Fiddling While Rome Burns
I have always been an optimist. Even as a child I remember my parents commenting that I was always “glass half full,” whereas my younger sister tended to be glass half empty. I like to dwell on the positive, seeking out virtues rather than faults, be it where dogs or people are concerned.
Having been actively involved with the purebred dog world for 60 years, I have seen many changes, some that have benefited the sport and others that have been to its detriment. When I was writing a weekly column in Dog World newspaper, I remember some years ago returning from a judging trip to the U.S., where I had for the first time been made aware of PETA and other animal-activist groups. I wrote an article warning of the potential dangers and was, in some quarters, ridiculed and called alarmist. Some years later we in the U.K. were made aware of those who would see an end to dog showing and indeed pedigree dog breeding. Then the BBC broadcast “that” program, the consequences of which are still felt today.
At the risk of being called an alarmist once again, I believe that the purebred dog world in the U.K. is in crisis, and I fear for the future of the sport.
The arrival of Covid saw our world put on hold. When things resumed to some level of normality, many previously enthusiastic exhibitors, having realized how much money they had saved and how their lifestyle could be equally fulfilling by spending more time with family and pursuing other interests, failed to return. Show entries dropped considerably, and, as overheads and general costs went through the roof, our major general Championship shows began to feel the pinch. I have it on good authority that some of the country’s most prestigious shows have lost astronomical amounts from their bank balances, and it is obvious that savings have had to be made.
Some will say that the absence of green carpets and elaborate floral decorations is no bad thing as our most revered shows get back to basics, but savings are being made at every level. Being secretary of a general Championship show is virtually a full-time job and, understandably, secretaries are paid by the society, but I have heard that some secretaries are now not claiming their “honorarium,” such is their concern for the finances of the club they serve.
Then we come to judges. Those of my generation were happy to traipse the length and breadth of the country judging at Open shows at our own expense when entries were such that sizeable numbers could be built up in readiness for completing the Kennel Club questionnaire. Sadly, the entries seen at Open shows in most breed classes are now pitiful — but, then, some breeds are only attracting single-figure entries when CCs are on offer at the Championship shows. In the past it was assumed that Championship show judges would have all their travelling expenses covered and, depending on distance, overnight accommodation provided. Nowadays some societies are merely offering a set sum and leaving judges to find their own accommodation if required. As an example, I heard of one lady (not in the first flush of youth) who had a six-hour drive to a Championship show where she judged two breeds, only to receive £50 when the cheapest nearby overnight accommodation she could find was £80. Is it fair to expect experienced judges to be so hopelessly out of pocket when they have worked hard all day, giving exhibitors the benefit of their knowledge?
The budget-watching also means that we will see less invitations issued to the much-respected overseas all-rounder judges who have frequently brought welcome fresh opinions to our show rings.
The tragic consequence of this trend is that those who are capable and knowledgeable will refuse invitations because they feel unable to subsidize shows, and their place will be taken by those who have far greater ego and ambition than they have ability. As a result, the quality of judging will spiral further downward.
These days venues for dog shows are increasingly hard to find, and breed clubs seem to be suffering particularly badly. Finding a venue that will accept dogs where it is possible for the club to provide refreshments (which some clubs rely on to balance the books) is not easy, and many hitherto popular venues have now just priced themselves out of the market.
Let’s now consider the sources of our show dogs. For generations the backbone of the sport in the U.K. has been the large number of hobby breeders who keep a handful of bitches and maybe breed two or three litters a year. Local council regulations that were well intentioned in the quest for controlling commercial breeding establishments have unwittingly handicapped the genuine and dedicated small breeders, and so many have reduced their breeding activities dramatically.
In the past, successful breeders who have earned a reputation in the show ring usually had a long waiting list for puppies. Looking at Facebook it is evident that even the most prominent kennels often have surplus puppies looking for permanent pet homes. Nowadays the demand for purebred puppies has shrunk with the arrival of so many designer crossbreds that, unbelievably, seem to be feted in the lay press. Cleverly marketed for their “hybrid vigor,” nothing could be further from the truth. Yet those breeders who have dedicated years to the breed about which they are truly passionate have no voice. It’s all well and good coming up with a raft of health tests and screening schemes (which “show” breeders comply with, as they obviously want to produce puppies that are as healthy as possible), but is Joe Public aware of the Kennel Club promoting their paying customers, advising them that these are the responsible breeders who should be their first port of call, and explaining why?
Meanwhile back at the dog shows I am often reminded of the late Audrey Dallison, who coined, in this context, “The Charmed Circle.” Watching the excellent live-streaming of group and Best In Show judging at general Championship shows that is now so accessible, it can be amusing to study “the top table” where the same faces at every show seem to be busier networking than watching the dogs in competition! Never afraid to voice her opinion, no matter how controversial, Audrey had plenty to say about reciprocity, and I am sure would have a field day if she were still with us.
In view of the foregoing observations my frustration rests with not having an answer. I have no magic wand, there isn’t a rewind button, and my half-full glass is getting emptier by the minute.
More than 20 years ago my idol and mentor, Nigel Aubrey-Jones, said to me, “You know, we’ve seen the best of it.” How right he was.