The Rise and Fall of the AKC Grand Champion Program

Is the American Kennel Club's Grand Champion program affecting the purebred dog fancy? From Dogs in Review, July 2011

The concept of the dog show has always been a strange sort of dimorphism, purportedly to serve as a vehicle for filtering through the available purebred dogs in an attempt to identify the most valuable for continued breeding, while at the same time providing a stage upon which the moneyed fanciers may gain a degree of fame for their stock.
The former has always been the focus for most, but the distraction of creating “stars” at astronomical cost has always clouded the goal. I am sure no one is naïve enough not to realize that top-winning specials are “packaged” at significant financial outlay. It is not just the quality of the dog which separates the top winners from the rest of the field, it’s campaigning, advertising and highly skilled handling. 

In my mind, the closest any breed has come to achieving the original goal — filtering breeding stock — has been the Bull Terrier fancy. It has almost exclusively employed breed specialist judges, it gives no credence to inter-breed wins (Group placements), and it clearly designates those dogs who are judged outstanding through a mechanism called the Recognition of Merit program.

Conceptually designed to be as difficult to achieve as what we all believe the English championship title to be, it has served the American Bull Terrier fancy very well since its inception well over 30 years ago. Today, American Bull Terriers are the best of the breed anywhere on the planet.

This desire to provide a mechanism to identify the top individuals without requiring millionaire or heavily mortgaged owners was presented to the fancy by Dogs in Review Editor-at-Large Bo Bengtson in his editorials.

To me it was a wonderful advancement, perhaps a step in what I fantasize as some kind of maturing of the American dog fancier beyond just wanting to somehow be perceived as fantastic, but rather, to be perceived as highly talented dog breeders, who apply their craft with dedication and skill. And so this concept of the Grand Champion was conceived. 

While many instantly disliked the idea, it was perhaps my background in the cat fancy that made the idea immediately logical to me. In cats, the Grand championship truly represents the cream of the crop, while the fancy still supports the “runners” or the campaigned cats.

It really means something because it truly represents a certain level of quality that is fairly consistent across the breeds. It’s rare that a mediocre cat will be shown the many times it would take to “grand” (the verb for achieving the Grand Champion title) — if it ever could. In short, the title is meaningful. It’s not contrived and not a mechanism of the owner’s purchasing power.

In the dog fancy, the campaign of a special will typically last three years of hitting shows virtually every weekend. It becomes difficult and often futile for the exhibitor of even very high-quality dogs to make an attempt to hop into the fast lane that most top-winning specials occupy.

They may compete strongly, but they likely won’t creep into the top rankings and so their efforts to special may be somewhat unnoticed and unrewarded. This contributes to a vast gulf in the dog fancy between champions of unclear merit and the superstar specials. Hence the splendid idea of the Grand Champion. 

Well, some things look good on paper, but don’t necessarily manifest themselves well in the real world. Anyone who judges knows exactly what I am saying. While AKC allows the judge to decide whether to award a Select Dog and Select Bitch when judging, the truth is AKC really wants these awards to be given.

Even when I have asked for greater clarification on what basis I should decide whether to award the Selects, the reply has not been forthcoming. Feel free to look around for yourself for some official AKC description of what the Grand Championship means. I have yet to find it.

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