Bo Bengtson At Large: What Do We Want?

Are we content to sit by the sidelines without doing anything to stop the US sport of purebred dogs — at least the conformation side of it — from sliding into oblivion?

By Bo Bengtson | November 29, 2012

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Last month's editorial, which mentioned AKC's claim to be the world's largest registry of purebred dogs, has caused some comments. One reader submits figures from the website of the French kennel club, the Societe Centrale Canine, which states they register 700,000 dogs per year — much more than even the most optimistic AKC estimates. (Since the figures are not made public, nobody outside of AKC knows exactly what they are.)

It's difficult to argue with the French website information, but I'm not sure the figures correspond with available FCI data. And let's face it, it's frankly hard to imagine the French could register more purebred dogs than the British, for example, let alone AKC. We'll return to this.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering if those of us who care about dog shows are fiddling while Rome burns. Are we content to sit by the sidelines without doing anything to stop the US sport of purebred dogs — at least the conformation side of it — from sliding into oblivion? Sure, AKC has been introducing a few new features in an effort to stem the tide, but is it enough? I don't think so.

To get a grasp of where we're heading I compared AKC all-breed shows from late August through mid-September this year with shows held during the same period in 2002. The total number of shows was almost exactly the same (138 this year, 139 then), but the shows that would be classified as "very small" (fewer than 500 dogs) multiplied from just 5 in 2002 to 30 this year. There were less than half as many shows with more than 1,000 dogs now as then: 67 shows 10 years ago, just 30 this year.

Frankly, I find these figures frightening. If the decline continues, what will be left of our AKC dog shows?

Some foreign countries, but not all, have a similar problem. The biggest dog show in Australia, for instance, Melbourne Royal, had 4,600 dogs back in 2002 but only 3,500 this year. The British are also experiencing a decline in entries, while it seems, at least from where I sit, that the European continent and Scandinavia are more than holding their own. The Romanian Kennel Club had more than 6,000 entries at the recent Europe Winner Show in Bucharest, for instance — that's more than we've had at any dog show in the US since the AKC Centennial in 1984. Why are the figures dropping more in the US than elsewhere?

The fact is, and I know I'm repeating myself, that AKC dog shows don't offer a particularly fun way for most people to spend a weekend. Sure, the economy has a lot to do with the declining entries, but what looks like a glamorous, attractive activity when viewed from a distance, perhaps on TV, is not that appealing in real life for most average dog fanciers when they decide how to spend their free time and hard-earned disposable cash.

And who can blame them? The more relaxed, free-wheeling European take on dog shows has a lot going for it, and if we over here prefer to be "proper ladies and gentlemen" (as someone put it) who abide by all the AKC rules restricting our behavior, we'll probably have to accept that dog shows will never be the popular folk sport they have become in some other countries.

The lower entries do not, by the way, indicate any corresponding drop in quality. American dogs are still admired worldwide, and American-style handling and presentation, with all the razmatazz that's implied, is copied everywhere. But it's indisputable that we lag behind many other countries where the popularity of purebred dogs and dog shows are concerned.

In July this year I prepared, with the assistance of my parent breed club, some suggestions for how AKC dog shows might provide a more enjoyable environment for the average exhibitor. These were submitted to the AKC Delegates September meeting, where nobody had time to deal with them. The suggestions were, in fact, forwarded to another committee for possible discussion in December, but who knows if there will be enough time there either.

It's really hard work trying to achieve any real change. Meanwhile, Rome is burning...

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