we can and are willing to make sacrifices of time and money, we can survive the craziness.
Did I mention crazy? A great dog show owner is certifiably nuts. Now the movie Best In Show seems perfectly logical to me. Of course I’m going to become my local dog food store’s favorite customer. Of course I’m going to single-handedly pay my vet’s utility bills every month. Sure I’m going to send my dogs cross-country for a show because it’s the best place to be. It’s just fine that my entire schedule revolves around dogs and shows.
And that’s not enough. Like any business or hobby-out-of-control, total personal commitment means getting even more involved in the process. Breeding, training and showing dogs is not enough. Because you might actually have a few uncommitted minutes here and there, you have to start the process of being an AKC judge like Cathy, start being a ring steward like me, start attending judge’s and breed seminars and training sessions, join local kennel clubs, mentor other breeders, help owners become their own kennels, get involved in helping to put own regional and national specialties, write articles, track show and judging results and network in the broader world of dogs all over the world. Did I mention crazy?
As with any obsessive behavior it’s therapeutic to ask yourself if this behavior is a good thing or not. To be a great show owner, try not to ask yourself that question. Cathy and I have learned to go with the flow of the demands of competing at a high level in the dog world. More important, when you see one of dogs competing for Best of Show in Madison Square Garden, the spotlight tracking her movement around the ring, you know you don’t have to ask that question; you know very well that’s it worth all it took to get here.