Is the future of Conformation Shows at risk? Total entries in Conformation Shows have declined by 28 percent in the last 20 years (430,887 dogs; https://www.akc.org/sports/annual-statistics/). During this period, the population in the US has grown by 18 percent; thus, the entries per capita have declined 39 percent, a major loss of interest in Conformation Shows. Is there a risk that Conformation Shows will become trivial exercises if the decline continues?
Why have entries and interest in showing dogs declined? Is one of the reasons that individual exhibitors have become discouraged? Is it that owner-handlers find it more difficult to compete with the increasing role of professional handlers? Has the creation of owner-handler classes helped to emphasize the perception that dog shows are not about evaluating dogs? This implies the admission that a significant number of judges give preference to who is on the other end of the lead. Many individual exhibitors and professional handlers have complained that judging is often very poor—and not just when they’ve lost.
Individual exhibitors have long been at the core of the sport. What can individual exhibitors do to remedy their concerns? There is nothing they can or should do on the day of the show, but they can certainly influence the future of shows and their perception of the quality of judging in the long run. The first step should be that they establish, as objectively as possible, that placements are not rational. To do this, they should separate the frustration and anger of having lost from making a rational and convincing case that judging was poor.
This requires that the exhibitor assesses the qualities of their dog whether it has won or lost. It has been useful to me to develop an overview of this assessment by constructing tables that list the dog’s strengths and his or her weaknesses. Next to each characteristic, it is good to show how important each characteristic is. Sixteen of AKC’s more than 200 Breed Standards specify weights of importance. (The list included may have missed some.) Most Standards include a list of disqualifications.
BREEDS WHOSE STANDARDS INCLUDE WEIGHTS OF IMPORTANCE
If you find it difficult to do the analysis of your dog’s strengths and weaknesses on your own, you could go to a recognized and experienced exhibitor or handler and ask him or her to help you. This would not only make the overview better, but also provide an opportunity to learn about the dog, the breed, and what works at shows. You may want to review and revise this overview periodically, but you should have this overview in your head or even in your pocket all the time!
If you have lost to another dog (or even won!), try to put together a similar overview of the dog with whom you have just competed. Comparing these two overviews helps you understand whether the judge had a basis for what s/he did, or whether it reflected a preoccupation with a specific characteristic rather than accepted weights of importance, or whether the choice was based on what should be an irrelevant factor, such as the handler.
Improving judging requires a feedback system to those who approve judges and those who select and hire judges. There are three target audiences that may bring about change: exhibitors, club officers who select and hire judges, and AKC. All of them need good and analytical information—they do not respond well to emotional outbursts. What should you tell each of these three groups?
Exhibitors should be encouraged not to enter under judges whom other exhibitors have found inadequate.
Club Officers could be approached personally at, or after, the show. Tell them about why you think the judging was bad. If you call or write them after the show, please be aware that the judge may find out what you’ve said.
AKC “should do something” is the recommendation I hear most often. AKC is a large business with annual revenues of nearly $110,000,000. Like most large business organizations, changes are difficult to bring about. The most effective way to do so is to get your message to influential people. As with all organizations, this requires a broad, long-term, and well-directed effort. The AKC Department of Dog Show Judges (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an obvious target.
“Do something” basically can be rephrased to asking AKC for a major review of criteria and processes to approve and hold judges accountable for their decisions, and then implementing recommendations for change. People already in AKC’s structure can be especially effective in getting action. If you belong to an AKC member club, your club should have a delegate you can enlist. Also, AKC has an influential Board of Directors (https://www.akc.org/about/board-directors-officers/), and if you know one of the directors you could call to that director’s attention the need to analyze and review AKC’s practices relating to judging quality.
Nothing will happen unless you take constructive action. If you don’t do anything except complain, you will be signaling that you accept current practices as okay.