If someone called you a professional dog breeder, would you feel insulted or honored? Would you feel that it was an accusation or a compliment? After watching “The Today Show” piece on the AKC, reading posts on several online sites and listening to people chatter at ringside, it has occurred to me that in the dog world the word “professional” elicits a highly negative response. Venom drips from the statement, “We were beaten by a pro.” A breeder I know touts her dogs’ biddable temperaments and “go with the flow” attitude evidenced by their ability to obtain field titles without the need for a professional handler. Breeders bend over backward to distance themselves from the perception that they might breed regularly or, heaven forbid, make some money. The dog-show and dog-breeding culture is a world of its own. We have our own society, customs and, some would say, even our own language. Some of us have limited participation in the “real world,” but believe it or not, out there professionals are appreciated and valued. Doctors, teachers, accountants and soldiers all hold positions of esteem and respect. Professional entertainers are adored, and professional athletes are practically worshiped. The public admires their talent, knowledge and dedication.
To become a professional, one normally devotes substantial time, energy and resources in pursuit of that profession. People at the top are usually the most driven. However, in the sport of dogs, we act as if folks who call themselves professionals rose to the top by hook or by crook. They’re frequently portrayed as charlatans, and their success is regarded as tainted by nepotism or worse. But why?
First, let’s examine breeders. When I hear people talk about their breeding activities, it is frequently couched in terms like “I only breed occasionally,” “I only breed when I want something for myself” or “I only have litters for the betterment of my breed, not to make money.” I recently even heard a friend say, “I don’t want to get rich from breeding, but I don’t want to lose too much either.” Really? “I don’t want to get rich”? Can you imagine any other profession that would succeed with that kind of attitude? Why is it a badge of honor to go broke breeding dogs? It seems it would be shameful to actually make money from something you are good at. Now I know what most of you are thinking: If you do it right, it is impossible to make any money. To make money you’d have to cut corners. But don’t you think that is because we underprice our “product” and sell ourselves short? Most successful breeders have spent countless hours learning their craft. There is a huge investment of time, energy, talent, money and resources. Why should we not benefit from our endeavors? Why is it considered acceptable for doctors, dentists, lawyers and athletes to benefit from their time and talent but not a dog breeder?
In my experience, dog breeders are some of the most passionate, dedicated people around when it comes to their craft. Top breeders make a superior-quality “product,” so why do they shy away from being rewarded for professionalism? Have we come to believe the animal-rights zealots that making money from dogs is exploitative and means you are a “puppy mill”? Does being compensated for your time and talent mean you can’t do it for the love of your breed? Why does the dog community surrender the narrative on this sort of thing to the AR propaganda machine? Are we willing to stand up and proclaim we are professional dog breeders and proud of it?
Another group of professionals, handlers, is the object of much scorn in our sport. Complaining about professional handlers seems to be one of the dog fancy’s favorite pastimes. Like all of us, handlers are passionate about dogs but rarely is there recognition of the devotion, talent and commitment these people possess. Professional handlers and trainers happily surrender their lives to other people’s dogs. Often they do it at the expense of everything else. They have decided to forgo lucrative salaries and benefits in the “real world.” Luxurious homes are replaced with kennels and play yards. They sacrifice family events, holidays and vacations. The travel is tough, and the job is hard on both body and pocket book. They succeed by helping breeders succeed. So why is there so much tension between professionals and amateurs in the show ring? Certainly it is, in part, due to the nature of competition. Exhibitors are pitted against one another, and everyone is looking for an edge. But why is it so common to hear people insinuate that wins by dogs with professionals come from some unfair advantage or shenanigans? I routinely hear very serious accusations, rarely with anything more than a hunch to back it up. When pressed, people can seldom produce any “facts.” Are the accusations made because people want to appear to have some profound insight into how the game is played? Is it because they are grasping for explanations for a judgment they don’t agree with? Is it because on occasion a handler acts unprofessionally and lends credence to people’s worst suspicions and conspiracy theories? Or is it because some people don’t want to have to step up and compete on the same level as the professionals? There is probably a little truth in all of these.
I believe that by nature dog people are critical beings. We evaluate and dissect everything in our path. It’s what makes us strive for better than we already have. However, the tendency of some within our own ranks to disparage our fellow enthusiasts is disheartening. The times and culture are changing. By all signs, our way of life is rapidly headed for extinction or, at the very least, some big changes. I wonder if our reluctance to recognize our own expertise will, in the end, contribute to our own downfall?
From the June 2013 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase the June 2013 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine.