To paraphrase Mark Twain, the dropoff in obedience entries is like the weather; everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. The words ad nauseam must have been coined to describe that very conversation.
But those who are concerned -- including this writer/obedience competitor -- aren't Chicken Littles. The problem is real. We had two days of obedience trials here this weekend. Attractive trials, great location, well-run. There were six entries in Novice A on Saturday, three on Sunday, Newbies aren't exactly storming the gates.
Novice A is the portal to the sport, the entry level for new blood. And a transfusion is way,way overdue. So let's follow that single thread of a rather complex problem -- effective recruitment.
Catherine Zinsky writes a column in Front & Finish. It's called "Playing by the Rules." In the July/August 2010 issue, she devoted her column to "Suggestions to Help Obedience Grow." Catherine offered several suggestions of her own, then asked a few of us who are hopeless obedienceophiles for our suggestions. Those that found their way into print were John Cox, Sue Cox, Betty Cunningham, Louise Meredith, Betty Ribble, and me. Their thoughtful comments related to several dimensions of the problem. But to keep the focus of this post on recruitment, I'm using only the material related to attracting newbies to the sport.
I'll lead off with my own comments because the first sentence offers logic from which all else must follow. I wrote: In order to embrace something, you've got to be aware that it exists. In other words, no matter how attractive we make the portal into our sport, if our target audience isn't even aware of it, it'll have the same effect as the tree falling in the forest when no one is there to hear it.
Then I continued: "I got into competition obedience because a substitute Parks Department pet obedience instructor (Billie Rosen) invited our class to come see an obedience fun match 90 miles away. I drove 180 miles that day . . . and was hooked. That was 20 years ago. I wouldn't have known the sport existed had Billie not pointed it out to our class."
In Catherine's column I went on to suggest that it might be worthwhile for the AKC to establish a relationship with organizations such as PetSmart and "encourage them to let their students know about the exciting world that lies just beyond pet obedience training. I believe the timing is just perfect (and that was 16 months ago) now that mixed breeds have been welcomed into our sport."
Sue Cox picked up on that, saying, "Think of all the 4-H groups across the country, and many of those leaders and kids in the dog program know nothing about earning AKC titles." Sue went on to state, "There must be a way to connect with the national 4-H organization to spread the word about mixed breeds now being able to earn AKC titles . . . ."
Louise Meredith also went straight to the recruitment issue: "I think we need to target students in and coming out of beginning training classes, including those from dog clubs and those from private classes such as Petco, private trainers, etc." She then went on to suggest and describe in detail exhibition classes to be held at every trial . . . free to anyone in a beginning obedience training class. Great idea. But it brings us right back to the awareness issue.
Betty Cunningham hit on it, too. ". . . maybe the clubs aren't giving the people who take their classes enough information and encouragement to go on."
Those suggestions appeared 16 months ago. From highly credible people, some of the pillars of the sport. Did they light a fire under anyone? What are you betting? We'll see in the next installment of this blog.