Recently, Doug Johnson (of Clussexx Kennels) and I were engaged in a rather despondent conversation about the current state of the general quality of some breeds. At one point I commented that a number of breeds have been changed so dramatically in proportion and silhouette that the dogs barely resemble the true intent of their standards at all. Doug’s response was, “This sport can be brutal on the truly invested.”
After the conversation closed, I sat back and really considered what Doug had said and decided that his one simple statement was very profound. It basically summed up so much of what seems to be awry in our sport today.
Who Is Truly Invested?
The dictionary defines the word invested as “[putting] money, effort, time, etc., into something to make a profit or get an advantage.”
The advantage that comes from investing in our sport is success. The benefit of serious investment in this sport is, I hope, the wealth of knowledge that comes from years and years of putting money, effort and time into what we are doing, be it as a breeder, exhibitor, handler or judge.
We all want to be successful in our endeavors in the sport of dogs. But the paths to success can be very divergent. Some new exhibitors simply get lucky with their first dog and do a lot of winning right away. Others have little or no luck and struggle to get that first winning dog, which only comes after years of setbacks. Some breeders have immediate success with their first litters; others think they are doing the right thing but fail repeatedly. Some handlers work and study for years under brilliant mentors before striking out on their own; others seem to come almost out of nowhere and find clients and start to win. Some judges seem to fast track to multiple Group status; others seem to have to plod along.
Every person’s experience is individual. Every learning curve is different. I’m not at all suggesting that it takes years and years and years to become “truly invested.” Because after all those years, perhaps many are not really invested at all, but instead are simply floating along on their successes without stopping to consider whether they are bringing benefit or harm to the sport.
How the Uninvested Harm the Sport
There are a number of ways that we can, as either individuals or groups, bring harm to this sport, but the focus here is on the apparent lack of true breed type in so many of our current top-winning dogs, and how detrimental the trend really seems to be, both to the breeds specifically and to the sport in America in general.
We all know that American show dogs are “dressed” (conditioned, trimmed, trained and presented) more sharply than anywhere else in the world. But it’s starting to look like a costume party, not a dog show. I am far from an all-breed expert, but I have many friends in many breeds whom I consider real experts in those breeds, and there seems to be a common thread of despair running through them.
I oftentimes now find myself at a show watching some judging, most likely standing with a friend whom I consider an expert in the breed so that I can get that expert’s opinion. All too often when I ask about a big-winning dog that appears in the ring, the answer I get begins with a sigh and ends with a discussion of the requirements of the standard and some of the important areas where the dog just doesn’t satisfy those requirements. Most often, the dog wins regardless.
Am I wrong in believing that it is breeders who are at the root of this trend? Breeders make the dogs that owners and handlers show and judges judge. I know that the “judges can only judge what breeders bring them” argument segues into, “If judges would stop pointing at incorrect dogs, breeders would make more effort to produce correct ones.” It is a double-edged sword. But doesn’t the buck have to stop with the breeders? Isn’t it the breeders who first must be truly invested in their breed in order to be able to educate their buyers, the handlers who show the dogs and the judges who evaluate them in the hopes of protecting that breed for the future?
My mentors taught me that it is not my charge to try to “improve” my breed. Instead it is my charge to safeguard the breed and hand it over to the future generation of breeders having done it no harm. Of course there is always something about each individual dog, or family of dogs, that we would like to improve upon, but the breed itself has been intact for ages and is doing just fine. When I hear “improve the breed,” I most often interpret it as, “I want to change the breed to my liking.” When someone sets out to deliberately change a breed by manipulative breeding and selection of traits that go against the standard, and those dogs with incorrect traits start to win, the breed is probably headed for major changes that are considered terribly detrimental by the truly invested but lauded by the uninvested.
The Negative Cycle
Everybody wants to win. I have yet to meet a single person who said they go to all the trouble of showing their dogs because losing is so much fun. So when the off-type dogs win, too many people who are not truly invested in their breed buy into the changes and exacerbate the problem by creating more and more dogs that are not what the standard requires. And the judges start to see these dogs in the ring so often that they begin to accept them as correct. And then when a real one appears in the midst of all the wrong ones, only the people who are truly invested in that breed, those who are so passionate about keeping it what it was meant to be, recognize, appreciate and reward it. The rest lose it in the jumble of 10 others that look alike. Incorrect, but alike.
And then we look at the owners and the handlers. If someone wants a dog to show but really doesn’t understand the history and the standard of the breed they are preparing to buy, they are most often going to go where the winning is big regardless of the actual real quality of the dogs. This is because they don’t understand anyway. And then we move to the professional handler who is hired to show the dog. If the dog is showy, generically sound and flashy, many handlers are eager to take it on. When a very invested breeder reaches out to a handler and tries to discuss a dog that the breeder feels is lacking in breed type, the handler vigorously defends the dog because it is his job to do so. It is also the handler’s job to convince the judges that the dog is outstanding. So now we have to look at the judges, who are probably honestly confused a great deal of the time because they are being told by handlers that some dogs are great ones but being told by invested breeders that the dogs lack the intrinsic type characteristics that would make them great ones.
And so the dominoes fall, from breeder to owner to handler to judge. And in a few short years, if the truly invested do not step up and try to stop these radical changes, a breed can be lost forever.