Advice for Dog Students and Mentors

There are things that should be addressed at the onset of a mentoring "marriage" from the perspective of the student and the mentor.

By Susi Szeremy | October 23, 2013

Perhaps you've found a mentor who has agreed to take you under his or her wing, and if so, congratulations! You would be mistaken, however, if you think the hard part is over. While relationships tend to become more authentic with time, a mentoring partnership is unlike any other and requires a bit more effort to grow organically.

Each party must understand the expectations of the other for a productive outcome to be realized, and to that end, a frank conversation is in order to avoid misunderstandings. A student should express his or her goals, and an honest discussion has to occur not only about how to recognize when those goals have been met, but how to know when it's time for the relationship to evolve beyond a schooling level.

There are instances, however, when what seemed like a good idea at the time just doesn't work out. Sometimes the person thought to be great mentor material is very knowledgeable but simply can't teach. Other times, two people just aren't compatible. On those occasions, it's best to concede early on that ending the affiliation is best for all concerned. If, however, the future looks promising, there are things that should be addressed at the onset of a mentoring "marriage" from the perspective of the student:

  • Trust is crucial, and it's earned with discretion. In as much as a student reveals his or her lack of knowledge and experience to a mentor, a mentor exposes him or herself just as much by sharing secrets such as breeding plans, faults in his or her own dogs, and grooming, nutrition and conditioning tips. As I see it, as long as activities aren't illegal or inhumane, a mentor's business should remain confidential for the duration of the relationship with a student, if not longer. To act otherwise is not only ethically borderline but also foolish. Revealing confidences never ends well.
  • Realize your role as a student. Admit what you don't know, be receptive to a different way of doing something, and remain open to suggestions on how to improve yourself and your dogs. No one likes to appear ignorant, but remember that it was you who sought a mentor because you wanted to learn, not to show off how much you already know. This is tough enough between two adults, but when one adult has years of experience and the other is still wet behind the ears, it's easier said than done. Remind yourself that it's OK to say, "I don't know."
  • There are no "mentor police," and your relationship is largely what you make it. That said, it's wise to remember that your mentor isn't your mother, your shrink, your personal cheerleader or even your new best friend. A good mentor doesn't need to be liked, and as such, the mentor's job is to focus on increasing your knowledge and giving you the benefit of his or her experience.
  • Don't burden your mentor with personal problems unless you've been invited to share them, and even then it's probably best to keep them to yourself until (if ever) the relationship grows into something more personal. The burden of a good learning experience is on you, the student, because you have the most to gain. Being positive and receptive to learn can only encourage a mentor to give more of his or her time, but if you whine about grievances or perceived slights by people in your breed, guess what will happen.
  • Speaking of time, don't waste it. If you promised your mentor that you're going to be somewhere, be there. If you've agreed to have a dog ready for the ring, have it ready. Turn off your phone, tune out your problems, turn a deaf ear to the competition and pay attention to the person giving you his or her time. As the old country and western tune goes, "Dance with the one that brung ya."
  • Never put your mentor in a difficult position ethically or legally by asking him or her to keep a secret he or she would be obligated to divulge at an AKC committee hearing or even in a court of law.
  • Remember that while mentors are often older, wiser and more experienced, none are perfect. Don't fall into the trap of not recognizing bad advice for what it is just because it came from a mentor, or having unrealistic expectations that a mentor's connections will fast track you to rosettes.

Right about now, it might not hurt to offer mentors a few reminders, as well:

  • Inexperience isn't the same as stupidity, and a little respect can go a long way with a student, especially in the early days.
  • A good mentor doesn't force opinions on a student but helps the student form his or her own. A true dog person never stops learning and doesn't discriminate based on the source of knowledge.
  • Your pupil isn't in your life to make you feel better about yourself, provide point fodder for your dogs or deflect criticisms from your detractors.
  • At some point, the pupil will "grow up" and spread his or her wings. The student will have developed his or her own eye and be on more equal footing with the teacher. To some mentors, this can feel like rejection. Remember that from the beginning, this independence was always the desired outcome. Be proud of yourself and regard your student's growth as "mission accomplished."
  • Chances are that your pupil has the same breed as you and will likely become a competitor, maybe even one who beats you in the show ring. If this becomes the case, step up to the maturity plate by having the dignity to admit a loss, congratulate the winner and relinquish control over someone who once sought your wisdom.

None of us live forever. If we truly love our breed and the show fancy, we will help the next generation perpetuate both.


From the October 2013 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase the October 2013 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine.


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