How I See It: Let’s Load the Van!

Many exhibitors enjoy dog shows on the breed level, but recently there has been a stronger emphasis on Group and Best in Show competition.

Everyone knows the routine. First we look at the judging panels of the all-breed shows for the next few months. Things need to be considered. How far do I want to drive, and even how far do I want to drive for what specific judges? To complicate things even further, we have to perform complex mathematical computations: one four-day circuit has two judges that interest me, but another two-day weekend has two interesting judges … What to do?

And that’s not the end of it. If we’re showing class dogs, we might check to see if the shows are in an area where the point schedule is advantageous, but that might mean there won’t be any dogs in our breed. And, if there are other dogs entered, will they belong to friends so we can socialize, go out to dinner, share the joys of winning?

Considering the work and worry that show committees invest in issues like ring size, grooming space, food for exhibitors and even trophies, do any of these come into play when we decide whether or not to enter a show? Are they even part of this complicated calculation about where to go to show our dogs? Really, we need an app for that.

Most of this decision-making has remained pretty much the same over the years. However, these days we usually look to the superintendents’ websites for most of our all-breed show information. And many, maybe even most of us, take care of the entries online.

We load up our vans on Friday afternoon with all of the necessities for a weekend at shows and take off for a drive of several hours, looking forward to staying in less-than-deluxe lodgings. Of course, those necessities now include a cell phone, probably a GPS device and often a laptop. Up to this point, things are pretty much the same. But a very important element has changed drastically.

I have been showing my dogs for more than 40 years, and no one does anything for that long without loving it. But lately I seem to enjoy it less and less. I have never “campaigned” a dog, although I have certainly shown specials. But campaigning a dog by my definition is different. It entails many, many shows in a year, some quite far from home. It involves advertising and usually professional handlers and, due to the cost of all this, it often involves several owners on a single dog. Let me be very clear: I do not oppose this level of competition, and I congratulate those who spend the time, money and energy to make a dog end up high in the rankings, maybe even top dog.

But my enjoyment of this sport happens at the breed level … always has. It’s not about the money, and it’s not about the lack of interest. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people who feel the same way. Sure, all of us are thrilled to go into the Group ring and even place or win, but our hearts and our passion are squarely in the breed ring. And once we actually get to the show, it doesn’t seem like there’s quite as big a place for us as there is for the higher level of competition. I don’t mean physical space but rather philosophical space, a change in emphasis. Often it seems the only reason to have breed judging is not to find the best dog in each breed but rather to find a dog of that breed to send to the Group.

Majors are rare in many breeds and getting rarer all the time, especially in certain parts of the country, and that’s a result of several factors. But surely this newer, stronger emphasis on Group and Best in Show competition is at least part of the problem. And if it feels this way to me, after all of these years, how must it feel to those just starting out, especially if the judges are showing only perfunctory interest in the class dogs? Who cares who gets the points? Let’s get to the important part: Best of Breed. People who buy a dog and decide to show it surely don’t go to their first shows expecting to win the Group. They go to the shows to see what it’s all about, to compete with their new dog and see how it measures up to the other dogs, to get the judge’s expert opinion and to have fun. Their expectation is that they will be treated fairly.

This attitude change, which did not, of course, happen overnight, has followed the money, as most things do. It’s the Group and BIS competition that propel the top dogs to infinity and beyond, and much of our sport depends on the money spent in that effort. We should at least be grateful that this money is going into our own little piece of the economy: to handlers, superintendents, photographers, dog magazines, etc. In today’s economy it is especially important that the money stays with us. But it could be more serious than just the money; it could be simply a declining interest in breeding beautiful dogs to a standard and then showing those dogs in robust competition.

If so, this might explain a lot: declining entries for one, the short life span of conformation participants for another. It might also explain the relatively new problem of some of our best breeders participating only in specialty competition, or worse, not competing at all. Most of us know people in our own breeds who are still producing top-quality dogs but who have abandoned the all-breed show ring altogether, not because of age or other constraints, but because they no longer feel those shows have any relevance to their breeding goals.

Last year I was fortunate enough to judge a Breeders’ Showcase competition at a large Canadian show. One of the entries was a team of four of the most beautiful dogs in a breed not my own … not even in my own Group. Sound, perfectly conditioned, typey dogs, they were examples of the kind of dogs that stay in your mind a long time after the show. And each was good enough to compete successfully at any level of a dog show. After the final competition, I made a point of wishing the owner good luck at the all-breed show the next day. “Oh, we don’t show at all-breed shows,” the owner said, “only specialties.”

What have we done, or not done, to create this sad and dangerous (dangerous to our sport as we know it) situation, and is there any way to reverse the trend? If we are unable to return to a balance between breed and higher level competition, between the emphasis on breeding dogs and promoting dogs, we are going to lose forever those participants who need a good reason to pack their vans on Friday and drive to shows. 


From the April 2013 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase the April 2013 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine.

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