How Much Does Competing in Dog Conformation Cost?

Analyzing the cost of campaigning a dog at the top level of all-breed competition has really been an eye-opener.

Dog Show Costs

Few articles have created as much interest as Michael and Cathy Dugan’s series “The 7 Secrets of Show Success” in Dogs in Review. Having someone who’s campaigned a dog at the top level of all-breed competition analyze the specific components necessary to win big at AKC shows has obviously been an eye-opener for many readers. It’s one thing to want to win a lot; it’s most definitely a different matter to actually do so.

Approaching the subject of winning in an objective, methodical way obviously helps. We are not used to thinking of showing dogs in terms of “marketing,” but it’s clearly a good idea to apply regular business rules even to what’s essentially a hobby for most of us.

The cost analysis in the August installment (“Have a Lot of Money or Know Where to Find It”) was particularly interesting. We often hear of the huge expense required for any show dog, however good, to reach the pinnacle of success, but how the money was spent has never to my knowledge been publicly disclosed before. If you’re shocked by the sums involved, you’ve led a sheltered life: It’s no secret that you need to be either wealthy or have the help of a sponsor to achieve success in the Top Dog competition.

The US household median income for the 2009 was $49,777, according to the Census Bureau. That has to pay the living expenses for an average family of 3.14 people, so unless your income is well above this, there obviously won’t be a lot of money left for dog shows. Showing dogs is often presented as a “family hobby,” accessible for anyone, and it’s true that dog shows in themselves aren’t particularly expensive. If you have a purebred, registered dog, all you need to pay is an entry fee (about $30), and you’re in. Of course, from there to actually winning anything is quite a big step, however.

The dog sport is almost unique in that a rank novice competes with the top professionals right from the start. Imagine you’re a beginning tennis player and have to play Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal in your first match. You wouldn’t win, and the chances for a dog show novice aren’t much greater, but if you have a really good dog, and learn to present it well, you WILL eventually beat the superstars — at least on occasion.

Success in the all-breed rankings is a different matter. If you can’t spend $200,000 on a year’s campaign, you can probably do it on the cheap for one-tenth as much, driving to local shows and handling the dog yourself. You would also need a flexible work schedule and a very understanding spouse because you would be on the road two or three days most weeks. With a bit of luck and a very good dog you will then likely figure in the breed rankings, but as for higher rewards, forget it. When was the last time a genuinely owner-handled dog placed in the Top Ten of all breeds without a sponsor? Back in 1999, when Karen Black was showing her Saluki, Treasure? Anyone else since then?

The expensive (and extensive) show campaigns are mostly a US phenomenon. Different countries rank their Top Dogs in various ways, but few put as much emphasis on year-round campaigns as we do in the US. In Great Britain there are only 26 annual all-breed championship shows, mostly with 5,000 to 10,000 dogs competing (20,000 at Crufts!), and almost all within driving range for most exhibitors. Sweden has more shows, but only the results from each dog’s top eight shows are counted for Top Dog rankings.

Geography is destiny, and what works overseas won’t necessarily play in the US. However, if we want to come up with a ranking system that leans less on how heavily a dog has been campaigned, and tilts the scales a little less against the exhibitor with limited means, it wouldn’t be impossible to do so.

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