Beginnings of the AKC: How the Show Scene Started

The formation of the American Kennel Club.


Dr. Nathaniel Rowe had an abiding interest in field trials and benched shows. He helped organize America's first successful bench show in 1874, bred and showed gundogs, and served as the first president of the National American Kennel Club after its founding in 1876. For almost 20 years he published American Field, devoted to sporting and canine topics.

The curtain rose on America’s show scene in 1874 and it was a certified hit by 1881. At first this peculiar diversion was dominated by wealthy amateur sportsmen seeking to showcase their competitive spirit. Informality was the rule. America’s first field trial, sponsored by the Tennessee State Sportsmen’s Association, was held in Memphis on Oct. 8, 1874.

As the decade progressed field trials gained ground, along with interest in gundogs. Most of America’s hunting dogs were established from stock imported before the Revolutionary War and subsequently perpetuated through native strains. Purebred lines were rare and inbreeding became a necessity rather than a choice, leading to inevitable deterioration.

As the demand for competitive trial dogs escalated, Americans imported boatloads of them. Less than a decade after England’s first field trials, English field trial champions sold for staggering prices in America, especially Llewellin Setters.

In the 1860s Richard Llewellin began working with the “Duke-Rhobe-Laverack” combination and selling dogs to America, creating a tremendous demand for “blue blood” Llewellin Setters. “So great did the Llewellin vogue become that, with some American breeders, it amounted to almost a fetish... It is a fact that the period when preference for the Llewellin strain bordered on the fanatic many setter breeders paid far more attention to pedigrees than the field performance and qualities of the dogs.” (The Modern Dog Encyclopedia)

By 1880, parts of America were awash with money, thanks to a post-Civil War economic boom. This sellers market invited inevitable scams, and the sporting press provided the only forum to brag about new acquisitions and wins or thrash out disagreements.

On Nov. 17, 1883, Rowe kicked out the jams with this front page editorial. “Men admit the importance of blood, pay out money in the effort to get it, yet have so little knowledge that they do not know the limitations of strains and have not the means of knowing whether what they buy is pure article or not. [...] Dogs are advertised and sold continually under false pedigrees and the evil results, small at first, are rapidly increasing [...] finely bred dogs are now as eagerly sought after by true sportsmen as finely built guns. No man would like to have it proved that his gun has not the right to its name; neither would he like to have a flaw in his dog’s pedigree detected. There is not probably any other matter upon which the average sportsman has so little knowledge as upon pedigrees, yet there is hardly one more important.”

He closed by advising that prospective buyers take responsibility to verify bloodlines to prevent fraud. Ironically, at that time multiple organizations issued certified pedigrees, including his. “Irregularities of the worst sort occurred and fraud was rampant in certain quarters [...] There was great need for an authentic stud book registry. There were private registration organizations. Some were good, some were bad. Many breeders preferred to keep their own records and a pedigree issued over the signature of a man of good repute was considered by many more dependable than that issued by some registry organization.” (The Modern Dog Encyclopedia)

The world’s first kennel club and national registry had been founded in England a decade earlier, its formation triggered by concerns mirroring those in America — a need for organization and stability. However, in that case, the kennel club had preceded the stud book. In America the situation was vastly more complicated. In addition to the challenges posed by rapid growth and immense geographic territory, by the 1880s America’s dog fancy featured numerous groups and individuals vying for a piece of the action.

Next: Stud Books >>

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