Seeing Dennis Sprung in his role as President of the American Kennel Club is seeing a man with the job he was meant to have. Dennis started out, like most dog fanciers, as an amateur dog lover, exhibitor and owner handler, but unlike the rest of us he did not aspire to win Best in Show at Westminster or breed a hundred champions; he always dreamed of working for the American Kennel Club. He didn’t get the job when he first applied, fresh out of college, but he got his start as an AKC field rep in 1989, then worked at AKC’s headquarters in Manhattan as an Assistant Vice President, was promoted to Director of Dog Events in the 1990s, and became President of the AKC in 2003.
The fact that Dennis has preferred to focus on organizational duties does not mean that his “real” dog credentials are unimpressive. His connection with the famous Grandeur Afghan Hound kennel goes back several decades; with his wife, Susan, he has owned quite a few Afghan and Greyhound champions (Susan, in fact, co-bred the top-winning Hound of all time), and during his few years as a judge Dennis officiated at several specialty events. This was in spite of the fact that his first application to judge two breeds was brutally cut down to one by AKC.
Dennis Sprung talked to Dogs In Review magazine’s founder and editor-at-large, Bo Bengtson, during a visit to Santa Barbara Kennel Club show in California in August 2006, and later answered additional questions via e-mail.
DR: Dennis, could you please tell us something about your background in dogs? When did you start?
DS: I started in the late 1960s, and I started out, as most of us do, going to match shows, point shows, becoming active as an exhibitor. I think the natural progression is that one joins a local club, which I did — in my case it was the Bronx County Kennel Club, which was an all-breed club. I am a native New Yorker, was living in Queens then but joined the Bronx County Kennel Club. In fact, the first dog show Susan and I went to together was a Bronx County Kennel Club show at the Kingsbridge Armory, and we watched Sunny Shay win Best of Breed under Bob Tongren with Ch. Rujha’s Windman of Grandeur. That certainly caught our eye. We had been involved with Afghan Hounds prior to that, but that certainly was an important experience for us.
DR: Backing up a little bit, how did you become interested in purebred dogs?
DS: Actually, Susan and I were dating at that time, and Susan’s best friend’s parents bred Old English Sheepdogs and exhibited.
DR: And you and Susan had been dating since high school?
DS: Yes. Susan actually would attend the dog shows with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s parents.
DR: Susan told me she was in dogs before you were.
DS: Susan is absolutely correct — again, as always… So, we became somewhat active in the Bronx County Kennel Club, and we’re still members to this day. We’ve been members for 35 years. Susan was the show chairman for a number of years.
DR: What was the first dog you bought?
DS: The first dog was an Afghan Hound by the name of Suden’s Zacharia of Willowmoor. We got him from Gene Vaccaro and June Matarazzo. He was a double Ch. Taj Arru of Grandeur grandson.
DR: Did you get this dog through Sunny Shay?
DS: No, but it was a litter that Sunny recommended we go see.
DR: So you talked to Sunny on that day you watched her…
DS: Yes, we became friends with Sunny, great friends throughout a whole lifetime. She was certainly a very special person to Susan and me, eventually became a close friend beyond dogs. She was at our wedding, and so on. We had a wonderful friendship.
DR: Was Grandeur the first kennel you visited?
DR: What was it like?
DS: It was unique. It was a kennel that housed approximately 130 Afghans at the time, including puppies, but certainly well over a hundred adults. What struck me more than anything was the fact that in the back, where there were large pens, there would be 10 or 15 adults in each pen, males and females together, and the temperaments are what struck me — how well the dogs lived together, played together. She would take males out for you to see and put them perhaps back in another pen with 10 or 12 others, and just the fact of the consistent good temperament was so impressive…
DR: Was the great Ch. Shirkhan of Grandeur still around at that time?
DS: Yes, Shirkhan was around. He lived in the house, and in fact the first time we ever went there one of the kennel help greeted us and brought us into the living room. Sunny wasn’t home, but Shirkhan was there. He was an older dog by then, of course, but it was him, so we knew Shirkhan at an old age.
DR: Getting back to the club you were involved in…
DS: As I said, Susan was the show chairman, and I eventually became the club president for 10 years. I was also the AKC delegate for the club for 10 years.
DR: It sounds like you realized pretty early on that this was more than just a sideline; this was something that was important to you.
DS: It was a passion that we enjoyed, and we realized we enjoyed working for the club and helping the club. It’s helped us to this day, especially with my current position, to have a great respect for our clubs, and that the backbone of the clubs are the people who are the volunteers. I don’t think you can ever lose sight of that. The AKC deals with individuals from different clubs; we also deal with corporations, and we deal with many different tiers and entities. It’s important to remember that when you’re working with clubs you’re working with a volunteer foundation that’s critical to the long-term success of the sport.
DR: I would like to hear a little more about your dog involvement.
DS: Well, we showed our first dog a little bit.
DR: Who showed him? Both of you?
DS: I did. I had minimal success, which I think was a good lesson for the future.
DR: Were you a good handler?
DS: I was an OK handler. I think that, as they say, paying your dues, not starting out with your first dog and doing all sorts of winning, that’s a good lesson. I think it’s important to learn to appreciate preparation for the ring, and honing your skills. To go in there and pay your dues and sometimes place in a class and sometimes not place, they were all positive learning experiences for the long run. Then when you get fortunate and win, you’re very appreciative of it.
I also thought it was very important to become involved, so we would also steward a great deal. That was a wonderful learning experience. Also, something we did which was very helpful for us from a knowledge point of view was to get to the show early, obviously before it started, and we didn’t leave until after Best in Show. You learned that there are many things to the show besides your own breed. In fact, there are learning experiences that you may have about your own breed by watching other breeds. And we were fortunate — we developed relationships, because we were kids, we were teenagers, we were hanging around the shows, and we developed friendships with handlers who were truly professionals, and we learned about dog shows, dog show etiquette, and things like that. Those were very positive experiences.
DR: Did you get more dogs?
DS: Yes, eventually we did. We never had a large kennel or breeding facility.
DR: What’s the most you ever had?
DS: I’d say about eight Afghans. We had a few Greyhounds that we co-owned with June and Gene, and then later on Susan tried to purchase a puppy the first time she saw it, but we were not able to purchase her until she finished, and that was Ch. Talos Dear Abby, who did some very nice winning for us. We were very proud of her accomplishments. It was probably in the early ’80s. Abby was handled by Sue Lackey, her breeder. We played around, did limited breeding with the Afghans, and then through Sunny, of course, our friendship was established with Roger Rechler, who treated Sunny royally. He came in during the last couple of years of her life, and they co-owned all the dogs together, and of course Sunny had the tragic fire, and Roger took her in, took her dogs in, saved the kennel and everything.
DR: I remember Roger said it was meant to be temporary, but somehow after a while he realized it wasn’t going to be temporary.
DS: It was not temporary. Sunny was very clever that way, and Roger has the biggest heart of anybody you’ll ever meet, so it was an excellent combination. To this day we’re best friends with Roger.
Eventually, Susan wanted a black bitch. When ‘Star’ was born — which was Ch. Shahpphire of Grandeur — Roger and Susan co-owned her together, and Michael Canalizo showed her very successfully. She had a very good record on her own — she eventually broke all the records for bitches. She was a wonderful producer, and out of her came her daughter, Ch. Tryst of Grandeur.
DR: Which means, of course, that Susan actually is co-breeder of the top Hound of all time.
DS: Correct. Susan and Roger were the breeders, and his sons were her owners. Tryst’s record speaks for itself. (Editor’s note: Tryst was Top Hound for four years, Number 1 Dog of all breeds in 1995, and won 161 Best in Shows.)
DR: Is there anything about your own dogs that we should add? Obviously Dear Abby, Shahpphire and Tryst — those were the highlights.
DS: Those were the highlights, and you know, these dogs all lived to ripe old ages.
DR: How many champions did you have in all, do you think?
DS: I don’t know. There were a few Greyhounds that we finished. I remember Elliott Weiss finished one of our Greyhounds under you when you were judging at Westminster, a long time ago. We had Ch. Huzzah Pursuit of Happiness, which was a fawn bitch we co-owned with Gene and June, and she won the National Specialty under Jim Clark.
DR: Did you get her from Pat Ide?
DS: We got her from Pat Ide.
DR: Did you show the Greyhounds yourself, or was it always June?
DS: It was usually June who showed them.
DR: Did Susan ever get in the ring at all?
DS: Not really. Susan would take puppies to match shows and things like that.
DR: Has Susan ever been officially involved in AKC matters?
DS: Not in AKC matters. She was show chairman for the Bronx club, and she was the cluster chairman for Bronx, Queensboro and Riverhead, and she judges sweepstakes and matches and things like that, but because of my career for the last 17 years she has been limited in what she can do. Susan is proud of her work as secretary of Take the Lead.
DR: I want to ask you about your judging experience.
DS: I was approved for Afghan Hounds, Greyhounds, Whippets, Beagles, Poodles and Junior Showmanship. I applied for Poodles as my first additional breed, after Afghan Hounds. Actually, I know how the judges out there feel — I applied for Afghans and Greyhounds at the same time, and I was interviewed by Bill Schmick in his office at 51 Madison Avenue, and Bill said, “Take your choice — you get one.” I tried to justify the small entries in Greyhounds, and why I should be approved for both, but he said, “Fine. Take your choice.” So I thought, the wisdom was to apply for a second breed after I gained regular status with Afghans. Rather than going for Greyhounds, I went for Poodles. A little bit of strategy there, and it worked.
DR: How long were you a judge?
DS: I judged for about seven or eight years.
DR: What were the highlights?
DS: I missed the big highlight. I was to judge at Westminster in 1990, and I went to work for the AKC in 1989, so I couldn’t do it. That was the big highlight that I always looked forward to, but I was honored to be asked. I was supposed to be doing Greyhounds at the Garden, which I never did — but I did the Greyhound Club of America specialty in Lompoc, and I thought that was a wonderful assignment. I put up a beautiful, typey bitch. (Editor’s note: Ch. Kingsmark Lalique was Best of Breed.)
DR: Did you judge any other memorable shows in those few years you judged?
DS: I did a Beagle specialty at Westchester which I enjoyed very much. I did some Poodle specialties.
DR: Did you judge any Afghan Hound specialties?
DS: No, I didn’t.
DR: Was it maybe because Grandeur was dominating so heavily that it might have put you in a difficult position?
DS: It could have been.
DR: Do you think maybe that will come one day, when you retire?
DS: Hopefully, yes. I had one interesting Afghan assignment, however. I had a class full of specials and one of them was Ch. Blu Shah of Grandeur.
DR: You actually judged Blu Shah? He must have won.
DS: He did win!
DR: It’s been 17 years you’ve worked for the AKC now. Did you foresee a full-time professional future with AKC, or what kind of career were you planning?
DS: The truth is, I always wanted to work for the American Kennel Club. When I graduated from college, that was my ambition, and I wasn’t fortunate enough to get a position at that time. I started as an executive field representative in 1989. I did that for a short period of time, and then I was brought into the New York office at 51 Madison Avenue and became Assistant Vice President. Then I was given responsibility for all the field reps. I worked in the office and I was then promoted to Director of Dog Events, a job which had been held forever by Jim Crowley. I was in charge of Event Operations and Event Records, which involved approval of all events and recording of the results. It was all events, not just conformation. Of course, we had fewer events in those days — there was no rally, no agility, nothing like that.
I was in that position for a couple of years, and then about five years later I became Vice President of Dog Events, which was everything to do with dog events, the field reps, the judges, etc.
DR: When did you get your present position?
DS: Three years ago.
DR: Can you explain to the uninitiated what exactly your job involves? You are president of the American Kennel Club — what exactly do you do?
DS: I oversee everything, but I have what I consider a very strong Corporate Management Committee, which consists of 22 executives at the AKC, including myself. We have a unique blend of dog people and non-dog people — many from the business world and from the computer world. For instance, we have our Chief Operating Officer, John Lyons, who is a longtime dog person — he runs our operations facility in North Carolina. He’s an executive officer, like myself. The other executive officers are Jim Crowley, who has been with the AKC for 35 years. When in doubt, ask Jim Crowley. Whether it’s a rule or a bylaw, or simply the reasoning for something that occurred 20 years ago, turn to Jim Crowley. The fourth executive officer of the corporation is Jim Stevens — he is our Chief Financial Officer. He is not a dog person. He’s a financial person who does a great job for us.
Beyond those, we have 18 others; most are vice presidents or assistant vice presidents of their respective areas. Half of them are dog people, like Darrell Hayes, Robin Stansell, David Roberts, Gina Lash, Mari-Beth O’Neill, people who come from conformation and were either handlers or judges — and of course breeders and exhibitors. Of course other management has in-depth experience in performance, companion and Coonhound events.
DR: Is it deliberate that you try to keep it at about 50-50?
DS: Yes, it’s deliberate, because it’s most important to respect our core constituency, and to respect the traditions, and what’s important to the people who are, as you say, the backbone of the sport. On the other hand, it’s also important to know what people looking in think of AKC, and what they think of dogs. It’s very healthy to look at things from more than one point of view. How does the public see the forest from the trees? I believe it’s very important that AKC has the American public, the dog-loving public, as an ally. People wouldn’t have thought this way in the past, but we now have a society that’s very concerned with lawsuits and things like that, a society that now comes up with concepts of breed-specific legislation, different legislation that affects dog ownership. Nobody 30, 40, or 50 years ago would have thought the AKC’s future was going to be affected by how many dogs somebody could own. There was no zoning; America was a rural society.
DR: What a lot of us don’t understand is how AKC actually works; who decides what? How does the board function with the executives and the delegates?
DS: I answer to the board of directors, which consists of 13 members, elected by the AKC delegates. There is open, two-way communication.
DR: Anyone who is involved in the sport of dogs can get elected as a delegate provided they fit the bill and their club votes for them, right?
DS: Right. We have approximately 570 delegates. Each one represents a member club, and they meet quarterly. Each year in March they elect AKC’s board of directors — it used to be 12 board members, now it’s 13. Usually there are three positions that are replaced every year. I’m a board member, but I’m an ex-officio board member. I attend board meetings, but because I’m an employee on staff I don’t have a vote on the board. My responsibility is the implementation of rules, regulations and policy. The delegates determine by-laws and rules by their vote. Regulations, guidelines and policies are established by the board. If something is a policy, it means it was established by the board. The board establishes policy and the staff implements it. It never works the other way around — the staff never establishes policy. Our responsibility is to implement policy. If there are issues, which there are in the sport, then it’s our responsibility to bring a better policy and a justification as a recommendation to the board for change.