I received this article from Gail Clark who asked me to share it with you. Understanding there are many opinions among conformation exhibitors about the causes for the declining entries at AKC events, and knowing the importance of being open to dialog on all the perceived issues, I decided to do just that, publish this for you.
I have a deep respect for professional handlers, love the folks I’ve hired over the years, and being afflicted with Fibromyalgia, I really, really need them. I cannot run to show my Gordons because of pain. Without a handler to show my entry, I would not be able to participate in a sport I’ve loved for over 45 years.
Many of the breeders/exhibitors who are in the game today, have aged just like me, to the place where they too hand their dog over to a pro with younger legs. I believe this aging exhibitor base has had some impact on the increased number of handlers in the rings, and I also believe that judges must give the owner handled dogs equal consideration to the professionally handled. Otherwise, entries will continue to decline, and there, along with the entry, goes another chunk of the gene pool. By no means however, do I suspect or imagine, every time a professionally handled dog wins, that it is because the judge was political. One must also be able to appreciate the quality of another exhibitor’s entry when applicable. But, that is another sticky wicket, for discussion on another day!
E.D. NOTE: This article strictly represents the opinion of the Authors. Since the perception of politics is certainly real in the minds of many, I have decided to print what was sent for your review. Most (rational) well-meaning views are welcome here so feel free to share and discuss in the comment section at the end. Sally
Where Have All the Show Dogs Gone?
by Jim Tomsk, AKC Judge and Gail Clark, PH.D, Canine Behavioral Psychologist
Originally published in Dog News July 11, 2014 in the column The Judge Speaks.
Where have all the show dogs gone, long time passing? Where have all the breeder/owner/handlers gone, long time ago? Gone to other playing fields one and all!
As the economy has declined and the cost of living and travel expenses have risen, the presence of Professional Handlers (PH) increased two-fold in the AKC class competition for championship points. Popular PH are walking into the ring and winning with puppies that can barely keep four on the floor and adult dogs that have been repeatedly shown by their breeder/owner/handler without earning points. Can this sudden success by the PH be a coincidence? Was the puppy’s structure so outstanding that the judge could imagine flawless movement as an adult? Did the veteran show dog, who was never able to earn a major, suddenly blossom? Some blame politics for this interesting coincidence, and others, mostly judges, rationalize that top PH only show quality dog clients and have the experience to superbly present a dog in a way that minimizes their faults. When money and clients were plentiful, and PH only dominated the Best of Breed class, the PH were more discriminating in the clients they chose. In our depressed economy, PH must either cut costs or increase business to maintain their income, so choosing only the top quality dogs to show may be a luxury of the past.
Breeders are also looking to cut costs, and hiring the biggest name in professional handling to finish a championship in a few shows on a dog that hasn’t been winning is a win-win situation for both PH and breeder. Unfortunately, what may be a win for the PH and breeder may be a serious disservice to future generations of our breeds. When championship points are awarded because of who is showing rather than the merits and quality of the dog, future generations will inherit the faults so expertly disguised. Breeders produce their breeding stock from show winners. The PH who dazzled the judge with a superb presentation will be long forgotten and the faults will live on. Choosing the winning dogs based on the pH who is hired to help, and not committed to the advancement of the client’s breed, can often propagate changes in the breed that may not be easily repaired. For example, when judges chose the larger specimens for the Winners Circle, breeders will follow the current winning trend and larger dogs are bred for the show ring. The trend for the larger dog in many breeds generally does not maximize function and structural health. Judging the wrong end of the lead is committing a very serious injustice to the purebred dog.
The world of AKC dog shows, as we have known it for over 100 years has changed. At one time, the AKC was the only game in town for prestigious Championships. As more breeders realize AKC Championships can be bought with the right PH, the AKC title is becoming less prestigious and coveted. The purist and traditionalist breeder/owner/handlers are leaving AKC competition in search of more equitable venues like the UKC, where PH are excluded unless they are showing their own dogs. Until now, the UKC, International Dog shows, and our neighboring countries, Mexico and Canada, which hire the same AKC approved judges for their shows, have not been serious rivals to the AKC. These days, those who want Champion lines find puppies for sale with UKC, CKC, and International Dog Show Champion parents. The majority of the general public puppy buyers no longer care if their puppy’s parents are AKC Champions. As the breeders leave AKC competition, they don’t promote AKC Champions in their lines.
There was a time, not too long ago, when PH were primarily hired for the Best of Breed/Group rings, and a breeder/owner/handler who brought a quality dog to the ring was serious competition for the PH, even in the Group arena. Class competitors were, for the most part, equally unknown to the judges, and the dogs were typically judges on their own merits, not the handler on the end of the lead. Today, even with higher quality dogs, breeder/owner/handlers are, more often than not, simply point fodder for the PH. As the number of PH increased in the classes, breeder/owner/handlers have done the math and determined that competing against the familiar face that shows up at all the best dog shows in town, winning under the same judges, was financially unfeasible.
The AKC is feeling the financial strain as many exhibitors realize the futility of showing in an increasingly political playing field. New registrations in the AKC are declining with the number of breeder/owner/handlers leaving the show arena. Breed clubs are having difficulty breaking even financially with holding AKC breed shows because of the drop in exhibitors over the last several years. In addition, the AKC is moving in the wrong direction for their financial health by endorsing PH with badges they may wear in the ring to identify themselves to the judge.
The AKC and the conformation judges seem to think that throwing dedicated breeder/owner/handlers an occasional bone will keep them coming back for more. In their efforts to recover from the financial impact of the economy and decreasing entries and registrations, the AKC has exacerbated the problem by not supporting the breeder/owner/handlers, the faction that makes up most of the AKC’s entries and registrations. Instead, the AKC decided to even the playing field for more sport, by introducing the Amateur Owner Class.
What was the AKC thinking? The AKC should have added a Professional Class instead of an Amateur Owner Class. In this scenario, PH would be restricted to the Professional class or the Best of Breed Class. The new playing field would consist of one PH in the Winners class competing against all the class winners that were chosen on their merits. For those judges who continued to judge the PH and reward presentation over merit, the records would reflect their preferences by the wins from the PH class, and then breeder/owner/handlers could choose which shows and judges were financially feasible to enter under instead of quitting over the politics.
And then comes another AKC bone to the breeder/owner/handler. If the breeder/owner/handler can’t compete with PH for Best of Breed, how about the “Grand Champion” (GCH) program, which generated a renewed income stream to the AKC, superintendents, and clubs. Exhibitors might compete for a GCH once, and some might compete for a GCH again, but eventually they wake up and wonder what a GCH title actually represents. If a GCH can be awarded the title without ever winning Best of Breed, the GSC is a champion of whom? The GCH appears to be another meaningless title or gimmick for the AKC to fund it’s financial dilemma through the breeder/owner/handler. The latest AKC attempt to appease the breeder/owner/handler is the AKC National Owner-Handled Series (NOHS). While potentially a good idea, the system is so confusing that after over two years of offering the series, show giving clubs are still struggling to administer it correctly, and many have decided to not even offer it at their shows. The AKC has promoted a national rating system for the NOHS, but since it is not being offered at all shows, it puts many breeder/owner/handlers who would like to compete nationally at a distinct disadvantage. To top it off, many PH (as defined by AKC) are still exhibiting in the series and the AKC expects the EXHIBITORS to police the series concerning these individuals.
Nothing that the AKC has presented to-date will have a lasting, positive impact on the sport as much as conformation judges doing an honest and unbiased evaluation in the ring. ALL exhibitors pay their hard-earned money for a judge’s unbiased opinion, and deserve nothing less. It is the judge’s responsibility to sift through the entry and select the best dog, not the best mannered, the best handled, or an old friend. The future of our AKC dogs is dependent on unbiased judging and honest evaluations based on the quality of our stock, not who is on the end of the lead.
Poor decisions by both the AKC and conformation judges are driving dedicated breeder/owner/handlers away from the sport in droves. Unless the AKC wakes up and becomes committed to creating an environment that supports the breeder/owner/handlers that generate most of the AKC registrations and entries, other venues such as the UKC will become a strong force as an alternative to the AKC. The AKC must realize that as breeder/owner/handlers disappear, so does the sport.
So, where have all the show dogs gone, long time passing? So, where have all the breeder/owner/handlers gone, long time ago? If the sport is to survive and thrive, major changes need to be made: not just bogus titles or another silly class that are nothing more than an insult to the intelligent, dedicated breeder/owner/handlers. The AKC has changed its philosophy and is allowing non-purebred dogs to compete in companion events. Perhaps it is time for the AKC to offer separate, independent, competitions (all-breed shows) for breeder/owner/handlers and PH. If it is not to late.