The Rankings Systems

How to level the playing field

Everyone complains about the dog show rankings, but nobody is doing anything about them. That’s been the case for so long it’s easy to imagine they have to be the way they are. Pretty much anyone will tell you our current rankings systems have created a sport that’s dominated by a mindless race to the more shows the better, a competition where the little guy doesn’t stand a chance regardless of how good his dog is, where it often seems as if a dog’s ability to go to just a few more shows than the competitors ultimately determines who is No. 1 and who’s not.

All the different rankings for Top Dog that we have in the US (in the Breed, the Group, whatever) are based on adding up as many wins as possible: one point for every dog defeated at every show held during the year, or one point for every single Group win or BIS. It’s simple, but that’s about the best you can say about such a system.

Extensive show campaigns aren’t anything new, of course. As long as there have been dog shows there have been people who want to be No. 1. Dog show history is full of stories where somehow someone managed to get to that extra show, by hook or by crook, and that made all the difference in the year-end point score.

There was a time when Kay Finch of the famed Crown Crest Afghans and Porter Washington of the equally celebrated Flakees Keeshonden were running neck and neck one year in the early 1960s, and both won their Groups at the last show of the year. Kay smiled and said, “I guess we’re sharing first place,” whereupon Porter pulled out a Group 1st ribbon from his pocket — he had flown off to a distant show in the Midwest the day before. This is harder to pull off today, of course, when everyone is much more on top of what the competition is doing. It’s part of human nature and will probably always be that way.

Nor has the attitude toward the top dog campaigns changed as much as you might think. For a while in the 1930s AKC held a competition for the top American-bred dog of the year, based on number of Group wins. The competition was cancelled after a few years due to unfavorable publicity, however: “Wealthy exhibitors who journeyed to all sections of the country, often on chartered airplane flights, eliminate from competition dogs owned by people of more modest means.” And that was more than 70 years ago!

What has changed is the number of shows, and therefore how many times a dog needs to be shown in order to reach the top of the rankings. As late as 1972 there were only 600 all-breed shows; by 1985 there were over 1,000, and since 2006 there have been over 1,500 AKC all-breed shows annually.

Exhibitors gunning for the top spots have adjusted accordingly. It used to be enough to go to a few dozen dog shows if you had a good dog and wanted to make a dent in the annual rankings; now you have to go to 100 to 150 to have any chance of being No. 1, in some cases even more.

In 2005, while being interviewed for Dogs in Review, Pat Trotter told me that when a Cocker she showed as a kid was No. 1 Parti-Color in 1959 they had gone to maybe 25 shows that year.

When she won No. 1 All Breeds with her homebred Elkhound Ch. Vin-Melca’s Vagabond in 1970 they had gone to exactly 87 shows, and when she was No. 2 All Breeds with Ch. Vin-Melca’s Calista in 1990 they had competed at 120 shows. As she said, today one would have to go to many more shows than that to achieve similar results.


Today’s Requirements

The effects on the sport have been dramatic. As one professional handler put it, competing at the highest levels today requires “a major bank account/backer, a slick advertising/design campaign and a handler without a life.” It also takes almost supernatural stamina in both the human and the canine participants: just the thought of going to 150 to 200 shows in a single year would make most of us feel tired.

In its own way, such energy is admirable, of course, but it’s not what dog show competition is supposed to be about. And nobody in the dog fancy benefits from the expense involved in all this travelling — just the oil companies, the airlines and the hotel industry.

How the rankings affect the judging is more uncertain. Nobody in their right mind would spend big bucks campaigning a dog unless they had it on good authority that the dog is indeed a worthy specimen. Once you’ve gotten that far, however, much of the rankings are determined not so much by the dog’s quality as by the campaign.

Partly this may be due to the fact that BIS judges don’t necessarily need to know much about all the breeds that may compete under them (which, in turn, might tend to make judges a little more like sheep, following their leader). A large reason that certain dogs place so high in the rankings is also that other dogs of at least equal quality are not, for whatever reasons, shown as much, and therefore will be left behind in the dust. Following are some suggestions from various sources, first with my own comments.


Percentage Rankings

The total number of points earned during the year would be divided by the total number of shows each dog competed at. The dog with the highest point percentage wins.

Sounds great, but impossible to implement, because if a dog is shown, but doesn’t win, it’s not recorded by AKC. Also, say you win BIS at Palm Springs in January and never show again that year — that percentage ranking would be hard to beat.


Limited Number of Results Rankings

You could show the dog as much as you like, but only a specified number of wins (e.g. the 50 best) would count for each dog.

This system is used in some foreign countries. Once a dog has received points at a predetermined maximum number of shows, it would not get a higher score unless earlier lower placements were replaced by higher wins. This would probably help dogs that are not shown heavily — but the top 50 results of a dog that’s shown 200 times are still likely to be better than those of a dog that’s shown only 50 times.


Top Show Rankings

Only wins at a limited number of designated top shows would count for the rankings.

This would be a great system if some shows already had e.g. “championship” or “Grade A” status. That’s not currently the case, but it would be interesting to include results from e.g. only shows with over 1,000 dogs, or something similar. This would make long-distance travel to smaller shows less desirable but the clubs hosting the smaller shows would not like this system at all.


Specials Defeated Rankings

Only the number of champions defeated would count.

It’s been suggested that BIS at a big show with lots of (presumably) less-than-sterling quality non-champions gives a dog way too many “unfair” extra points. Perhaps winning over a lot of specials competition should count for more — but it’s not easy to count the number of specials exhibited.


Regional Rankings

Following the regional divisions already established by AKC for the champion point system, each area would rank its own No. 1 dogs in Breed and All-Breed competition.

This idea could prove a popular addition to the current Top Dog rankings. It would allow exhibitors and handlers a shot at rankings success without travelling outside their home area. It would also give professional handlers the option of showing more “at home” and spending less time crisscrossing the country.

Since AKC has already established regional divisions for the point schedule, competing for Breed and Group/BIS points on a similar, regional basis would likely catch on quickly.

On the negative side, the work involved in compiling the rankings would be considerable, and regional ratings systems would not replace the current national rankings. The goal would simply be to provide additional rankings opportunities for regular exhibitors. In the future, if AKC adopted regional rankings each area’s top dogs could be invited to compete at the AKC/Eukanuba Invitational. The result would be a US equivalent to the World Challenge for top foreign dogs — a sort of “US Challenge.”

There is no question that a change in the current rankings systems is long overdue. Most of the current top dogs would no doubt still be in the lead, but the playing field would be more level, and with more “regular dog people” able to compete, their interest in campaigning their dogs would certainly be increased. 

Read comments from a few experienced fanciers with different backgrounds.

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