A Problem Too Big to Ignore

The increasing number of dog shows leads to tensions, questions and a need for important discussions.

What’s the problem that everyone talks about (actually complains about), but no one knows how to fix? It’s the number of dog shows, of course. Virtually everyone agrees — exhibitors, judges, show chairpersons, superintendents, handlers, breeders, vendors — that the number of dog shows on our current calendar is a serious problem. And yet where are the suggestions for a solution to the problem, or at least one that won’t make 50 percent of the fancy really, really mad?

Dog Show Exhibitors 

Letting Clubs Die

Thinking that there simply cannot be a workable solution to the problem, some simply adopt the attitude that clubs with very low entries should just be allowed to die a quiet death, go out with a whimper not a bang, as it were. Many of the clubs that are struggling with low entries are old and venerable clubs whose difficulties arose through no fault of their own, but because far too many shows have been approved within easy driving distances. This problem, of course, is not spread equally across the country, but rather affects some areas, especially urban ones, the most.

For example, in the Midwest this August, a club whose shows I entered from the time I started showing dogs in the mid-1970s held back-to-back shows and seemed to do absolutely everything they could to attract entries. In addition to a perfectly good judging panel of known and respected judges, it offered a potluck dinner, a 50/50 raffle, an all-breed match and a free bottle of water to all exhibitors on arrival. Their entry was 391 the first day and 381 the next, numbers with which no club can long survive with today’s rising costs.

Many of the struggling clubs trying to increase their entries are offering Canine Good Citizen testing, the National Owner-Handled Series, cash prizes at all levels, anything to attract more entries, and still their entries remain at unsustainable levels. What else can these clubs do?

In answer to those who say that the sport doesn’t need shows that cannot attract enough entries to survive, we need to decide first if there is a place for smaller shows in the dog show world that makes it worth the trouble of finding a solution at all. And we need to decide if it is worthwhile to have events showcasing AKC dogs in smaller, often rural communities that have little contact with AKC dogs. If the answer is yes, we need to help find an AKC solution for the problem that AKC caused.

Making a Place for Match Shows

The number of dog shows currently being held has multiple ramifications aside from the obvious and most devastating one of falling entries being spread out over more and more events. For example, there are no available dates for clubs to hold matches, forcing these events almost out of existence. Traditionally, matches afforded the opportunity for dog owners to train their show prospects, giving them initial ring time to learn the ropes. It also gave new dog owners an opportunity to learn the skills required to show their dogs successfully and to learn good ring behavior, how to win and lose well.

But perhaps the most important role of matches, and one that had the most effect on the sport, was to train prospective judges, giving them the opportunity to get their hands on actual dogs in an actual ring. There they learned all of the skills required of a good judge, in addition to having that experience to include in any future judging application. There is really no substitute for this experience for aspiring judges, who now must learn these skills most often during their first provisional assignments.

I don’t think my club’s experience with matches is unusual. We enjoyed hosting matches, but being in the Midwest, we could only hold them when the weather allowed them to be held outside, without the cost of indoor facilities. Many judges today had their first judging experience at our matches, and we enjoyed good entry numbers, mentoring and camaraderie, which seems so absent today. But when the number of all-breed shows within easy driving range increased, fewer and fewer people entered, preferring to enter “real” shows for points, wanting points over experience. In the end, we were going to a lot of trouble for five to 10 entries, most of them dogs owned by our own members.

Hurting Exhibitors and Shows

With entries spread out over more shows, majors have become hard to find, requiring owners to travel farther and to bear the financial burden of entering several shows per weekend, always hoping to find majors and hoping even harder that all of the dogs then actually show up to sustain that major. The people most affected by this situation are the ones that AKC needs the most, the amateur owners and breeders showing their own dogs in the classes. How likely are new people to stick with this challenge, when there are few points to win and even fewer majors? Look at the entries at today’s shows that are so top-heavy in the Best of Breed classes, with far fewer class entries.

Before it became easy for a club to branch out on its own by leaving its partner club and having back-to-back shows on another weekend, club members were forced to get along, to work together on improving all aspects of their show weekend. Club members cooperated in fashioning their judging panels, dividing the workload and taking on all the jobs required in putting on a successful event. But then, like modern divorce policies, it became much easier to break up, and old relationships and even a few friendships ended. Clubs suffering from the explosion of approved shows were forced into decisions they opposed just to survive, including joining clusters and moving their shows to common sites. And along the way, shows began to lose their identity; all shows began to look and feel the same.

Approving More Group Judges

This drastic proliferation of shows created a problem not normally recognized: the need for more and more multi-Group judges. And the new judges’ approval system that is getting so much attention is, in a very direct way, the result of this need. Shows that are currently attracting less than 800 entries (and that number is growing each year) simply must, out of economic necessity, hire people who judge several Groups. Combine this necessity with a system that was designed to approve judges at a very slow pace, in the belief, valid or not, that the more time it took to be approved, the more competent the judge would be. Some felt that this arduous system didn’t apply to everyone equally, that some judges advanced more quickly than others regardless of their experience. Favoritism became the primary accusation. Regardless of the reasoning, a very small pool of multi-Group judges was the result.

In order to get first-hand information on the genesis of the new approval program, I spoke with Steven Gladstone, an AKC Board member and one of the authors of the new program. He stated emphatically that one of the primary aims of this system was to give relief to the clubs, especially the smaller ones, in fashioning their show panels. One of the major complaints that the Board heard over and over was that exhibitors are tired of showing under the same old judges, the ones that clubs were economically forced to hire in order to keep their judging costs affordable. True or not, exhibitors felt that a system that had the same judges officiating over and over favored the professional handler. This remains a common perception.

The fashioning of the currently approved system began more than three years ago, when Steve and a few other Board members realized that there was no movement at the AKC to come up with a way to move more people more quickly through the process to be approved for more Groups. Joined by Carl Ashby, Carmen Battaglia, Lee Arnold and Chairman Ron Menaker, a draft of the proposal was written and taken to the next Board meeting. This draft, with minor changes, was sent out to the fancy, and the response had a tremendous impact on the next version, despite many complaints to the contrary. 

For example, this first draft proposed taking the executive field staff completely out of the approval process. Some were all in favor of this idea, complaining that they had been treated unfairly, had been kept from advancing for personal reasons, etc. But many felt otherwise, and the next draft had the Reps still involved in the process but serving in a different role, more as advisors or mentors than critics and never getting involved in whether or not the judge had put up the wrong dog, which has historically been a major complaint.

The questionnaires and requests for public input that were involved in bringing the new policy to completion has been one of the most publicly distributed documents that the AKC has been involved in. And despite complaints that “they asked us but didn’t pay any attention to the answers,” the input from the fancy “had a tremendous influence on shaping the final product,” according to Steve. Dr. Battaglia worked on an analysis of the responses, shaping the input into a document easily analyzed by the Board, which gave the policy its final approval.

Of the parts that were changed from the original draft to the final policy, one that is most widely and positively accepted is the return to in-ring observations. The new policy corrects the major complaints of the past program. Now, observers must have read the standard and taken the specific breed test prior to going into the ring with the officiating judge. In the past, judges complained that many of the observers didn’t know enough about the breed in question to even ask pertinent, intelligent questions.

What the Future Holds

As with any new proposal on any subject in this strange subculture of ours, this one has been met with criticism and with praise. But it must be admitted that it seeks to meet the demands of more than the judging community. Though it addresses judging most directly, this new directive will hopefully affect exhibitors, giving them a wider choice of judges under whom they can show their dogs, as well as show-giving clubs, widening the category of judges they can hire.

Will it improve judging itself? Who can say? Judging is essentially a subjective endeavor, and we individually tend to rate judges according to whether we win or lose, or whether or not we personally agree with their choices. It is almost impossible to say what really improves judging or whether or not improvement can even be measured. I am not convinced that any tool at our disposal can determine in advance who will or will not excel. After many years of showing dogs and watching judges in action more times than I could count, I am not convinced that any seminars, observations or training sessions can make a bad judge good or even a bad judge better, and perhaps all we can hope for are knowledgeable, honest and experienced people officiating at our shows. But we keep trying, and if the new system helps clubs fill their judging panels more easily, if exhibitors enter their dogs under those judges and those shows are able to survive, I’m all for it!

In the meantime, however, we must begin the conversation about the essential problem of too many shows, including the causes, the results and hopefully arrive at an intelligent and fair solution. Then we must all be prepared to suffer a little. And it won’t be easy.

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