“I’ve just gotten a new purebred puppy. Can someone tell me how to find a financial backer for him once he’s finished? Thanks!” So read the post on a popular show dog list. The surprising part was that several people replied with advice, and not one said, “It doesn’t work that way.”
So how does finding financial backers for your champion work? The majority of purebred dogs being shown have no rich patron paying the bills, but the majority of show dogs at the top of the charts either come from “old money” or they’re beneficiaries of one or more newly named owners or co-owners who provide the financial backing needed to compete in conformation dog shows at high levels.
“We once figured out that between entries, handling fees and travel expenses, the cost of campaigning a top dog for a year is higher than the average person’s annual salary,” says Desiree Livingston. Her husband, Brian, campaigned the Pharaoh Hound ‘Qing’ to the No. 2 Hound position in 2011, with expenses far exceeding several persons’ annual salary. “If you want to place at the top of the group standings, these days you have to compete in 200 or more shows a year.” That’s out of reach for most purebred show dog owners. Desiree says that conformation dog shows have grown so competitive they’re becoming a sponsored sport, comparing the situation to that of US Olympics teams that couldn’t survive without sponsors.
Scott Sommer, whose Westminster Best in Show winners “Stump’ the Sussex Spaniel and ‘JR’ the Bichon Frisé were sponsored by Cecilia Ruggles (along with Beth Dowd for the Sussex Spaniel), agrees, saying, “Dogs that compete at a top level need every dollar they can get.” He points out that advertising is a major expense, and if the show dog is taken to shows by itself rather than with the rest of the string, travel expenses can soar.
That’s where show dog sponsors come in. Anyone who watches the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show or takes the time to read the owners of the top-ranked dogs has doubtless heard or seen their names, which include Patrick Allison, Ellen Charles, Kiki Courtelis, Beth Dowd, Dan and Carol Greenwald, Michael Jameson, Landon Jordon, Iris Love, Victor Malzoni, Sandra Middlebrooks, Jennifer Mosing, Dina Manship Planche, Cecilia Ruggles, Joe and Carla Sanchez, Ron Scott, John Shaw, Nancy Shaw, Mercedes Vila and even a collaboration known as Texas Top Dog LLC (actually Lori Darman, Kim Griffin and Barbara Weidner), among others. In the 1990s, Sam and Marion Lawrence backed a top contender in almost every AKC-recognized group. Even earlier, sponsors such as Mrs. Cheever Porter helped the careers of several top show dogs, but never have sponsors seemed so prevalent — or so necessary.
Show Me the Money!
Let’s address the question every show dog exhibitor whispers: How much does a backer typically spend on a show dog? It depends. Dina Manship Planche, who sponsors several dogs shown by Lois DeMers, tries to keep it modest with “less than $5,000 a month.” This figure doesn’t sound ridiculously high until she adds, “per dog.” She’s aiming for a dog in each group. “It’s not for the faint of checkbook!” she says.
The cost of sponsoring a top dog varies, but with fees, expenses and advertising, most handlers agree it can take from $200,000 to $500,000 a year to reach the top of the group. There are exceptions; sometimes sponsoring a top show dog can be done for a lot less — and sometimes, a lot more.
Scott Sommer says there’s no way to predict a show dog budget ahead of time. A large part depends, for example, on whether the champion dog is flown or driven to shows, and that can be dictated by judging panels or what the competition is doing. “I’ve had very few top-winning dogs where someone would say, ‘We’re almost No. 1, but we’re not going to spend any more!'” he quips. “I’ve never shown a top-winning dog where I couldn’t do whatever I wanted.” Sommer says he usually decides which dog shows to attend, but he doesn’t abuse the privilege. If he’s flying to a remote locale, for example, he always informs the sponsor of the ticket cost first.
Having a show dog sponsor with resources can make travel significantly less stressful. Sommer recalls the time he missed a flight when showing JR the Bichon Frisé. “I was stranded in this awful place for the next day, but then I see this guy holding a sign for me, and they’d arranged for me to take this tiny plane to the next town. It barely cleared the trees, but was better than being stuck! Of course, it got me to an even worse place!”
As for the rumors of private jets? They’re true some of the time for some of the show dogs. “Qing did have a jet available to him,” says Desiree Livingston, explaining that in order to keep up with the competition for top hound, Qing couldn’t just show locally. “Sometimes he flew in cargo commercially, but like most hounds, he didn’t approve. We didn’t want to stress him out, and didn’t want to go the fake service dog route. So out came the private jet!” Desiree adds that eventually Qing the Pharaoh Hound didn’t like to fly even in the private jet, so Brian often drove 13 to 15 hours to dog shows instead.
Why Spend So Much?
Why does anyone show dogs? To help a dog breed, to taste the thrill of victory, to show off a beautiful example of dogdom. As with dog show enthusiasts of more modest means, those who sponsor dogs have a variety of motivations.
Jennifer Mosing, for example, has sponsored many of the Livingstons’ top dogs, including the Pharaoh Hound Qing, for the past 15 years. She started as a purebred dog breeder, primarily of German Wirehaired Pointers. Brian showed her dogs for several years, but as she became more involved with other projects (including her heavy commitment to her horses, two of which were contenders for the US Olympic team), she bred dogs less but still wanted to contribute to the sport of dog conformation. Brian suggested she sponsor a champion show dog and return it to its owner afterward, allowing her to remain active in the show dog world without amassing a geriatric ward. She started with Sporting breeds (German Wirehaired Pointerss and Golden Retrievers), but that changed when Brian asked what her objectives were. “She wanted to make a difference and not stick to just the popular dogs,” recalls Desiree, which led to an interest in rarer dog breeds.
For Sandra Middlebrooks, it started with a Border Terrier seven years ago. Its breeder/co-owner wanted it shown, and Erin Roberts showed it to a Group placement, then to first Award of Merit at the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship, at which point Erin asked how serious Sandra wanted to get. Apparently, very serious: Sandra hired a plane and flew her dog to every show to meet Erin. Her first show dog won three BIS. Middlebrooks sponsored her first show dog, ‘Charmin’ the Sealyham, five years ago, and has added several other noteworthy charges since, including the Pekingese ‘Malachy.’ “In five years, Sandra has won everything: BIS at Westminster, AKC/Eukanuba, Crufts, the World Show and Montgomery County,” Roberts reports. But she is quick to point out that winning is not Middlebrooks’ ultimate goal. “For Sandra, the No. 1 priority is keeping the dog healthy; No. 2 is having fun.”
Roberts says another of her sponsors, Michael Jameson, M.D., backs show dogs because it offers him a distraction from the harsh realities of his work as a nephrologist.
Dina Planche bought a purebred Havanese for her daughter 10 years ago, and ended up training him in obedience and agility. She followed with another, but decided to finish him in the conformation dog show ring as well even though her interest still lay mostly in performance. She was quickly hooked, and when that dog retired she decided to back another dog shown by her handler, Lois DeMers. DeMers now shows several dogs sponsored by Planche. “I get the enjoyment of having beautiful dogs,” Planche explains, “and I get to see them and brush them. You have to be special for Lois to let you brush her dogs.” Planche is a hands-on sponsor, often driving her motorhome to shows so she can root her dogs on, and maybe even get to brush one. She jokes: “If I was skinny and cute and smart, I’d be out there doing it myself. Well, I’m smart! And kind of cute.”
Desiree Livingston points out that if you enter into an agreement with a sponsor, it’s important to know their motivation and goals. “If the motivation is just to win, you’re looking at a lot of pressure on the handler and dog.” She recalls the last days of the 2011 race to the top dog in the Hound Group. With a few shows left, Qing the Pharaoh Hound still had a chance to overtake the Whippet Ch. Starline’s Chanel. However, Qing and Brian were tired, and when it came time to make the flight to the next show, Mosing shocked everyone by telling him to come home instead. “Win or lose she is always going to place the well-being of handler and dog over the win,” Desiree says. “Jennifer feels strongly that wins are great, but the experience is priceless. She said to Brian: ‘You and Qing made history. You won 52 Bests in Show. Come home. Let’s go to Disney World!’ When Brian questioned all the money she’d lost, Jennifer replied, ‘Quite frankly, I’m more ticked off at losing $5 in the drink machine outside!'”
The Fine Print
With hundreds of thousands of dollars — not to mention the show dog’s well-being — on the line, you might expect there to be contracts with pages of clauses and contingencies. Generally, you’d be wrong. Although it varies from one sponsor or handler to the next, contracts overall are either verbal or short.
Erin Roberts says, “It’s not about contracts; it’s about honoring your word.” She recalls her first backed dog, Johnny the Basenji, sponsored by Michael Jameson and Patrick Allison. They’d written a standard contract, and then Michael and Patrick took her shopping for a more suitable dog show wardrobe. “They bought me several thousand dollars worth of clothes,” Roberts says. “When I got home and my husband saw what they’d done, he marked out all the Best in Show bonuses from the contract.” Johnny the Basenji went on to win 59 Best in Shows and four National Specialties, making Roberts’ clothes possibly the most expensive dog-showing wardrobe ever. Since then Roberts prefers not to use contracts, relying instead on loyalty and a handshake. She says her sponsors are more like part of an extended family.
The agreement with the show dog owner varies with the people involved. With Jennifer Mosing, she typically pays all expenses, including veterinary expenses and asks in return for the possibility of a puppy if one of her children wanted one. In one case, a Vizsla dog she was sponsoring developed pyometra. Despite spending several thousand dollars trying to save both her life and reproductive future, the bitch had to be spayed. “Jennifer called about her every day and felt so bad when she had to be spayed,” Livingston recalls. “She tried to think of a way to make it up to her owner, and ended up offering the owner semen from a top Vizsla, but her owner had no need or room for a spayed bitch, and said she was going to place her. Jennifer got concerned for her welfare, and offered to keep her herself. She still has her living on her farm.”
Planche also pays for everything when the show dog is in her name. “At first I got the stud fees, but that turned out to be a hassle,” she says. “I do ask to get a puppy back or stud service if I want one.” She explains that it’s the relationship that’s more important for her.
Agreements depend heavily on what the original dog dog owner’s concerns are. “Often the owners are worried about how the dog might be used at stud while in the backer’s name,” Sommer says. Such concerns are best addressed ahead of time. Stud fees may also prompt discussion. “Everything has to be upfront and honest,” he says. “If everyone is going to be nickel and diming you to death, it won’t work. You either trust us or forget it.”
Most agreements cover a one- to three-year period. Most often, they’re a one- or two-year commitment with an option for an additional year. “We don’t keep a dog out for more than two years because of the pace and schedule, as well as the need to be bred as in the case of a bitch,” Livingston says.
At the end of the campaign, the show dogs typically return to their original owner, but not always. By mutual consent, Sommer kept Westminster Best in Show winners Stump the Sussex Spaniel and JR the Pharaoh Hound as his personal pet dogs.
Many dog owners dream of their show dog being “discovered” and sponsored, and for a very few, that dream comes true. Chances are, contacting sponsors or even their handlers won’t help owners attain that dream.
“We’re sometimes approached by owners looking for a backer, and it can be a little uncomfortable because not everyone is prepared to hear assets and problems their dog has,” Livingston says. “The best way to get noticed is to have your dog in pristine condition and show it. Show off its temperament and showmanship, its potential to keep showing after 200 shows. Show me a dog who loves it — one I can’t keep my eyes off, and we will hopefully find it!”
“If you have a dog that is really good, word will get out, and somebody will find you,” Sommer agrees. He cautions that finding a sponsor is only the first step. “Many people think that just because a dog has a backer it’s going to win, but the dog plays a large role. You can have the greatest dog in the world, but it still has to click with the person to win. Not every dog can do this.” He says that when he has a potential top show dog, he takes it home for a month to see if it’s happy and if it will work before committing to a campaign.
Champion dog owners who dream of securing a sponsor and showing the dog themselves are fantasizing. It’s not impossible, but it’s a long shot. Many sponsors prefer to work with one trusted handler; they either rely on that professional dog handler to find future stars or to contact owners who have dogs the sponsor has spotted. The handler has little motivation to find a purebred dog for somebody else to show, and the sponsor runs the risk of entering into an agreement with all sorts of unknown variables. Although the owner-handler has the advantage of concentrating on one dog, knowing the breed and possibly being known in that breed, the professional handler has the advantage of face recognition and contacts at an all-breed level. If the goal is to have the No. 1 dog in the breed, a sponsor could attain that goal by backing an owner-handler. If the goal is to be at the top of the Group, the sheer number of shows required make that difficult for an amateur who may have other work commitments.
The Big Picture
Sponsors can be controversial. If your show dog has one, you probably think they’re great. If your competition has one, you probably don’t.
On the plus side, show dog sponsors allow deserving show dogs that might otherwise go unnoticed to make an impact on their breeds. They can bring rare dog breeds to the forefront, increasing breed interest, and they help support many people associated with conformation dog shows, including handlers, photographers and ad designers. Many also support causes, such as Take the Lead and the Canine Health Foundation.
On the minus side, they can discourage breed competition in their area, possibly enable a poor specimen to do better than it should and further the inflation of expenses needed to succeed in the sport.
Some individuals and even national breed clubs aren’t shy about voicing their displeasure with sponsors. “Jennifer’s gotten hate mail from parent clubs and local clubs, claiming the dog she was sponsoring wasn’t the best specimen of the breed,” Livingston says.
Maybe that explains why most sponsors seem content to stay in the background. Try to get one to respond to an interview request (as, for example, for this article), and be prepared for the sound of crickets chirping in response. Try to spot one at a dog show, and chances are they won’t be in the win picture, and they won’t be decked out in furs and jewels. They’ll be the quiet ones in jeans and sneakers eating nachos, watching the Groups and maybe whispering to their handler about your dog. They may command fortunes from real estate holdings, media empires or even a donut dynasty, but those who know them will tell you their real fortune is their friendship.
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