Dogs in Review Interviews AKC President Dennis B. Sprung

Dennis Sprung talks to Dogs in Review’s founder and editor-at-large, Bo Bengtson.


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Ch. Talos Dear Abby, owned by Dennis
and Susan Sprung, handled by breeder Sue Lackey to Best of Breed at the Greyhound Club of America Western specialty in 1985. The judge was Frank Sabella.
Photo Bergman.

DR: Could you please specify the difference between the AKC “rules” (determined by the delegates) and AKC regulations, guidelines and policy (which are determined by the board)?

DS: The difference between a rule and a regulation is in how they are adopted. The AKC Bylaws place the responsibility of adopting rules in the hands of the delegate body. Any change to a rule requires a 2/3 affirmative vote by the delegates.

A regulation is adopted by the AKC board of directors. Additionally, policies are also adopted by the board. Policy serves to either interpret a rule or regulation, to establish a procedure to carry out a rule or regulation, or to fulfill a specific responsibility assigned under the bylaws.

From its inception in 1884 until 1936, AKC only sponsored shows and field trials. These events were governed by rules adopted by the delegates, as were the rules governing registration and discipline, which are actually extracted from the bylaws. In 1936, obedience was added (tracking was then part of obedience), and it was to be governed by regulations adopted by the board. This is as permitted in the bylaws.

No other new events were added until retriever hunting tests in 1984, which were also adopted as regulations. Since then 11 other types of events have been brought in and are also governed by regulations. Currently there are 12 types of events governed by regulations. Amendments to these regulations are based upon input from advisory committees with expert members in them, and from parent clubs for breeds that participate in these breed-specific type events.

Additionally, there are regulations for identification and recordkeeping, junior showmanship, and matches. AKC bylaws, rules, regulations and AKC board policy can be found on the AKC website under the tab “About AKC.”

DR: So if there is something that the board and the delegates determine that they feel strongly about, that the executive body, including yourself, does not necessarily agree with, how do you deal with that?

DS: There are board meetings eight times a year. We bring recommendations and alternative recommendations to the board. We bring them a background, with justification, and we provide them with an impact study. What does this recommendation mean in terms of how it will affect the sport? How will it affect AKC from a public relations point of view? Our due diligence includes a return on investment study. If we disagree, we have a responsibility to explain. We also work with delegates and the delegate committees that can bring forward ideas.

DR: Does it work pretty well, do you think?

DS: I think it works well, and I think it’s constantly improving. We have a very good board that works well together. While there are certainly differences of opinion, there is a solid consensus of what they’re all there for, and they’re all there for the well-being of dogs. The leadership of Chairman Ron Menaker and Vice Chairman David Merriam has resulted in many positive gains.

DR: I have to ask you about the Petland situation. How was this idea of cooperating with this pet store ever conceived, and did the board — or you — not anticipate the strong reaction from the delegates? What has happened since the quarterly meeting?

DS: The Petland initiative grew out of the board’s strategic plan. The project had several goals, including increasing the quality of life for puppies in pet stores by ensuring care and conditions standards at every retailer, the education of consumers about the proper rearing of their new puppy, and the inclusion of the new puppy buyers under the AKC umbrella. We believe that dogs benefit when AKC is involved. There were other advantages, including additional registrations, which would translate into increased influence in the legislative area. Our communication efforts to the delegates about the Petland agreement were hampered by confidentiality agreements — a reality in today’s business world.

Unfortunately, lack of detailed information prior to the presentation may have fueled an emotional reaction by some delegates, who interpreted the project as a violation of their core values. The Petland project was ended because we determined that it had become too divisive and the last thing we wanted to do was to damage the AKC or become disconnected from our core constituency. Since then, we have been working on a communications plan that will lead to a better understanding of the board’s goals and strategic direction. We are aware of the importance of laying a proper foundation and obtaining buy-in from the AKC family.

DR: I want to ask you about how AKC’s role has changed. You mentioned something about that earlier. Going back 30 or 40 years ago, AKC’s focus was on registering dogs, organizing dog shows and field trials, and that was it, basically. The activities are so much more multi-faceted these days.

DS: It’s multiplied incredibly, and a lot of it is due to a change in society. We have to be flexible, which we can be to a degree, but we have a particular type of governance, so all flexibility is limited by the structure of the organization. You can’t change a rule even if you wake up one morning and realize this rule is not truly beneficial to the sport. There is a structure, and a procedure, and it could take almost a year to change.

For example, say there is an amendment to a bylaw or rule, and let’s say it comes from a delegate on behalf of a club and has to do with show sites. The Executive Secretary would receive it and then the respective department would do the necessary research and report to the board. The board will consider the amendment and staff recommendation, and then will often send it to a delegate committee for consideration — in this example to the Delegate Dog Show Rules Committee. This usually takes a few months. Next, the proposal is considered again by the board with the staff and delegate committee recommendations. The board actually has six months to make a decision. If the board disapproves the amendment, the member club has 60 days to request it go forward.

If the board approves an amendment, the next steps require it be read at a delegate meeting, then published in two consecutive issues of the Gazette before it could be voted on at a future delegate meeting.

In summary, as you can see, the process takes a while.

DR: Did the AKC willingly take on this huge job of being much more than a kennel club — more like a dog owner’s association? Did you ask for this, or did you feel you had to in order to defend the sport, basically?

DS: I think it’s a natural progression. If you’re concerned about the well-being of dogs, you’re concerned about dog events being allowed to continue, and registration of purebred dogs to continue. You have to step up and be heard when there is a proposal in a municipality that would affect people’s rights to own dogs, to exhibit dogs or to breed dogs.

DR: Do you sometimes wish there were a dog owners’ association that would deal with this so you could focus on the sport entirely and not deal so much with public concerns?

DS: Yes and no. I think as the leader in the dog world, AKC has responsibility to focus primarily on registration and our sport, which entails the core constituency. However, in order to do this with all due diligence, public issues enter into the mix and therefore we are better off defining our own identity and governing the sport from an all-encompassing perspective, so that our core’s future is protected.

Frank Sabella judging Ch. Alekai Airy with handler Wendell Sammett, show chair Susan Sprung and Dennis Sprung, club president and AKC delegate, in 1987.

DR: The AKC certainly has a huge chunk to bite off these days, and of course those of us who are primarily involved in the showing and breeding aspects of the fancy understand that. It must be hard for you to have enough time and resources to deal with everything.

DS: Today we incorporate many constituencies that we really didn’t have in the past. In the past our concern was focused on the breeders, and on the dog show and field trial world. Now, the great majority of the people who use our services, registering litters and individual dogs, are not our core constituents. We have a majority with certain needs, and then we have our own people whom we are concerned with 24 hours a day. While they’re not the majority, they represent what we represent. In addition to that we have the pressure of society, meaning that you have natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, where dogs are in need of help, and we had 9/11, when DOGNY had to be created to step up to the plate.

DR: Fifty years ago, AKC wouldn’t have been able to do much about any of that, I don’t think. Do you?

DS: I think 50 years ago the thought probably wouldn’t have crossed management’s mind to go to the board and say, “We’d like to create a DOGNY to help search-and-rescue dogs throughout the nation.” But the positive thing is, going back to that example, we had a board, most of whom are still there, that unanimously rallied and said, “Yeah, that’s the right thing to do — go do it!”

DR: Which of course means that the AKC has to spend a lot of money to help in such emergencies. Basically, of course, it’s a positive development, that AKC has come to be about far more than just dog shows, field trials and registrations.

DS: Absolutely. One of the great values that AKC has is the name recognition. The name “American Kennel Club,” or “AKC,” has a wonderful, wonderful ring with the American public.

DR: A different one now than it used to have, I’m sure.

DS: That’s a battle we’re still fighting. There is still some perception of elitism. It’s far less than it used to be, though. We also find that, because of competition today, in the old days there were one or two other registries out there that were not truly competition. Today there are 23 registries in competition — all of them for-profit registries. (Based on updated research completed in Nov. 2006, there are 38 all-breed and multi-group competitive registries.)

DR: Most of them are not serious competition, though, are they?

DS: Well, you have to sometimes look at your competition from the aggregate. If you have 23 competitors out there and each one can siphon off a half a market share, or one percent of the market share, it doesn’t appear to be a lot. When you put it together, it’s another big organization, from an aggregate point of view. What we have to do is tell our story — we have to tell people about the difference between AKC and the other organizations.

DR: According to Wayne Cavanaugh, president of the United Kennel Club, the AKC itself “pirated” 10,000 Coonhound registrations from UKC and other clubs in 2005. What would you tell a new person who wants to know why they should register their new puppy with AKC instead of one of the other registries?

DS: I want to preface the explanation for that by saying that the good news is that we do not have to create reasons or programs — they already exist. We just have to get the word out.

Where does the registration money go? Those of us who are involved in the sport know that registration is our core revenue. When registrations drop, revenue drops. As a result, registrations plus new, alternative revenue sources supplement all of our events. Formerly it was registration funds alone that subsidized all of our events. Twenty-five years ago, in 1981, 96 percent  of AKC revenue was registration; in 2006, the percentage is 51percent.

So where does the money go today? The money goes to places like the Canine Health Foundation. Over 10 years we have donated $15 million to the foundation. Last year we donated $1.4 million to them. That’s to benefit all dogs, not just purebred dogs. I don’t think any fancier would begrudge the fact that the funds will help all dogs down the road, and will help human beings as well.

Also, money goes to support the Dog Museum; we support them totally. We give grants for veterinary scholarships; we now give junior and vet tech scholarships on an annual basis. There are the costs of a legislative department to monitor and fight breed specific legislation; in 2005 alone we worked on 741 state and municipal proposals to protect the rights of our constituency.

Money goes to projects like Hurricane Katrina, where between the funds we collected and those we donated, over $1 million has gone to Katrina. Probably close to the same amount went to internal support —meaning the people who we took off doing their computer programming and maintenance, etc., to create a Katrina site that people could go to and tell us what they needed, what they had to donate, etc. That was done over one weekend by our information service department. Of course we had money coming in, we had money going out — it took a lot of work. We have people within our public relations area that only worked on relief for the people affected by Katrina. Our head of investigations and some of his staff actually were down in Louisiana. We held daily meetings that went on for hours, validating requests, ordering supplies, shipping supplies, buying and renting “water buffalos” (those big tankers full of water). Where did all that funding come from? All that funding, that staff of 30 or 40 people working and helping people and dogs daily, for months, was provided by AKC staff.

DR: So in other words, the registration money coming in is increasingly going to these obviously necessary expenses, which results in the question, how do we pay for the dog show expenses?

DS: Annual costs of events, meaning all events — shows, obedience, agility, lure coursing, field trials, earthdog, etc. — is approximately $10 million. That is the minus figure — that is after income. So what happens is what always has happened — the net profit from registration pays the shortfall of events. Over the past years registration income has fallen, requiring us to run the sport in the best business practice manner and create alternative revenue sources.

DR: What are the major costs associated with the events to the AKC?

DS: Staff, of course — staff that approves the events… Of course, there are major computer programming efforts for these departments to run efficiently, and that entails development, testing, and programming followed by ongoing maintenance and enhancements. In running any organization of our magnitude, there are the necessary allocated expenses to budget, including legal, financial, and the like.

DR: Other than registration, the only income is the per-dog entry fee. How much is it these days?

DS: It varies from event to event. Our largest area is conformation, which like obedience and tracking has a 50 cents recording fee and a $1.50 event service fee for the first entry only. In agility, it is $3 per entry and $1 for each additional entry. In rally, there is a $3 fee for the first entry but no fee for additional entries. In order to ensure AKC’s financial stability, management has continued to pursue alternative revenue opportunities.

DR: What percentage of the event activity is conformation shows these days? How many entries are involved?

DS: The cumulative number of entries exceeded three million for the first time in 2006, so actually entries are increasing. However, because of the simultaneous increase in the number of events, the average entry is declining very slightly. Percentage-wise, conformation equaled almost two-thirds of the 2005 figure.

DR: What about the other activities?

DS: The biggest growth that AKC is experiencing today is in agility and in rally. The obedience trend is experiencing a slight decline; we hope that as we feature the AKC Canine Good Citizen program as an introduction to obedience, and rally as an introduction to obedience, and also focus on responsible dog ownership, we can give a boost to obedience.

DR: Could anything be done to encourage interest in dog shows? As you said, the number of shows continues to increase and the number of entries per show continues to decrease. As someone said, eventually we will have several thousand tiny dog shows with maybe one dog per breed. Is there anything that can be done?

DS: I question whether a larger show means greater depth of quality.

DR: Oh, you really think so?

DS: I question that.

DR: It’s not my place to argue now, but unless you have a decent breed entry I don’t think you can have a really meaningful dog show. As I’m sure you know, the average breed entry right now is 6.2 dogs in competition at AKC all-breed shows. Don’t you think if that could be doubled or tripled, it would mean somewhat more meaningful breed judging?

DS: If there is not depth of quality in a particular breed because you have only six of them entered, will you have depth of quality if you have 12?

DR: Sure — instead of having those 12 dogs go to two separate shows, if all of them come to the same show, there will be more competition.

DS: There will be more competition, but is the quality of a higher level?

DR: Definitely, because if there are any good dogs at all in a six-dog entry, chances are there would be twice as many good ones in a 12-dog entry. These are still very low figures. Surely if you’ve got a hundred dogs or more of a single breed competing, chances are that you will have more depth of quality and awards that mean something. It’s very popular to say numbers don’t equal quality, but there’s definitely a link in many different ways. If you have larger breed entries, of course chances are you’ll have more good dogs present, and you can also afford to employ more specialist judges. Larger entries have a beneficial effect.

DS: But you do attend the large shows, and a breed has a large entry, and as you walk away from the ring, you don’t feel there was depth of quality. There may be a special that you say is a wonderful dog, but do you see depth? I’m not talking about National Specialties here. I’m talking about all-breed shows.

DR: I’m talking about the shows where breeders gather because they are an event, and they bring their dogs and you get 60 or 70, maybe 100 dogs of a breed or more. Certainly you get some dogs that aren’t as good, but…

DS: Right, but going from six to 60 or 70 is very different.

DR: It certainly is, but I think it would be great if we had more shows with bigger breed entries. However, if you don’t think that fewer dogs and smaller breed entries has a deleterious effect…

DS: I think it has a troublesome side effect for a number of reasons. For example, it is very challenging for a field rep to observe somebody judge, especially at a typical show, Terriers, for instance. What are you going to observe, with two Sealys, or two Skyes, and one or two of many of the other breeds?

DR: There you go; that’s one of the things I’m getting at. I’m hoping that AKC will soon tell us, “OK, now we finally have to do something about holding a few major, important shows,” instead of having what we have now: 1,497 AKC shows per year with an average of less than 900 dogs.

DS: But we have to also be realistic. It is very difficult to take anything away from people, so what can you do? We have member clubs that certainly have rights and long-term contracts.

DR: Are you saying that AKC can’t stop clubs from holding more shows? You have specific criteria for what a club has to do to be able to hold a show, right?

DS: All-breed clubs — we’re talking now of the great majority, except for separate policy in isolated areas, say Utah for example — but 99 percent plus of the all-breed clubs are limited to two shows a year. Perhaps half of the shows are held back-to-back. There are economic commitments that these clubs have. Where does one step in and say, sorry, you can only have one show? It would be most problematic for our member and licensed clubs for AKC to limit them to only one show annually. I do not see the benefit to the clubs, judges or exhibitors in taking away a club’s choice of having either one or two shows.

DR: What about new clubs? There are written criteria for what the club has to do in order to hold a point show, correct?

DS: Yes. If they meet the criteria, they can have their show, as well as holding two shows a year.

DR: It seems to me that if AKC feels there are too many shows, you could set the requirement for clubs a little higher, which would tick a lot of people off, I can see that, and it would affect only clubs in the future. As you said, you can’t take away people’s toys without making them upset. But you can add new things. You have the National show, but have you ever thought about also adding something like State Championship shows, or “Grade A” shows, or something like that? An important show that’s not limited, with majors in every breed, where breeders can bring their puppies and young stock as well as top specials.

DS: We talked about, under a different terminology, “Grade A” shows, if you will. But then again, there have not been any criteria developed. There has been discussion about that in the past. There’s no question that the board is concerned, and the staff also, in terms of quality. We don’t want growth for the sake of growth. In certain areas we need growth — in the earthdog world, in the lure coursing world, in the Coonhound world. So we have to analyze the big picture. And there may be parts of the 50 states where we need growth in all-breed clubs, or in specialty clubs, and not in others.

DR: So you don’t think there is an urgent need in the conformation world for fewer shows? I concede the difficulty in cutting the number down, but then how about instead maybe trying to focus the attention on more competitive, bigger events, where you attract a large number of exhibitors? It’s talked about widely, as I’m sure you know.

DS: It’s talked about widely, and I don’t see a vehicle for us getting there at this point. In terms of too many shows, I also think the owner has the final say. Regardless of the fact that you could go two different ways on a weekend, you do not have to go anywhere if you feel that your dog shouldn’t be out four weekends in a row, if you feel the weather may be too hot… People talk about the rating systems and the number of shows, but I think it’s very important to remember that it’s up to the owner to make the entry or not. Or, after entries close, if it’s too hot, that weekend you simply keep the dog at home. The dog’s welfare must come first.

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