Imagine a PTA meeting in progress at a good school in any upscale neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Well-educated, involved parents are discussing their children’s academic achievement with interested teachers over coffee and dessert. Suddenly the door opens and in walks the First Lady, Michelle Obama, carrying a tray of home-baked brownies. Jaws drop and conversation comes to an immediate halt.
Well, of course, Mrs. Obama is a mom and may well bake brownies for her family and she has every right to be at that PTA meeting to discuss the education of her two beautiful daughters. However, it’s also understandable what an intimidating presence she would be to all the other parents in attendance. Who can compete with the First Lady, although technically everyone in the room is a parent and should feel on equal footing?
A similar situation became apparent when we started working on this annual Owner-Handlers Issue. I can’t remember a year when we were met with so much resistance from newer owner-handlers whom we approached to interview. The fact that many exhibitors feared repercussions or being viewed as complainers was very distressing to me as well as to Karen Steinrock, a freelance writer and occasional owner-handler herself, who wrote this month’s “Going DIY in the AKC Ring,” a feature story profiling both new and experienced owner-handlers. What repercussions? How many judges are likely to read an owner-handler’s comments, then remember the author of those frank words six months down the road in a show ring and slight them for their candor in a magazine? However, as a journalist committed to free and unfettered speech, this reluctance to voice a public opinion is as upsetting to me as an unsigned letter to the editor submitted for publication (which it won’t be, by the way, on my watch).
As with the hypothetical PTA meeting that Mrs. Obama attended, there are technicalities present in the AKC show ring that make it anything but a level playing field. Do professional handlers with three decades of success and hundreds of finished champions to their credit suddenly become “owner-handlers” because they are expertly showing a dog they happen to own? Of course they are going to intimidate newer exhibitors. And honestly, were the attempts by the AKC and show-giving clubs to incentivize our owner-handlers ever intended to apply to powerful kennel managers and multi-Group judges who occasionally find themselves showing a dog registered in their name?
Adding to the irony is that the adjective “amateur,” when the AKC used it to designate certain special competitions, was roundly criticized as demeaning and patronizing by many owner-handlers, when that very term is commonly used in the world of sports in the most respectful, nonjudgmental way.
Based on the many Facebook dog-show groups and all the participants posting comments about which judges they think will and will not give owner-handlers equal consideration, there is the perception of unequal treatment in the ring. Competition is tough, no one likes to lose and for as long as dog shows have been held, we’ve had some owner-handlers who believed they and their dogs did not receive due consideration in the AKC show ring. The difference today is that they have other venues in which to compete, and plummeting entries in recent years might reflect those options and choices.
A new columnist — but far from a new writer — makes her debut in this issue. Susi Szeremy has written for markets as diverse as PBS, the AKC Gazette, the Colorado Daily, the Rocky Mountain Journal and scads of breed-club newsletters. Her chosen breed is the Puli, but her curiosity and dedication to getting the story right knows no bounds. “A Fancier’s Notebook” will appear bi-monthly. Welcome, Susi!
From the August 2013 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase the August 2013 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine.