Bo Bengtson At Large

The End of the World As We Know It

The bad news just doesn’t stop. The fall-out from the BBC program in England has made purebred dogs the pariah of the pet world over there — you should see the double-page spread in The Times — and it’s just a matter of time before something similar happens here. The American Kennel Club is hemorrhaging money and losing registrations at such a rate that the Chairman tells us the club may go out of business if the free-fall continues. Entries at dog shows are falling everywhere, the recession deepens, gas prices are up to $4 a gallon, and — in what seems like a parallel to our insulated little dog world — the national debate leading up to the Presidential election has reached such a low of personal attacks, innuendo and gossip that most local kennel club meetings would seem like a breath of fresh air by comparison...

Is it the end of the world? I hope not, but we may have to get used to a dog world that’s very different from what we’ve experienced so far. I’m hoping that a leaner, smarter, more self-aware and responsible sport will rise out of what may soon be the ashes of the world as we know it.

I can’t speak for the British fancy, but I’m talking to their Kennel Club’s chairman Ronnie Irving right now about an interview with him in the Dogs in Review Annual. I hope we’ll find they have useful plans in order to combat the bad rap that show dogs are getting over there. (See “Breaking News” on Editor’s Page, p. 6 in this issue.) I can tell you, though, that we in this country are sitting ducks for a “60 Minutes” or “Good Morning America” exposé which will make show dog breeders look like a bunch of lunatics who ought to be stopped, people who only care about elusive “show points” and are willing to sacrifice almost everything to win. Forget a normal home life; forget the dogs’ health; forget the fact that most dogs spend 99 percent of their time as pets, not as show dogs. Television producers will find that one person who’s willing to say on camera that they put down (OK, kill) puppies which are perfectly healthy because their markings aren’t right, a vet who will look into the camera and earnestly pronounce that show dogs are freaks, or an animal rights extremist who will in a blink convince Mr. and Mrs. General Public that they really don’t want to buy their pet puppy from one of those awful “show breeders.”

The fact that the vast majority of breeders who participate in dog shows are much more conscientious than others won’t matter: like it or not, perception is more important than reality in the media-driven world we live in. I’ve already said that we need a Gold Certificate stamp for breeders whose dogs can be shown to be physically and mentally sound as well as beautiful — breeders who are able to satisfy pet owners as well as discriminating exhibitors. We need a document showing that all show dogs have been health and temperament tested before they can be declared AKC Champions of Record. We need to be prepared to defend our right to breed for conformation points the way we have done for decades — but we can’t expect to be allowed to continue to do that unless we’re willing to prove that our dogs are healthy and sensible, too.

REGISTRATIONS “FIASCO”?
Will any of the necessary changes be implemented? Seeing how AKC has let things slide to the present sorry state, I doubt it — or at least not until things get a lot worse than they are now, at which point there may not be much left to rescue. I have the greatest personal respect for many of the men and women in charge of our sport, but I am amazed that so few real attempts have been made to alter a course that’s so obviously and indisputably headed toward disaster.

Take the declining registration figures, for instance. I hesitate to use a word as strong as “fiasco,” but it’s difficult to find a more suitable term for AKC Chairman Ron Menaker’s description of the current situation in his monthly report. (The September Chairman’s Report can be found online at www.akc.org.) He says that AKC faces “enormous challenges” in reversing the continuing decline, that we are losing market share “at an alarming rate” and that “the very future of the AKC and our sport is at risk.” The drop in registrations is truly staggering, as Mr. Menaker points out: a 53 percent decline since the peak in 1992.

The fact that this occurred while AKC has spent more money and energy trying to promote its name than ever before cannot have been lost on anyone: the failure to “brand” AKC as the place to register one’s puppies appears nearly complete. The solution to this problem, according to an apparently almost united cadre of AKC’s top officials, is to “aggressively pursue” all registerable puppies, especially those in the “retail section,” which of course means the pet shop and puppy mill products. (Sorry: I’m told we’re not supposed to use the word “puppy mill” anymore; now it’s “pet distributor.”)

The AKC Delegates were treated to such a squeaky-clean version of how the commercial distributors operate that one AKC Delegate actually went on record as saying that “Volume breeders registering with AKC run kennels most of us could not hope to emulate.” That’s a truly remarkable statement, considering the hue and cry the Delegates raised not so long ago when AKC tried to sneak in a deal with the Hunte Pet Corporation without informing them. (Would it be uncharitable to suggest that a change of mind might have something to do with the fact that AKC now threatens that the “service fee” deducted from entry fees at dog shows could shoot up to a staggering $20 per entry if we don’t start registering masses of commercially bred puppies? That certainly got everyone’s attention.)

I am well aware that some hobby breeders don’t look after their dogs as well as they ought to; they should be penalized for that. I am also very well aware that some of the commercial volume breeders may have very clean premises. That does not alter the fact that AKC is built on the premise that we are involved in dogs because we love them — not because we want to make money from them. If I find a commercial pet distributor who is willing to devote 24 hours a day to the puppies’ welfare, who screens prospective new homes in order to weed out those that are unsuitable and educates potential buyers about the breed’s potential problems, and if I find a single one who is willing to take back and responsibly re-home any puppy that doesn’t “work out”… OK, then — and only then — will I accept that AKC should cut a deal with that commercial outfit.

What really gets me is that nobody seems to see the inherent contradiction: if AKC’s registry is so special, how come we want to deal with commercial traders and providers to pet stores? And if the club makes itself dependent on mass registrations from  commercial puppy distributors, does AKC really think they won’t soon be demanding privileges not readily extended to those of us who don’t provide so many thousands of dollars in registration fees?

In the Chairman’s monthly report he says that AKC should pursue registrations from “the retail section,” yet states later in the same document that AKC will “continue to enthusiastically support the Parent Clubs’ Codes of Ethics, including as it relates to their members’ sale of puppies through commercial entities.” Is there another term for this than double-speak?

OTHER SOURCES OF REVENUE
Nobody disputes that AKC needs more income in order to continue doing all the great things it undeniably does. The situation may be less dire than AKC lets on, however: tens of millions of dollars are reportedly wisely invested and generating income, and AKC would hardly pay its top seven executives the vast salaries they do if they really needed to squeeze us ‘average dog people’ as hard as indicated.

The question is what can be done to increase revenue. That AKC is apparently not looking into other sources of income is, in view of the above, amazing. Has anyone looked at how other organizations of a similar kind are financed? How kennel clubs in other countries maintain a solid economic base? Why is AKC the only national kennel club threatened by rival registries? Of course conditions are not identical anywhere else, but if you won’t even contemplate a different scenario we’re pretty certainly stuck at status quo (or worse).

Two concrete suggestions:
1) Allow anyone who fulfills minimum requirements to register — and thereby protect — their kennel affix. Only a tiny number of American kennel names are registered, as opposed to every single one in most of the rest of the world. I would happily pay $100 or $150 to register my kennel name with AKC, plus an annual renewal fee to make sure nobody else can use it. It works great in other countries, has a number of side benefits and no negatives that I can think of — so why not try it? (Just one example: the relatively small Swedish KC, with only some 60,000 registrations last year, in that same time approved approximately 1,200 new kennel names. At a similar rate AKC could easily register over 15,000 kennel names per year.)

2) Why not introduce individual memberships in AKC? I realize this would require a major overhaul, but why can I be a member of my breed club and of my regional kennel club — but not of the national equivalent? The AKC Gazette would be a membership publication, AKC would have an invaluable list of a couple of hundred thousand people who actually like purebred dogs, and we could all attend and have our say at regional AKC meetings. Surely enough people would want to be able to say “I’m an AKC member” that I don’t see how less than a couple of million dollars in annual membership fees would end up in AKC’s apparently fast-shrinking coffers.

There’s a lot of talk of “changing with the times.” That sounds great, but the issue really is how AKC will continue to work for what’s best for dogs. As far as I can see this must mean safeguarding the physical and mental health of purebred dogs and making sure that as far as possible all puppies end up in permanent homes. Until the commercial distributors are willing to cooperate with that requirement I don’t see how AKC can responsibly deal with them.

 


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Fred   Seattle, WA

11/11/2008 5:01:04 PM

Has it occurred to anyone on the American side of the pond that possibly the criticism about lack of concern for breed health is valid, and that the way to deal with it is to begin to take a real interest in breed health? Don't say this is a low blow. I can tell you from extensive personal experience that the AKC isn't even good at pretending to be concerned. And the hidden truth is that AKC is hostile to responsible attempts from within breed clubs to address health issues. Where do AKC execs come from? They come from breed clubs, and they are the ones who succeeded there by consolidating political power and not letting the idealistic "upstarts" interested in health rock the
boat.

Bo mentions "safeguarding" health. The mindset that all we need to do is protect something we have is part of what got us where we are. We must be pro-active, not just
"conscientious".

The lady who "blew the whistle" on hiding SM in Cavaliers was expelled from the British Cavalier Club for betraying a confidence. Are things different in America? I can tell you they are worse. The AKC is far behind where the KC was before they were blasted by the documentary. In fact, the production of the documentary was seen favorably at the KC and they cooperated because they thought it would show the progress they felt they had made. And what progress has the AKC
made?

Who knows, if AKC had a real interest in breed health, then it might be more difficult to make the argument that mongrels are healthier (as the documentary does). The real reason for decline in registration revenue is that pet owners have figured out that registration doesn't really mean very
much.

BTW, Jemima Harrison, the documentary producer, has already announced that she is working on a sequel to the documentary, with the support of BBC, and that the sequel will be international in nature. She even made a comment that the AKC should be better prepared than the KC. However I suspect the powers at AKC have not yet learned to read the writing on the wall.

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