SOS: Save Our Shows
Why AKC all-breed shows are not flourishing as they ought to and what needs to be done about it.
Bo Bengtson |
Posted: January 16, 2015 11 a.m. PST
The first time I heard someone suggest that perhaps the days of purebred dogs and dog shows are over, I didn’t take it seriously. It was just a few years ago, and although there were signs of discontent among many dog people even then, I took this simply for an urge to complain, which is one of the most common denominators among dog people. Not just dog people, of course, but I sometimes wonder if we are not a little too easily inclined to find fault with what we are doing, much as we love it. (You may say that as the writer of this article I fall into that category, too. You have a point, but what I’m trying to do is offer some positive suggestions to a very real problem.)
The past year has shown that there were, in fact, reasons for concern. Entries are falling, the dog fancy is graying, clubs have trouble finding people to help organize their shows, future events are in danger of being canceled, purebred dogs and breeding in general are under constant attack from many sides, and otherwise upbeat and cheerful people are expressing grave concerns about the future.
The fact is that most AKC all-breed dog shows as they exist today do not have much to offer people who are looking for a pleasant way to spend a weekend with their dogs. If you are a newcomer, why would you spend money to be rudely treated and have almost no chance of winning anything of substance, having your dog cursorily examined by a stressed-out judge who will have neither the time nor the wish to tell you what’s wrong with your dog — so you leave as befuddled as you were before? For those of us who have been around a few years, what pleasure is there in seeing the same small, uninspiring entry compete week after week, especially when we know that our breed is most likely judged by someone who really neither cares nor knows much about it beyond showmanship and, of course, who the much-advertised top specials are?
And if you’re looking at things from most judges’ perspectives, the scene isn’t exactly rosy either: Why would you want to advance in your judging career when AKC makes you feel like "a child, an idiot or a criminal, or all three at the same time,” as one judge put it? The end result is that a small number of overworked all-rounders judge far too often, while those who are approved for just a few breeds get almost no opportunities at all.
Finally, if you are also a breeder, why would you continue to devote all that never-ending, thankless work on something that is targeted by the general public as an unethical, morally compromised activity? I have a friend who bred her first two litters out of well-bred champion bitches but got such a hard time from her mostly non-doggy friends that she is never going to breed another puppy ever again. That happens far more often than it should.
A Life Without Dog Shows
Is the above too harsh? Perhaps now’s the time to tell you how much I love dog shows and almost everything about the sport of purebred dogs. After more than 50 years of involvement, I find it all as fascinating as I did as a kid — perhaps even more so because I have learned to appreciate so many different aspects of an activity I frankly can’t quite imagine life without. At the base of it all is the love of dogs, of course: They certainly don’t have to be purebred for us to love them, but there’s no question that the variety of breeds, and the predictability that comes with that, is a huge and very rational reason for the existence of purebreds. Tell that to the people who feel that dog shows are simply a "snob sport.”
I actually wonder how much the word "purebred” has hurt both us and the dogs. No dogs are of really "pure” breeding to begin with — they all started as mutts and developed into breeds, usually decades or centuries ago, after a selection process that had to do more with usefulness than anything else. The word "purebred” is pretty offensive when you think about it, today even more than in the past, and I wish we could come up with a better term.
Like most real dog people, I am interested in almost every breed there is. Give me a big entry, a judge whose procedure I can follow, a catalog and someone sitting next to me who is willing to answer questions, and I’ll be happy watching for hours, regardless of the breed. You see people like that at every big specialty and at Westminster, so intent on what’s going on in the ring that we nearly forget where we are, and heaven help any outsider who interrupts with some irrelevant comment...
"The first thing we — especially AKC — must do is make sure that the image of purebred dogs is overhauled."
Not that I’m unaware of the charms of the social scene at dog shows, either. It seems to be the main attraction for many dog people, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. Dog shows can be a fascinating mixture of people who have something in common regardless of age, race, gender or social background. Watching the maneuvering among the different cliques is something you don’t have to be a dog person to find fascinating. It helps a lot if you know who the players are, though.
Showing a beautiful dog in the ring, judging a big class of good dogs, whelping a litter of puppies and raising them from day one until you can begin to believe that your early hopes might be fulfilled — it’s all endlessly rewarding. And let’s face it, you get a rush from taking a big win, and getting a call that a dog you bred did spectacularly well on some distant shore gives tremendous satisfaction. Even the losses spur you on to do better the next time. Sooner or later you realize that most of your friends are, in fact, dog people. You have, in other words, become a show dog lifer.
So what’s the problem? Why is this wonderful activity not flourishing as it ought to? Why are so many people pessimistic about the current state of the sport, and even more so about the future? Why have AKC’s registration figures taken such a nosedive that we are not even allowed to know how many — or few — there are anymore? (In 1992 AKC registered more than 1.5 million puppies, more than twice the total for 2008, which is the last year I have an official figure for. It is rumored that in the past five years, registrations have once again dropped to about a quarter of what they used to be, but nobody really knows — or, rather, those who know aren’t telling.)
Dog show entries are holding up a little better than registrations, at least partly because we have so many more shows today than there used to be, especially specialty shows. Even the all-breed shows are on occasion so small, however, that the average breed entry can be counted on the fingers of one hand, with something to spare. How can there be any meaningful breed judging under such circumstances?
Here’s what I think needs to be done to turn things around.
1. The Image Problem
The first thing we — especially AKC — must do is make sure that the image of purebred dogs is overhauled. You do not buy a purebred dog because you’re a snob or it’s a status symbol. You get a purebred dog because it’s the sensible thing to do. You want to know as far as possible in advance what a family member who’s going to live with you for at least 10 to 15 years is going to be like when it grows up: size, type of coat, whether it barks a lot, what kind of temperament and activity level you can expect, and so on.
Needless to say, AKC must send out a consistent message that good purebred dogs are bred by conscientious hobby breeders (especially Breeders of Merit, I suppose) — not by commercial mass producers of puppies. The fact that AKC on the one hand frequently makes it clear that pet shops and commercial breeders are not desirable, and then with the other hand supports these very same operations is a weakness that could ultimately destroy the entire dog sport.
2. The Shows
When dog shows first started to become really popular as a hobby in the 1970s, AKC ought to have stopped the indiscriminate proliferation of dog shows. We had too many shows even in the past when the economy was better and the average dog show had well over 1,000 dogs; with shrinking entries, there is just no way that exhibitors can support as many shows as we now have. Many of them are, as mentioned earlier, so small that breed judging is basically irrelevant, and judges at these shows must be able to judge at least a couple of Groups, preferably three or four, for the club to afford them.
Many would, of course, say that it’s simply a matter of survival of the fittest, but the small shows fill a niche and are needed in many areas. So what to do? Here’s my suggestion: AKC should simply allow one or a couple of shows in each region (we already have the AKC points regions, remember?) to organize what could be called Regional or State Championships or something similar. Five-point majors would be guaranteed in each breed, the title of State Champion and Junior State Champion (or something similar) would be offered to the winners, and I could foresee a future when a dog needs to have won at one of these shows to become a champion. State Championships would also of course be ideal places for purebred dog promotion, for judges’ and breeders’ seminars, etc.
Don’t tell me that dog people wouldn’t support something like this or be willing to travel a couple of hours extra to get there. Why do national specialties in many breeds attract entries in the hundreds? (As reported in just one single issue of this magazine, August 2014, there were 229 Vizslas, 509 Whippets, 93 Leonbergers, 384 Newfoundlands, 386 Bernese Mountain Dogs, 367 Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, 151 Schipperkes, 497 Poodles, 286 Tervurens, 348 Cardigan Welsh Corgis, 676 Shetland Sheepdogs and 570 Collies at each of these breeds’ respective national specialty.) Certainly all these exhibitors don’t expect to win; they come because a national specialty is an event, in the true sense of the word. If AKC succeeded in making some kind of all-breed State Championships as popular as the best national specialties are, everything else that could help improve the dog sport would follow. With big entries, it’s possible to have specialist judges, and with more confident judges, there’s better and less "predictable” judging.
The AKC/Eukanuba National Championship was a brilliant idea that has become a little tarnished with time. Let existing clubs who want to add a State Championship title to their shows deal with the organization on their own, and watch the show scene come alive again.
3. The Point Rankings
Someone, and by someone I really mean AKC, has to take a stand and offer a prestigious alternative to the current insanity that makes it necessary for a dog to be shown 100 to 150 times or more, and for a small (or not-so-small) fortune to be spent on year-long campaigns, in order to reach the top of the rankings chart.
"Because of the large number and generally small size of the shows, we are in dire need of individuals who are authorized to judge many more breeds and Groups than they currently do."
Nobody’s saying that the top dogs aren’t deserving of their wins. In fact, in 2014 it seemed most people agreed that we were blessed to have a couple of truly outstanding specimens in the lead. That does not alter the fact that it ought to be possible to reach the top without quite as much expenditure in time and money as is currently the case. It’s not good for the dogs or the handlers, and I don’t think a top dog award was ever really meant to be a reward for the dog being able to hit as many dog shows as possible.
If it’s too much to expect any of the dog publications to start a trend, it ought to be possible for AKC to do so. Almost any form of limitation would be great. Let’s say only a dog’s top 25 or 50 show results each season count. Or only wins at shows with more than 1,000 dogs or 2,000 dogs count. Or, following the suggestion above, State Championship show wins count extra. No matter what you do, there will be criticism — but I’m also pretty sure that almost every dog person who cares about the sport would welcome some form of limits.
4. The Exhibitors
Those of us who appreciate the finer things in dog shows would no doubt enjoy the bigger entries and more authoritative judging that State Championships would be able to offer. There would also be a lot more for a casual spectator to watch. However, the novice exhibitor might get lost in the crowd. We need special events, perhaps held in conjunction with regular shows but separate from the regular judging, where those who wish can take their dog, pay an entry fee that’s slightly higher for a judge who will not be rushed and may also offer a verbal and/or written critique of their dog. It would be hugely educational, even entertaining, not just for the exhibitor but also for spectators — even the judge. It’s surprising to me that such "critique shows” don’t already exist in the US in view of how popular the written critiques are at FCI shows in Europe.
Trust me, it would not just be new exhibitors who want to have their dogs critiqued. The opposite end of the spectrum, the serious breeders, would also support these shows as a way to introduce youngsters to a dog show environment without stress, and to learn something — although in their cases it would probably be more about learning how knowledgeable a judge is from listening to the critiques than anything else.
5. The Judges
I don’t think AKC has any idea of how upset a large majority of the judges are by the way they are treated by the organization that decides just what they can and cannot judge. Naturally you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you, so most judges keep quiet about how they feel. Since I no longer judge AKC shows, I do not have any such qualms, but I had no idea I would hit a nerve when I wrote about my own experiences in this area last year (see DogsInReview.com/JudgesApproval to read the articles). Among the more than 100 judges who wrote to me after the articles were published were many of the best-known names in the sport, including at least four former BIS judges at Westminster. In other words, we’re not talking about a small group of whiny failures. The stories were both sad and upsetting. You would think that so many judges of such stature would not be treated as rudely as they have been, but the facts are clear. The result has been that very few of them wish to expand their repertoire to include more breeds.
At the same time, of course, because of the large number and generally small size of the shows, we are in dire need of individuals who are authorized to judge many more breeds and Groups than they currently do. As I have pointed out before, the US has a much lower ratio of all-rounders than any other country in the world with a similar show system. In the long run, this just won’t work; that it functions at all now must be largely due to the fact that AKC allows judges with just one Group’s approval to award BIS, and also lets foreign visitors judge here with qualifications that would be unacceptable for an American. (One foreign judge has stated that he got his first dog in 1983 and was licensed to judge all breeds by 1992. If he lived in the US, he would be lucky to be approved for any breed at that stage.)
What is needed is, first, an attitude change. On occasion AKC has stated in print that our judges are the "best in the world.” If that is the case, it’s time for AKC to show it. Even more importantly, the requirements for approval to judge need to be consistent and objective. Once a prospective judge has passed a standardized test on AKC rules and the applicable breed standards, he or she should be approved to judge, with the sole proviso that he or she also needs to demonstrate sufficiently clear ring procedure. (I’m not sure how that can be set up to avoid any suspicion of favoritism or subjectivity, but I suppose that’s unavoidable.)
The True Fans
All in all, it would be a good idea for the driving forces within the AKC to focus on trying to make the sport of purebred dogs as attractive as possible for those of us who love it and are willing to devote more time, money and enthusiasm on it if we are encouraged to do so. If in fact it is correct, as the AKC Chairman has said, that AKC has a much bigger "true fan base” than the New York Yankees, the Mets or a corporation like Google, does that really matter unless those figures translate into increased registrations and show entries? I’m not so sure.
This article was written prior to a surprise email sent out to many dog fanciers by AKC Chairman Alan Kalter, seeking feedback on what was called a "New Proposed Judges Approval Process.” I have no idea how many fanciers were contacted, but despite the fact that the email contained four documents (24 pages in all) demanding serious study and consideration, Mr. Kalter in a follow-up thank-you email in late November reported that AKC received more than 800 "constructive, insightful and thought-provoking” responses.
Personally I found both the positive tone of the proposal and most of the practical suggestions extremely encouraging. (In fact, several readers of my previous articles called or wrote to ask if I am in some way involved in the new proposal, which of course is not at all the case.) Acknowledging that there is a serious shortage of multi-Group judges is a big step: that 27 percent of the judges adjudicate 80 percent of the entries is a clear sign that change is necessary. To quote the proposal further: "Clubs are finding it harder ... to staff all-breed shows with the requisite Group judges due to limited number of Groups approved ... Exhibitors are ... tired of seeing the same faces judging month after month at their local shows ... Many highly qualified [judges] are choosing ... not to seek ... additional breeds due to the uncertainty and subjective nature of the current policy.”
It’s too early to say what changes will be implemented. Most people I have heard from greeted the AKC proposal with enthusiasm, but I know there is also strong opposition in some quarters. I’m not quite sure why, but it almost makes one feel sorry for those in the AKC responsible for dealing with this. Whatever they do, there’s always one group or another that seems to oppose change.
From the January 2015 issue of Dogs in Review magazine.
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