After a three-year hiatus, I’m honored to rejoin Dogs in Review as a contributing writer. If there was ever a time to improve the fancy’s image and relationship with the public, it is now. I’m hoping my years in public relations coupled with show and breed experience will provide unique perspectives on how to draw new people to the sport.
Let’s start by examining the role of AKC parent clubs — the backbone of the fancy and segue to its future.
Anyone reading this has likely been a club member for many years, serving in various capacities to preserve and protect our beloved breeds and keep the fancy alive.
Application processes to join dog breed clubs have changed over the years, and not always for the better. Because requirements for membership vary so widely, I decided to poke around to see how difficult it is for the average purebred owner (which we all were at one time) to join their national club.
Having promised anonymity to those contacted, I will not single out any particular clubs. But what I learned was a real eye opener. Does your club welcome new members or find ways to keep them out?
There’s nothing wrong with requiring sponsors or posting a list of applicants for membership scrutiny before accepting a new member. However, requirements that an applicant be in the breed X number of years, have known their sponsors personally for a prescribed time, or be an active show exhibitor alienates “newbies” at our own peril, putting the very breeds we try to protect at risk.
How do we draw new people to the sport and educate them about the care and health of a breed when they are denied entry into a club because they don’t have enough experience?
Joining my national breed club 20 years ago opened up a whole new world for me. The most important thing I learned early on was the type, structure and temperament of dogs that met our breed standard. Without the support and guidance of the Newfoundland Club of America I’d have never discovered the thrill of the show ring, let alone working dog activities. Worse, I’d have made terrible mistakes in grooming, feeding, training and breed-specific care at a time when I needed to learn everything I could.
As a gainfully employed professional I was able to repay my club for its help over the years by serving on committees, volunteering at events and contributing dollars to important club causes such as rescue, the health committee and so on.
There are hundreds if not thousands of purebred owners out there just like me who could be positively influenced by the club network and repay in kind if they were encouraged and welcomed to join.
Many folks who have purchased a puppy from a club breeder have already undergone some level of screening by the breeder (one would hope, anyway). The breeder can provide only so much hand holding through those critical first years. Involvement in the club opens so many doors, including informative publications, newsletters and, most importantly, a network of experienced fanciers, each with their own area of expertise.
A common objection to welcoming newcomers (or “excuse” for keeping them out) is fear of changes to the breed standard by those with a personal agenda to do so or with too little knowledge to cast an informed vote. Breed standards are rarely revised and doing so requires a majority vote by the membership. Some believe loosening membership requirements will result in a mad rush of “undesirables.” Is that really likely?
One discovery I made had me scratching my head. With one notable exception, several popular breeds have unusually strict requirements and correspondingly low membership numbers. New owners are officially out of the loop. Unfortunately, so are many thousands of dogs in those breeds.
By contrast, I found other breed clubs with a “strength in numbers” attitude toward beefing up breed club memberships. Those who follow the “Find ’em, Get’em and Keep’em” philosophy believe they can rehabilitate new members (even those who may have purchased or bred dogs out of the network) by showering them with good information. Breed club publications and member chat rooms provide invaluable guidance on everything from responsible breeding to exciting show results to handling emergencies such as heat stroke and bloat. As one club president put it, “If it improves one dog’s life, it’s worth it.”
At a time of dwindling show entries, economic concerns and an aging fancy it’s time to think about passing the torch. As the true authority on breeds, parent clubs (and their regional affiliates) have the means to bring new blood into the sport. And I hope they will.
If you have an opinion on this subject, we’d love to hear it. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen Steinrock operates a small public relations firm in Pennsylvania. She writes a weekly pet column for the Harrisburg Patriot News and Allentown Morning Call newspapers and serves as publicity chair for the Newfoundland Club of America. Karen is active in working dog events, pet therapy and has earned conformation and obedience titles on her dogs.