Save Our Shows!
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 even then there were signs of discontent among many dog people, I took this simply for an urge to complain that’s 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 ready 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 to offer some positive suggestions to a very real problem.)
The past years have shown that there were, in fact, reasons for concern. Entries keep falling, the dog fancy is graying, clubs have trouble finding people to help organize their shows, future events are in danger of being cancelled, 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 on being rudely treated and have almost no chance of winning anything of substance? Your dog will most likely be cursorily examined by a stressed-out judge who has neither the time nor the wish to tell you what’s right or 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? It doesn't help that we know our breed will most likely judged by someone who 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’ perspective, 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 is the time to say how much I really love the sport of purebred dogs. After a longer involvement than most (more than 60 years!), 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.” As with so many other things in life I wonder how much the terrible word that describes these dogs — purebred — has hurt both us and them. 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 so than in the past, and I wish we could come up with a better term. I think it was Bill Shelton who suggested “preservation breeding,” which is very good; I wish we always used that expression instead of “purebred breeding.”)
Like most real dog people, I am interested in pretty much 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 happily watch for hours, regardless of breed. You see people like that at every big specialty or at the few large all-breed shows that have survived, 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 SOCIAL SCENE
Not that I’m insensible of the charms of the social scene at dog shows either. It seems that's 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 of a breed where you feel confident in your knowledge, 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 phone call (or a text, more likely) that a dog you bred did spectacularly well somewhere far away 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?
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. It's so obvious it hardly needs saying, but it won't be easy. You do not buy a “purebred” dog because you’re a snob or it’s a status symbol. You get a dog of a specific breed 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 (“preservation breeders”), especially AKC Breeders of Merit, I suppose — not by commercial mass producers of puppies. The fact that AKC is perceived as on the one hand making it clear that pet shops and commercial breeders are NOT desirable, and then with the other hand supporting these very same operations, is a weakness that could ultimately destroy the entire dog sport.
Also, it also wouldn't kill those of us who have been around the block a few times to be nice to the newcomers, in spite of their stupid comments and dirty children with sticky hands (if they are REAL neophytes!) who want to pat our well-groomed dog just before judging … (“Not now, sweetie! When we come OUT of the ring you may pet him all you want!”)
And of course it would be nice if the showground were a pleasant place to spend the day, but I realize that's like asking for the moon …
2. THE SHOWS
Dog shows are generally much smaller than they were, at least partly because we have so many shows. There were 1,422 all-breed shows and 2,896 specialty shows in 2022 (and that's counting only those specialties that were held independently; there were an additional 1,084 held with all-breed or group show, so-called “designated” specialty shows).
That's according to AKC's own annual Event Statistics; I counted the number of shows and entries during the past month myself. I hope I added the figures correctly, but there were more than 150 AKC all-breed dog shows and more than 100,000 entries just in October 2023, so I can't swear to that. (My final figure was 102,048 entries; I should have double-checked, but frankly wasn't up to it …) The biggest of the shows had 1,884 entries, but there were 27 others with at least 1,000 entries. At the opposite end, 49 shows had fewer than 500 dogs entered (four had less than 100!) – and that doesn't include six shows with traditionally very low entries that did not report their entry figures.
If the above is approximately right, the average AKC all-breed dog these day has about 660 dogs entered ... Obviously the average breed entry can be counted on one hand's fingers, with a couple to spare. How can there be any meaningful breed judging under such circumstances?
The AKC National Championship was a brilliant idea that deserves to be followed up on the regional level. So what do you do? AKC could simply allow one or a couple of clubs in each region (we already have the AKC points regions, remember?) to organize what could be called, for example, AKC Regional Championships. Five-point majors should be guaranteed in each breed, the title of Regional Champion and Junior Regional Champion (or something similar) should be offered to the winners of e.g. BOB, BOS, Winners and/or Puppies/Juniors. I could foresee a future when a dog needs to have won at one of these shows to become a champion. Regional Championships would also of course be ideal places for purebred dog promotion, for judges’ and breeders’ seminars, etc.
Let existing clubs who want to add a Regional (or whatever — the name doesn't matter) Championship title to their shows deal with the organization on their own and watch the show scene come alive again. 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 the AKC National shows get such good entries, and why do national specialties in many breeds attract entries in the hundreds? Certainly all these exhibitors don’t expect to win; they come, and they make all sorts of sacrifices to come, because these shows, when they are at their best, are events, in the true sense of the word.
If AKC succeeds in making some kind of all-breed Regional Championships as popular as the AKC National Championship already is, and many of the national specialties are, everything else that could help improve the dog sport would follow. With big entries it’s possible to have specialist judges, with more confident judges there’s better and less “predictable” judging, etc. etc.
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/year (sometimes 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 charts. (Of the 50 top dogs last year, 45 had more than 100 Bests of Breed, many had more than 150 … and presumably even the “best” dogs attended a few shows where they didn't win.)
Nobody’s saying that the top dogs aren’t deserving of their wins. In fact, this year it seems most people agree that we are blessed to have a few 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 count. Or, following the suggestion above, Regional 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 the Regional 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 U.S. in view of how popular the written critiques are at FCI dog shows in Europe, or at livestock show in America.
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 percentage 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 very 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 many years ago. 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; I quoted from several of them at the time. You would not think that so many judges of such stature would be treated as rudely as they had been, but the facts are clear. The result has been that very few of them wish to expand their repertoire to include more breeds.
I wish I could say there has been an improvement in the way AKC is treating prospective or already approved judges, but it doesn't seem like it, at least according to the one I spoke to recently. But we all know that judges are very sensitive, so maybe she was exaggerating …
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. The U.S. has a much lower ratio of all-rounders than any other country in the world with a similar show system. (AKC's digital Judges Directory lists 12 judges as approved for all breeds … and that's from approximately 2,500 AKC judges in all.) 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 (in effect authorizing them to bestow AKC's highest honor to breeds they are not regularly approved for), and also lets foreign visitors judge here with qualifications that would be unacceptable for an American. (One foreign judge stated publicly that in his own country he was approved for all breeds nine years after he got his first show dog! If he lived in the U.S. he would be lucky to be approved for ANY breed at that stage.)
What is needed is first, of course, an attitude change. On occasion AKC has stated that our judges are the “best in the world.” If that is the case, now it’s time for AKC to show it. Once anyone with practical experience has passed a standardized test on AKC rules and the applicable breed standard, 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.)
I am aware that I'm talking from both sides of my mouth, on the one hand wanting to make it easier to become a judge, and on the other criticizing the judges for not knowing enough. However, the contradiction may not be as obvious as it appears at first. Think about it …
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. In some form, the sport of dogs has been around since the middle of the 1800s. It would be sad if it were allowed to die.
The Best in the World
Yes, we still have some shows that really are “the best in the world.” Let's treasure them:
• Westminster has an almost 150 years long history and is a totally unique event, unsurpassed in glamour and prestige. All the top dogs you have been waiting to see are bound to be present, offering a unique opportunity to watch the most famous four- and two-legged stars in action. It's not particularly big, but that's actually an advantage in this case, because you can watch many breeds! There were 2,573 dogs entered for Westminster in its new home at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on May 6, 8 and 9 this year. (Next year's dates are May 11, 13 and 14.)
• Morris & Essex Kennel Club comes only every five years (the next one will be October 1, 2025), but when it does come you've got to drop everything and attend. The last one had 4,015 dogs entered — on a Wednesday!
• The AKC National Championship in Florida (“presented by Royal Canin”) is building up quite a reputation. It had an impressive 4,204 dogs in competition last December, up a few hundred from the year before, and the three all-breed shows that led up to it during the preceding days were not much smaller: four shows with a total of 15,828 entries present!
• A few local shows that really try … You all know who your favorites are, but here in California we should, for different reasons, be grateful that we have Santa Barbara Kennel Club, Del Valle Dog Club of Livermore and Kennel Club of Palm Springs.
• The specialties, but not just any specialties, because AKC has approved about twice as many specialty shows as there were 20 years ago, and many have become almost as unimportant as all-breed shows. I could say national specialties, but that disregards the fact that not all nationals offer a representative window into a breed, while some specialties that are not nationals actually do. If you find the right specialty and really love our sport I promise that you will learn a lot about the breed in question.
The biggest specialty show of 2022 was not organized by a national club, incidentally: According to AKC, the Labrador Retriever Club of Potomac had 606 dogs present and accounted for in the official breed judging! It was followed by the Golden Retriever Club of America (532), the American Whippet Club (475), the American Shetland Sheepdog Association (435) and the national clubs for Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Flat-Coated Retrievers, Collies, Poodles and Dachshunds (more than 300 dogs each in competition).
Specialties for the following breeds all had more than 200 dogs in competition, which made them qualify for AKC's list of the 25 biggest specialty shows of 2022: Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Australian Shepherd, Great Dane, Cardigan Welsh Corgi, Dachshund (two clubs had about 250 dogs each, both on the days before the DCA National), American Spaniel Club (multi-breed!), Doberman Pinscher, Siberian Husky, Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Bernese Mountain Dog, Boxer, Irish Setter, Portuguese Water Dog, Newfoundland and finally the parent club of the Labrador Retriever with 233 dogs present. (There could be additional specialties with more than 200 but fewer than 233 dogs present, but as they did not make the list of the 25 biggest last year, we don't know that.)
This article is an updated and revised version of one originally published in Sighthound Review.