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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DR: Obviously there’s not much AKC can do about the rating systems. That’s something that we in the publishing world should try to do something about, I think.

DS: I go to about 50 shows a year, and I have to tell you, there are as many people in favor of the rating systems as against them. A dog breaks into the Top 10, and the owners are thrilled.

DR: I’m in favor of the rating systems, too, but I wish there would be some way you could show less often and still have a realistic chance of succeeding.

DS: That’s another thing that we are talking about. There’s been a thought in some people’s minds of a rating system based on a “batting average,” on a percentage of wins. I guess you would have to go to “X” number of shows in order to qualify — you can’t go to just one show. All of this is certainly on the table.

DR: It’s encouraging to hear that it’s being discussed. Some change like that would make people feel a lot better, especially this percentage basis you’re talking about — that would be great. What about champion titles? We had about 22,000 new AKC champions last year. How much does a champion title mean?

DS: I don’t know if you remember, but years ago I was a delegate and appointed to a committee, and I gave a speech to the delegate body, and one of the main points of the speech was to do away with Best of Winners, because in practice it helps create more champions. That proposal had a wonderful reception, yet it was overwhelmingly defeated at the next delegate meeting. I personally would have no problem if there were stronger criteria for a dog to finish.

DR: It has been mentioned as a possibility that we could have an additional championship, a sort of Grand Champion title. In most of the other AKC activities you can add additional titles or degrees to a basic title — so why not in conformation? It seems to work well in some other countries.

DS: That is a possibility, and I will tell you, when titles are added, say, within the agility world, or within the performance world, that has been received very well by the fancy in the United States. But of course we have to be cautious, because it could also be perceived by those who think there are too many shows as encouraging dogs to be shown more often.

DR: I think it would be very popular. Say you win five or 10 Best of Breeds with major entries and you get a Grand Champion title, or something like that. It’s good to hear that this is being discussed. What about registrations? This is something I remember discussing with Ron Menaker. Do you see an intrinsic conflict between the fact that on the one hand, the more puppies that are registered, the better — yet at the same time, perhaps there are simply too many dogs being bred. A lot of people, and I agree with them, feel that there may just not be enough good homes to house all the cute puppies that are bred and then grow up to be a menace to society. Is this something that AKC thinks about?

DS: We would like all AKC-registrable dogs to be registered.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige
and Dennis Sprung met in August 2004
to discuss public education issues.

DR: What percentage of the dogs in America are AKC-registered — does anyone know?

DS: No, but we know that our return rate of blue slips is 46 percent.

DR: In other words, without increasing the number of dogs born, we could easily have a far higher percentage of AKC-registered dogs?

DS: Right. We’re not saying that everybody should go out and breed more dogs. We’re saying that the dogs that are on the ground, that are AKC registrable, we’d like to have them registered. We’re doing a lot of things to make that happen. We are looking at our wording on the registration forms to make sure the message is clear. Of course we test a lot of ideas and we do a lot of research. We believe that it’s important, particularly because of the number of competitors we have today, that AKC provide added value to the registration, so we have what we consider three very valuable incentives when people register with the AKC, which are relatively new. One, which just was launched in the last few weeks, is called AKC Vet Net. What that means is that when you register a puppy with AKC you will get a certificate for a free examination at a veterinarian. We now have over 2,500 veterinary practices nationwide that have volunteered to particpate.

DR: And that benefits them because they get people in as clients and trust they will continue to bring their dogs in, right?

DS: Exactly. The staff believes that veterinarians, while they are certainly professionals, are also in business, so naturally it would benefit them to have a new client for the next 10 or 12 years. The examination will be free. Of course, if the dog needs a rabies shot later, or this or that, it’s a new customer for that veterinarian for years.

DR: That’s huge. I had heard of it but didn’t know the specifics.

DS: It just started; we just launched it in the last few weeks. That’s one incentive to register your dog.

The second offer we launched a few months ago is a relationship with an on-line store called DOG.com. Basically, your registration fee will be returned to you in e-certificates. If you register a dog with AKC and provide us with your e-mail address you will, within a day, receive an e-certificate. If you had a $15 registration, you’ll get a $15 certificate, which can be used for purchase of any kind of product. It’s with a major on-line store, DOG.com.

DR: They feel, for the same reason as the veterinarians, that it’s worth their while to get new customers this way?

DS: Absolutely, and they want to do business with the American Kennel Club. And it gets better than that; if you breed a litter you will get these certificates back. If you buy a registration package, which is $32, you’ll get a $30 certificate. That’s the second advantage.

The third one is the pet health care insurance program. You receive 60 days of free coverage. That’s been going for about three or four years now. It’s with a company that administers the program with The Kennel Club in England. Pet insurance is much more successful in England than it is in the States.

DR: Why is that?

DS: It’s a different society — health insurance for people comes from the government, so everybody has insurance. It’s what they’re used to having. Anyway, we have the same company that administers it with The Kennel Club administering it here.
So we now have these three incentives, which we’re bundling together. After you launch these things it does take a while to filter out to the general public, but it’s also an immediate benefit to our fanciers and to our breeders.

DR: Does this set AKC apart from the other registries?

DS: I believe so. These corporations want to do business with the American Kennel Club, because they believe we are the registry with integrity.

Those are strong incentives from a personal point of view, hitting you in your wallet. But there are also all the other good reasons to be allied with AKC, such as the Canine Health Foundation, CAR (Companion Animal Recovery), the AKC Museum, Hurricane Katrina disaster relief, etc. There are good reasons that benefit one personally, and good reasons that benefit others, for registering your dog with AKC.

DR: Getting on to AKC judges, what’s happening with the approval process for judging? Is there too much paperwork? Can it be done some easier way? What are your feelings?

DS: I think the biggest change in judges’ approval is the fact that about 15 months ago the board delegated the decision-making to staff. The board is not involved in the approval of judges other than at the appeals stage, so what was a significant part of every board meeting, the discussion and approval of judges, is now handled by Darrell Hayes and his committee. I think the decisions have been well-accepted by the judging community, based on the fact that there have been so few appeals. In fact, in the first year there weren’t any.

DR: Every time I read the AKC Gazette and see all the names of new applicants, hundreds of people I’ve never heard of, I wonder where it’s going to end. Doesn’t this have to do with what we talked about earlier, shows that are so small that everybody needs to judge not just a few breeds or a Group, but they need three, four or five Groups to make it financially feasible for a club to hire them for a weekend?

DS: In my opinion, the foundation of any judging system needs two things; it has to be fair, and it has to be perceived as fair amongst our judging community. If I were to look back at all the judging approval processes since I’ve worked for the AKC, I’d say the current approval process is a very liberal one.

DR: It has to be, because we simply need more judges, right?

DS: I’d have to have some research done, but I would think that the number of judges that currently are approved for breeds is ample. It’s very much the old 80/20 system — we have analyzed this in the past — 20  percent of the judges get 80 percent of the assignments.

DR: Do you think it would be better to perhaps continue to educate the judges who are now approved for one or two breeds for more breeds, instead of getting more people started?

DS: Hands-on education I think is very important. But those who are students are going to be students, and they’re not going to apply until they have significant knowledge. There are others who look at judging as a numbers game. I don’t think it’s a numbers game, and I don’t think it should be viewed as one. We all agree that none of us want to go into the ring and embarrass ourselves. I think that somewhere we may have missed an opportunity.

DR: In what sense?

DS: Well, I’m not aware of any time in AKC’s past where we publicly showed appreciation for the fact that someone was a great judge of an individual breed. When did AKC really make that so important that it didn’t become a numbers game? Take Virginia Withington. She was an Afghan judge, period. She got great big entries and people respected her. What was important to Gini? To judge Afghan Hounds, period — nothing else. I think that’s admirable. I’m not sure that AKC ever stepped up to the plate in honoring people like that. Have we honored Frank Sabella as a great Poodle judge? Have we honored Pat Trotter as a great Elkhound judge?

I think what has happened is that people started to apply for more breeds, and people always were applying for the maximum they could get as opposed to the minimum. We once had a system where in certain Groups you could only apply for nine breeds, and in certain Groups you could only apply for a maximum of 13 breeds. The board’s concept at that time was that nobody was going to apply for nine or 13 breeds; they would apply for fewer. Well, almost everybody applied for the maximum.

DR: Basically, you’re fairly happy with the judges’ approval system and how it works these days?

DS: I’m happy with it from the point of view of treating people fairly — I don’t think in the case of judging you want to treat people as equals, but you want to give people equal opportunity. What we don’t want at the AKC is cookie-cutter judges.

DR: I am concerned that with the number of small shows it’s obviously going to be very hard for a judge to get any assignments at all unless you do at least a couple of Groups.

DS: That’s the economic reality, and there isn’t much we can do about that. Our clubs do not want AKC involved in how they select judges.

DR: Like I said earlier, that goes back to the size of the shows. I want to ask you about international communication. How much do you deal with foreign kennel clubs, the FCI, England, any of the others?

DS: There’s quite a bit of communication, and that is handled through Jim Crowley’s office.

DR: You’ve personally traveled quite a bit, though, haven’t you?

DS: Yes, I’ve traveled quite a bit.

DR: Is there anything in the foreign shows that we could pick up, adapt and use in some ways?

DS: I would think there is. Certainly there are many ideas, not directly in the judging field, that we have picked up from The Kennel Club in England. For example, I went to Crufts one year and observed the “Discover Dogs” feature which they have at Crufts — that was my impetus for “Meet the Breeds” at the AKC Invitational. Their “Puppy Sales Register” is our online “Breeder Classified” service. Their licensing program for products, something I tried to start in 1999, but was not allowed to pursue, is one of the successful aspects of our alternative revenue today. I wasn’t able to do that until I was in my current position. There are successful ideas that other countries are using. We’re very happy to emulate something if it’s going to ultimately help our sport.

DR: What about the different judging procedures? Do you think there will ever be things such as critiques and grading like they do at FCI shows?

DS: We have critiques, to a degree. I think it’s a possibility. It doesn’t seem to be something that’s been requested on the all-breed level, but then you have the specialties. Specialties go back to the beginning of our discussion. We talked about learning, and I mentioned hands-on. Going to kennels like Sunny Shay’s and going to specialties had something in common, in that you were able in one visit (but of course you should go back as often as you can) to see puppies, young adults, adults and veterans, all from the same line. People who had the privilege of going to Raymond Oppenheimer’s Ormandy Bull Terriers in England always spoke about how they would bring out generation after generation of dogs. It was the same at Sunny’s, and Roger’s, and it’s a similar experience at a National Specialty, although they’re from different lines, as opposed to seeing, you know, 120 Grandeur dogs. I’m a great believer in hands-on — touching the puppies, standing back and just watching them, sometimes for hours.

DR: What dogs do you and Susan have now?

DS: We have a Pekingese, which is absolutely great. It’s our second Peke, and it’s a totally delightful breed.

DR: Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you want to include?

DS: I think it’s important that the fancy understand that there’s completely open communication with the AKC. I’m approachable, my staff is approachable, the field reps are approachable. We cannot assist people with a problem if they don’t bring it to our attention.

DR: What do you suggest people do?

DS: Pick up the phone. Send an e-mail. I prefer talking to people one-on-one — I think there’s less misunderstanding.

DR: How can that possibly fit into your schedule? It must be very hard to find time for that.

DS: I work seven days a week. I have no problem with that. I give out my home phone number. I give out my cell phone number so people can call me. It’s a very important job. I even put in an 800 number for delegates to reach me. It’s a very rewarding position. People do have anxieties. Not everybody understands the rules a hundred percent, so when people call you up and they’re very uptight, very often you can solve the problem with one phone call. We’re not very different than Wall Street, in terms of that a lot of what goes on is based on rumor. Pick up the phone and we’ll give you the facts.

DR: You may get a lot more phone calls after this interview. Can we print your number?

DS: That’s OK. I welcome the calls from our core constituency. My direct telephone number is 212-696-8327. We’ll be able to nip a lot of the untruths. We’re concerned with accountability. In my opinion, with the chat rooms and the e-mails, there is no accountability. You can say whatever you want to say about a dog, a person, a judge, regardless of whether it’s true or total fabrication. I think, without being over-regulatory, that AKC wants to be able to communicate, and communicate facts, and take the anxiety out of situations whenever we can.

My staff and I believe we have a responsibility to the sport that is long term. We are working diligently to lay the infrastructure, so that in 10 and 20 years we and the next generation will have sites to hold events, leverage to counter breed-specific and anti-dog ownership laws, and the financial security to meet obligations and unexpected challenges.

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