Why Do You Volunteer, and for How Much Longer?

The graying of the sport is particularly troubling for clubs that rely almost exclusively on their volunteer members.

By Gretchen Bernardi | Posted: September 18, 2014 11 a.m. PST

Dog Club Volunteers
How many club members are going to continue volunteering when they are faced with more and more requirements, and burdened by more mandates in what some feel is no longer a fair relationship?

According to the federal agency, the Corporation for National & Community Service, "Volunteering and civic engagement are the cornerstone of a strong nation.”  If it’s the cornerstone of a nation, it must be the whole building for most of today’s dog shows.

What other endeavor relies as heavily on volunteerism as dog shows? With rare exceptions, our dog shows depend almost exclusively on the hard work of volunteers who sacrifice their time, energy and expertise for only one reward: a job well done, a successful dog show. We all know this, but it was brought to mind once again recently at my all-breed show. On the second day, the manager of the show venue and I were chatting about the little problems that beset show committees, and he asked, "Why do you do this?” Why, indeed? And, more importantly, for how much longer?

How Shows Used to Be

In the early 1970s, when I first became active in an all-breed club, most clubs relied less heavily on the volunteer work of its members, at least at the show itself, when outside businesses were used to supply sound systems, to control the gate, to provide security, to park cars (and it was mainly cars in those days), to cater the judges’ lunch and all of the other tasks that did not require expertise specific to "dog people.” At the time, however, our entries were nearly twice what they are today because there were far fewer shows. We could afford to hire others to do many of the non-dog-related jobs and still show enough profit to donate to the charities of our choice and to guarantee sufficient funds to do it all again the next year. We all know what happened next: The number of dog shows increased exponentially, entries decreased drastically and show profits plunged accordingly.

Some successful shows can still afford to have many of these jobs done for them by outside paid entities, and God bless them! But most clubs had to hunker down and reduce expenses, and that cost reduction resulted in more work for the club committees and members. And the worst part of this need to cut expenses has meant a decline in the kinds of shows we put on, whether we want to admit it or not. The judging panels are chosen with cost in mind, with clubs weighing the ever-mysterious balance of fee versus entry. This judge is expensive, but he will draw ... we hope.

The Kennel Club of Palm Springs is an example of a show that has managed to put on top-notch shows year after year, always reminding me what most shows used to be: beautiful, gracious and beautifully managed, while at the same time seeming to be not managed at all. The Santa Barbara Kennel Club has had its ups and downs, good times and not-so-good times, but its shows are once again highly successful, rising up to a new level of excellence by the introduction of imaginative events, generous patronage and very clever guidance.


Changes Affecting Dog Show Production

The so-called graying of the sport that concerns us all is particularly troubling for clubs that rely almost exclusively on their volunteer members. The US Bureau of Statistics recently announced that the volunteer rate across the country and across all activities was the lowest on record. And the worst news is that 35- to 44-year-olds were most likely to volunteer, with the volunteer rate tapering off as age increased. Bad news for most clubs because increasing age is virtually our middle name.

All clubs and their shows are different and face different challenges, including venues, geographic area and population in their territories. But the toughest challenges to accept are those imposed on us by our own AKC, which seems bent on making it as difficult as possible for clubs and their members, their volunteer members, to do their job, which is to showcase AKC dogs at their best.

Clubs have been required to have their show sites approved for a long time, and sometimes entry limits have been imposed because of inadequate space. That makes sense for reasons including safety and ring sizes. And AKC has always approved or disapproved a show or a show site on the basis of territory, even though those territories seem to be more malleable than we thought. A very real problem for many clubs is the number of shows the AKC has seen fit to approve in any given area.

At one point, concern about the safety of participants became an issue, and policies were enacted, which caused clubs to incur more expenses, even after 911 became universal in the late ‘60s: "At Group and all-breed conformation events, clubs are required to have a qualified emergency medical technician (CPR-certified) in attendance from one hour prior to the start of judging until completion of all judging.”

But then grooming space — how much to have and at what cost — became an issue, and the Board mandated a policy (a mandated policy in itself is an interesting concept) in July 2012: "All clubs are required to set aside an area designated for grooming/crating. ‘Day of event’ grooming must be provided that is reasonable in relation to entry of the show. A club holding a conformation event may, at its option, offer reserved grooming/crating space for a fee, provided that it makes available, at no charge in addition to the entry fee for the show, a reasonable amount of grooming/crating space of equal desirability to the exhibitors. Such free space need not include additional services such as the availability of electrical hookups.”

And: "Any club desiring to offer such paid reserved grooming space shall submit, with its application to the American Kennel Club for the holding of the event, a plan detailing the paid and unpaid space, which shall be subject to American Kennel Club approval.”

And now the latest thing the AKC is forcing on clubs is the National Owner-Handled Series.


Why Mandates Don’t Work

After the AKC announced that the National Owner-Handled Series had been hugely successful and that a study, a flawed one as it turns out, showed that 85 percent of participants really, really like it, we learn that it is so popular that it must be mandated. Many delegates representing conformation show-giving clubs had strong reactions to this mandate.

A sample of their comments printed with their permission: "Our unpaid volunteer members work their butts off to run our cluster. We bring revenue to AKC, although little to our own clubs. Why would the Board mandate this event without checking with stakeholders like us first? We are the AKC. We work for the AKC. We should be consulted about the events that we run on behalf of AKC. So let’s put aside the fact that our input was not sought and deal with the reality of this mandate. Most of our clubs do not have the manpower to put on more than one special attraction. If the NOHS draws so many more exhibitors, won’t we all be falling over ourselves to offer it? Of course, we will because isn’t that our goal ... to bring in more entries so we can continue to hold shows?”

And: "Now that it has been mandated and the NOHS competition is being shoved down our collective throats, our clubs will not be offering these other special competitions. It takes too long and too much work to have two special events at a show. So, the goal of using the NOHS to increase entries is having exactly the opposite result.”

And from a show chairman: "If I were to give AKC any business advice, it would be to simplify their requirements, reduce the number of them and be good at the things they offer. So far they are going in the opposite direction. They make it too difficult to get anything done.”

Certainly there are club members who think the NOHS is a good idea and will undoubtedly include this event among their show activities, regardless of a mandate. I call attention to this event not to argue against it but to point out the very latest idea forced on our volunteers. After completing the paperwork and before our shows are even approved, we are required to justify our show’s existence by completing the Statement of Compliance with AKC Policies Governing The Approval of Dog Shows, which says, "Every Specialty, Group and All-Breed dog club that does not hold a benched show must meet certain criteria to maintain its eligibility to hold shows.” This is to make sure that "clubs make every effort to introduce the sport of dogs to new exhibitors and make them feel welcome at AKC events.” And further: "No club will be approved to hold a conformation show unless it has met the appropriate criteria and filed the statement of compliance.”

Such activities include the National Owner-Handled Series, the 4-6 Month Puppy Class, Responsible Dog Ownership day and many, many more. And even a sanctioned match (that all clubs used to hold and enjoy, giving new judges, new exhibitors and new dogs a place to practice) comes with a requirement: It must be "a stand-alone event not associated with a licensed or member dog show.” In parts of the country with seasonal weather, all of the dates that could be used for independent sanctioned matches are now filled with point shows, and renting venues during other parts of the year is not an option financially. If we can’t find dates and venues for our matches, why did anyone think we could do so for an Open Show? And to repeat: More shows are not the solution to the problem of too many shows.


Clubs Are Trying Harder Than Ever

Does anyone believe that clubs are not trying hard to have bigger entries? Why wouldn’t they? From looking at only a handful of premium lists across the country, here are just a few of the special attractions and events clubs are trying: Beginner Puppy Classes, camping amenities, bathing stations, silent auctions, free seminars and demonstrations on a variety of subjects, Meet the Breeds, eye clinics, hearing clinics, microchip clinics, armband drawings for gift cards, door prizes, CGC testing, 50-50 raffles, pet blessings, reproductive services, golf tournaments, lure coursing, judging workshops, herding demonstrations and, last but not less imaginative, a traveling with dogs seminar.

Realistically, how many club members are going to continue volunteering when they are faced with more and more requirements, and burdened by more mandates in what some feel is no longer a fair relationship? Working club members understand the importance of showcasing purebred dogs and have always done their jobs with that understanding. They continued to do so for nothing, even as they understood they were working in order to provide a setting in which a lot of other people make a living: the superintendents, the handlers, the vendors, the venue ownership, the photographers. And not only are we promoting AKC-registered dogs, we are paying AKC $3.50 for each entry, an amount that represented many clubs’ remaining show profits.

Even as more is asked of club volunteers, AKC is offering free health testing to the professional breeders’ organizations at their meetings and conferences, including the Hunte Corporation. Follow this dizzying train of thought: Our clubs pay experts to give health seminars and health testing at our shows in order to increase entries, which, in turn, increases the event service fee and recording fee paid to the AKC. From that amount of income, AKC can then offer free health testing to the commercial breeders’ organizations, whose dogs are being promoted by our dog shows staffed by volunteers.

We volunteers are the ones usually referred to as the core constituency. If we are and if we are valued, AKC should start being nicer to us or, at the very least, show more understanding of the obstacles we are facing. And they could just say, "Thank you.”

As the manager of the show committee said to me, "Why do you do this?”


From the September 2014 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine, or call 1-888-738-2665 to purchase a single copy.


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Joyce   Fulton, Mississippi

9/28/2014 12:53:04 AM

I do it because I love it and I love dogs. Been doing this since 1969 and figure I'll be doing it till I can't physically manage anymore.

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