How Is Your Dog Club Doing During the Age of COVID-19?

It is hard to believe that we are late in the first quarter of the 21st century, and it’s hard to believe how the world we live in continues to change on an almost daily basis. It has now also been over a year since we all heard the term COVID-19 for the first time. Initially, I imagine that most people thought it would be a temporary setback that would be dealt with, and all would be back to “normal” by now. But as we all know, that has, unfortunately, not been the case.

For those of us who are involved in the sport of purebred dogs, we have seen many instances of how COVID-19 has not only changed our ability to hold our shows and trials, but also the introduction to our events of many new protocols to be followed—to even hold events where they are possible.
Since August of last year, when we saw a limited return of our events across the country, I have been able to attend events both as an exhibitor or judge at shows in Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Florida. At each of these shows, all of the exhibitors and judges wore masks and made honest attempts to follow social distancing guidelines. With the assistance and guidance of the AKC and, in some cases, local health officials, numerous clubs proved that safe shows could be successful. What I observed was that most exhibitors followed the rules and behaved professionally, and most were just happy to be able to have a show.

At the time of this writing, there are still numerous states and localities where putting on a show is either prohibited or postponed because of ongoing regulations regarding social gatherings. With the vaccines now available, only time will tell how rapidly the restrictions will be lifted or modified.

At the time of this writing, there are still numerous states and localities where putting on a show is either prohibited or postponed because of ongoing regulations regarding social gatherings. With the vaccines now available, only time will tell how rapidly the restrictions will be lifted or modified.
Depending upon their location as well as their available facilities, several clubs have been able to hold shows. (As I understand, there are only about 30-35% of scheduled events being held at this time.) While several clubs are doing well and putting on very large and successful shows, many others are just struggling to hold their clubs together. Because of local restrictions, many clubs have not been able to meet in any way except through Zoom-type communications. Meeting sites for numerous clubs are not available during the pandemic and, therefore, the in-person sharing of knowledge, ideas, and planning for future events is suffering.

Clubs are having to adjust to the new rules and regulations within their communities. These adjustments are coming in the change of venues, limits on the number of entries and, in many cases, the postponement of all events until some version of normalcy returns.

Even in those locations where events are permitted, many of the venues will not guarantee a club that the show will not be canceled even up to and including the day of the show. Therefore, many clubs continue not to take the financial risks of having their show canceled at the last minute—at a significant financial hit to the club as well as the exhibitors losing their entry fees.

Since the start of cancellations in March of 2020, I have no idea as to the total number of events that have been canceled across our country and throughout the world. As mentioned, the loss of venues, meeting places, and training facilities are hurting many of our local clubs. Clubs are having to adjust to the new rules and regulations within their communities. These adjustments are coming in the change of venues, limits on the number of entries and, in many cases, the postponement of all events until some version of normalcy returns. Also, as we have seen, those clubs that have found a way to host a show must adapt to local rules, find judges willing to travel and judge, and obtain stewards and volunteers to work the show. This pandemic has created additional burdens to deal with for show chairs, club members, superintendents, and many others.

Most clubs are run by a limited number of members and volunteers who work and plan all year for their events. These are unpaid individuals who themselves may be dealing with the loss of jobs or lowered income due to the pandemic. In some cases, these individuals are having a difficult time caring for their basic needs, so it is understandable that the club, the shows, and the like are no longer a large part of their life, and some will, unfortunately, leave the club and the sport—and may never be involved again. These people are the collateral damage to the suffering within our clubs and our sport.

Likewise, as we have seen, many club members as well as judges are senior citizens and individuals who may have underlying health conditions. Many of these people will not be taking the risk of exposure that attending shows and meetings provides.

With all that has gone on during the past year, I was in a discussion with a member from another kennel club who was sharing how difficult it was to hold together their already struggling club. During our conversation, I shared with him that although it has been difficult for our club, The Tennessee Valley Kennel Club, we are not only holding together—we are still experiencing some growth. Of course, the reply was, “What do you feel the reason is for your continuity?”

Knowing that there are many highly successful clubs throughout the country, each has developed its formula for growth and continuity. It is safe to say that not all clubs have the same mission or operate in the same manner. With this in mind, I thought I would take this opportunity to share some of the things that have helped my club, the TVKC, continue to have some success.

I have served as President for the past twelve years. One thing that I think has contributed to our stability has been that we operate as a true democracy. Each of our members has a voice. We do not rule only from the board. We gather information from our board, and our members make recommendations and make all major decisions as a club. We also make sure that our board is diversified with both conformation and performance individuals, so that all members’ interests have representation. We also try very hard to get every member involved. When we assign members to major jobs, we try to never give them more than one of those positions. We do this so that they can focus on their job and keep them from being spread too thin. We offer them guidance and support, but we try very hard not to micro-manage them. We allow them to grow and tackle the task at hand.
We find it is also important that our members understand our mission and expectations. Like many clubs, we get visitors at most meetings and we always welcome them with open arms. We also encourage them to continue to attend, but we ask them “NOT TO JOIN” unless they plan to become involved on a regular and ongoing basis. We explain that all members count toward having a quorum and that we don’t need names on a roster. We need people who are committed to our mission and purpose.

We also have a club that has embraced diversity. Having people involved in as many different aspects of the dog world is a great asset and fertile ground for learning and sharing with each other. Our current roster lists a total membership of 70, of which 10 are life members. Included in the remaining 60 individuals are 49 who have joined since 2009, with 13 of those joining since 2019, and we currently have 9 people going through our process to join. Unfortunately, we have lost 5 people to death in the past 5 years but, age-wise, our group covers a very broad base. A total of 34 members are primarily involved in conformation while 16 prefer the performance arena. We also have 14 who are equally involved in both conformation and performance, and 6 members who are just general dog lovers. Just like our country, clubs can be a melting pot of people with different ideas and skills. Allowing your members to use the unique talents and backgrounds that each one brings will help to build a strong group.

One of the main things that keeps our members involved may be the fact that we have some type of program at every meeting. In my opinion, the programs are an essential factor in the overall health and interest of the club. Our programs cover a wide range of canine-related topics; always given by well-respected individuals and veterinarians. We also, on occasion, try to have some type of fun, educational, dog-related game. We have played Doggy Jeopardy and Family Feud, and others games that get everyone involved. Since there are times when the best of plans fail, we will play BINGO with an assortment of doggy prizes when our planned speaker cancels at the last minute. And we do periodic surveys with our membership to see what they like and dislike about the club. Programs, and the fact that we include everyone, are always high on the list. I would say, on average, we have an attendance rate of 20-35 individuals at all meetings and, since 2009, we have always had a quorum.
The TVKC covers a vast area of East Tennessee. As you can imagine, geographically, it is challenging for some of our members to attend every meeting. For several years there would be votes trying to move the meeting locations East or West, depending upon those attending that meeting. Several years ago, we put an end to that by offering the membership a choice of Eastside or Westside of town or an alternative of a split arrangement. The members voted for the split, so now we meet six months out of the year on each end of the city. The sites are about 20 miles apart, with the fall and winter months held at the local emergency clinic on the Westside, and the Spring and Summer months held on the Eastside of town at the University of Tennessee. The split arrangement works well and it helps members on each end of town attend more meetings than in the past.

As with most clubs, the pandemic caused both of our meeting sites to be unavailable. Even though we lost our meeting sites, we have only missed two meetings. We moved the meetings to members’ backyards and practiced social distancing and, when the winter months came, we were offered a place at a local training facility that, although not heated, has allowed us to meet and still practice social distancing very well.

Like many clubs, we like to recognize the accomplishments of our members and their dogs. Each year we award members who have completed an AKC title on their dogs; a plaque recognizing the achievement with the dogs’ name and title. We do this at our annual awards picnic where we have also added the tradition of our annual Lottery Fun Match. We ask each member to bring one dog each (it doesn’t matter if it is a show dog or not, just one that they own) and we assign each an armband number and put all the numbers in a hat. We draw two numbers, and those two dogs start the competition with the judge for the initial class coming from someone who did not enter a dog. At the end of the class, the winner goes on to the next round and the loser is eliminated. However, the person who was just eliminated serves as the judge for the next two dogs competing. This goes on for as many rounds as it takes until one dog stands alone as Best in Match. It has always been a lot of fun, and many members remark that they could not believe how hard it was to choose between the two dogs—and the two people they knew!

Training classes are also a big part of many clubs, and ours is no exception. We offer ongoing weekly conformation classes (currently on hold because of the pandemic) as well as puppy kindergarten several times a year. Our classes are enthusiastically taught by Jan Flaherty, our current Vice President. Jan’s class has been instrumental in our growth, and she has helped so many newcomers find success in the ring. We also have an arrangement with a local training facility that provides agility and obedience training for our members at a reduced rate.

As mentioned earlier, we try to get everyone involved and we encourage people to take on new tasks. This has served us very well. Our Agility trials, Obedience, Rally, and Fast Cats are all led by relatively newer members who have risen to the task with the encouragement and support of the membership.
In 2014, we had a new couple come into our club. The couple was very new to the sport and extremely enthusiastic and yearning for knowledge. Both of these individuals, along with their high school-aged daughter at the time, jumped right in. With the mentoring of members, the daughter enjoyed a successful run in Junior Handling and the entire family has completed numerous titles in conformation and obedience on their dogs. More importantly, the couple became very involved and now serve on our board, and the wife took over our website and has made it a fantastic resource for not only members, but also interested guests.

As a club, being a part of our community is also important. We sponsor a student annually with a substantial scholarship at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. We have supported numerous other charities such as the local Children’s hospital, Take the Lead, AKC Canine Health Foundatin, and many others. A few years ago, before our local cluster broke up, we were able to do several things to raise funds for charitable causes. But only being able to have a two-show weekend has hurt those efforts.

As President of the TVKC, I am extremely proud of the spirit, cooperation, and level of enthusiasm that the members of our club share. I know from others how difficult it can be to have a happy and cohesive group of people working together.

If your club is struggling, maybe you need to open yourselves up to new ideas and new members. There will always be turnover and disagreements, but a good attitude and the desire to work together to accomplish goals will bring great results.

In closing, what I hope you take away from this article is that success—even during a pandemic—is possible. If your club is struggling, maybe you need to open yourselves up to new ideas and new members. There will always be turnover and disagreements, but a good attitude and the desire to work together to accomplish goals will bring great results. Just because someone is new or has a different perspective does not mean that they can’t contribute to the success of your club. These are tough times, and we need to be tough enough to accept change and make it work moving forward.
I don’t know about you, but I sure am looking forward to getting our shows and events back on, and we need your clubs to make it happen. If you have any questions regarding our club and how we do things, feel free to contact me at loracvizsl@aol.com.

What is your club doing to get through these slower, “non-show” times? Leave us a comment below!

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  • Walter Sommerfelt of Lenoir City, TN has been involved in the sport of purebred dogs since acquiring his first Old English Sheepdog in 1972. He is a former professional handler as well as a breeder, and exhibitor of breeds in all seven groups, most notably Vizslas, OES, Pointers, Bearded Collies and Weimaraners. Judging since 1985 he is approved for All Sporting, Working, and Herding breeds and groups, Junior Showmanship and Best in Show and has had the honor of judging on four different continents. Mr. Sommerfelt has judged many of the most prestigious shows in the United States including the herding group at the 2014 Westminster Dog Show in New York City where he has judged on three separate occasions. Mr. Sommerfelt was the founder and chairman for the St. Jude Showcase of Dogs from 1993 until 2009, a unique event showcasing the world of purebred dogs. This special event was the largest collection of various dog events in one location, featuring an AKC all Breed Dog Show, AKC Obedience and Rally Trials, AKC Agility trials, (prior to AKC adding agility NADAC trials ) One of the largest Fly ball tournaments in the U.S.A., Herding and go to ground demonstrations, A main stage featuring performances by Canines from Television and the Movies, Freestyle, Demos by drug and various therapy dogs, A full room of booths for meet the breeds, over 50 AKC judges seminars annually, Lure coursing, A fun Zone for Children, and other dog related fun activities for the general public and their dogs. Over the years the event not only raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the world-renowned St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, but also raised awareness of the many activities for people with their dogs as well establishing a voice for dog people in the Memphis area with regard to legislation. Many aspects of today’s AKC Royal Canin show can be traced back to the St. Jude event. Along with Carol his wife of 36 years they have bred well over 90 AKC Champions including Group, Best in Show and Specialty Winners, dual Champions and multiple performance titled dogs. During the past 40 years Mr. Sommerfelt has been active in a number of dog clubs and is currently the President of the Tennessee Valley Kennel Club. He is recipient of the AKC outstanding Sportsmanship Award and is also a career agent and financial planning specialist with Nationwide Insurance. The Sommerfelts’ have two grown children, both former Junior Handlers and they are still active breeders and exhibitors of the Vizsla breed.

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