We all start somewhere. Everyone of us was a novice at one point. Brand New. Newbie. A Keener.
Trying something brand new can be intimidating. Trying something new when you are depending on your dog and your own training ability can be terrifying.
This post talks specifically about obedience and Rally- but applies to all sports. From Nosework, to the big leagues of Sheepherding.
Recently my local kennel club had to cancel an Obedience and Rally only trial. Not enough entries. In fact for the last few years the obedience and Rally entries don’t even pay their own bills, instead relying on the conformation overflow to pay the bills. But this time the entries were so low it couldn’t be justified. It’s disappointing. For more than one reason. The root of the issue is the low entries. And that makes me sad. I mean I love obedience and Rally! I want more people to love it. But it’s getting harder and harder to get people involved. I offer classes and maybe snag one or two new keeners a year. That’s so low.
What can we change? How do we get more interest? And then how do we keep them?!
Some thoughts I had:
How do we catch the interest of new people? Training in public, doing demonstrations, going to public events, open houses? I run beginner classes a few times a year and out of a class of 8 brand new people maybe two or three continue. This particular sport is hard to draw people in because it is not as flashy or fast as agility! When I used to do classes in public parks I’d get a few spectators but no actual conversations. Maybe posters or signs encouraging conversation?
How do we keep the interest of new people? Be nice, be supportive, don’t be judgy, be helpful, take someone under your wing to mentor, make sure they are prepared before they enter a trial, include them in the conversation, tell them their dog is wonderful (and mean it!!). As we know, not all dogs are perfectly suited for all sports or events. But if we write people off because their dogs aren’t perfect we might be writing off a person who might see the difference between their dog and “our” dog! A person who might then go out and purchase a puppy more suited…. and if they don’t, and the want to stick with their chosen breed or mix we help them just the same! An elitist attitude is not helpful in growth for dogsports. The other thing to think about is the time, the success rate, and what makes people try. It takes a long time to train a ring ready obedience dog. We need to maybe make it an attainable goal! Maybe explore more fun matches, more training opportunities, maybe other “easier” venues like FENZi titles or CWags. If people have success they try harder, they are hooked. If it’s a terrible first time in the ring, or it seems like they will never get there…. And be supportive! Watch the Novice A class. Cheer them on!
And how do we keep the interest of the “old” people. The not-long-ago-Novice? Firstly, be nice. Being nice goes a long way. Keep your ringside comments to yourself, find something positive to say, encourage- and if they ask for it advice! Help them train their next dog, heck- help them choose their next dog (if they ask!) Be Open to people from other groups or training backgrounds. It doesn’t cost anything to be kind and helpful and good impressions can make for good friendships!
I can hear people already- “Why should I help a Novice? I was a Novice and had to do it myself?!”
Well why shouldn’t you help a Novice? Are you too good for that now? No one does this stuff on their own. You had a friend, instructor, breeder, etc encourage and help you along the way. Not everyone is lucky enough to have that!
What’s going to happen without the new people? The sport will die out. Like we are seeing. Shows will get cancelled and it will get harder and harder for those of us looking for legs to get them! Clubs go under and then what? If taught correctly the novice people are good workers, keen to learn by doing and volunteering. It’s a win win!
Years and years ago I was new. Myself and my family were terrible pet owners. I had a dog aggressive, overweight German Shepherd cross and I knew nothing. Nothing. And someone took an interest in me, and my dog. And literally changed my life. I always remember what that person did for me, and I guess that’s why I’m so passionate about helping out the new people. More recently when I started herding I started with a dog with plenty of enthusiasm and not a lot of talent. But for whatever reason the people I now call friends took the time to help me- and I saw, pretty quickly that if I wanted to stay in the sport I was going to need a different dog. And so I did.
I’ve gotten my fair share of people hooked on various dog sports, I’ve mentored new trainers, taken the time to talk to strangers who were interested, joined the local clubs even though I hate politics and have better things to do with my time- I put in the work to try and make a difference! I owe that much, and it’s not hard. A little time, a smile, a conversation.
If we all helped out one or two novices a year think of the Novice entries a year from now! Two years from now! So the next time you are training in the park and someone walks by with their designer dog on a leash and asks what you are doing- take the chip off your shoulder and be nice. Be welcoming, be friendly and you never know- that person may be your next student or training partner!