I don’t remember much about my first herding trial with Bear, but I remember one thing with absolute clarity: Someone looking at Bear and exclaiming something to the effect of,
“Ooh a Rottweiler, is he having mutton for lunch!?”
Fortunately, when you own a Rottweiler, you get used to people making assumptions about your dog so you collect great comebacks for these moments so I replied,
“Not likely, I fed him a big breakfast today.”
The other thing I distinctly recall about that herding trial is that Bear qualified in all of his runs, and the lady who made the comment? I saw her dog grip out at least twice in the take pen.
There began my experience participating in a dog sport with an breed of dog not usually seen in that venue.
In each dog sport, there is generally a small number of breeds that are highly represented, a smattering of breeds that are reasonably represented, and then other breeds that maybe only have a handful of active competitors in the country. Those breeds that are measured in the handfuls are what I would call ‘non traditional’ breeds for that sport.
In my experience there is a huge amount of satisfaction in doing a sport that I love with a breed that I love, but it does not come without the following challenges not experienced by those with more traditional breeds for the sport.
1. People may qualify any/all of your accomplishments. “That was a great run…for a, <insert your dog’s breed here>!”
2. Not all trainers will know how to work with your dog. While the basic concepts are the same when training dogs, what one dog or one breed might find reinforcing will vary as will their responses to various training styles.
A textbook example of this is that rottweilers, generally do not respond to pressure from humans or livestock in the same way a Border Collie, or Kelpie might. I once had a clinician put too much pressure on Bear by waving his stock stick. Bear’s response was to run at him and grab the stock stick out of his hand. This clinician was smart and has experience with rottweilers so he acknowledged his error and figured out another less confrontational way to get the point across.
3. Not all trainers will WANT to work with your dog. Depending on your breed, some people may flat out refuse to work with you. Either because they know your breed requires experience they don’t have, or because they do not believe your breed can or should participate in a particular sport. I can respect the former, the latter is always a bit of a struggle for me. If you approach training with the goal of keeping things safe and fun for the individual animals and humans involved, I think anyone should be able to participate. This may mean you choose a reduced jump heights for your basset hound in agility, or take extra precautions to keep your bulldog cool, or put a jacket on your Italian Greyhound to keep him warm, even at indoor trials.
4. People may flock to the ring to watch your run. This can add stress and anxiety to a trial experience, but in my experience it’s generally curiosity that brings people to watch. I actually have heard someone say “We can’t go yet, I want to watch this rottweiler run.”
5. You may find yourself doing a lot of breed education. Having people watch your run is a great opportunity to show that your dog is a dog, just like any other and provide the public with some education.
6. Judges may have different expectations. In a perfect world, all dogs would be judged equally, however, the world is not perfect. Some judges may score your barking Rottweiler differently than they would score your barking Shetland Sheepdog. Some obedience judges might choose to excuse your anxious German Shepherd on the exam, but not an anxious Papillon. You are not obliged to show under these judges. If you choose to continue to show to them, you can try to train for behavior you know they will expect in the ring, or you can take your deductions.
7. People will tell you that you need to change breeds to succeed. This one is the one that frustrates me the most. You start a sport with your breed of choice because you love it and once you show that you are a capable trainer some people will tell you that if you want to ‘go far’ that you should get a <insert not your breed here>. My sassy comeback is usually to gasp in horror and ask, “Why would I do that!?”
If I’m feeling less snarky, I might say something like I love the sport because people with different breeds can participate, and that Rottweilers fit my lifestyle perfectly. I’d probably also add that my dogs have their share of titles, high in class, high in trial and high combined ribbons in many sports, so I’m not convinced getting a more traditional breed will ensure success.
Now that you’ve heard some of the challenges folks with non-traditional breeds in Dog Sports might face, here are some suggestions for how you can support people showing and trialing non traditional breeds in your sport.
- Learn as much as you can about their breed by asking them questions!
- Speak up and share the knowledge you have acquired when you hear others making judgmental comments.
- Compliment the owners and handlers of non traditional breeds. No need to lie here, just be kind and honest. What do you love about their fog or their performance?
- Sponsor Awards for Non Traditional Breeds at trials and tests you attend
Need more ideas for how to support owners of non-traditional breeds? Check out my post, 9 Ways to Welcome BIPOC at Dog Shows and Trials. The strategies covered in this post are perfect for being kind and welcoming to people of all kinds, not just BIPOC.