Stand Alone or Cluster ? Do We Need a New Plan?

Stand Alone or Cluster ? Do We Need a New Plan?

Stand Alone or Cluster ? Do We Need a New Plan? Writing for SHOWSIGHT Magazine has given me a unique opportunity to share some of my thoughts and insights into our sport. With nearly 50 years of involvement, it would be foolish of me or anyone else to believe that these views are always right on the money or even agreed with by the fancy. Rather, they are just one person’s observations and opinions, and if used correctly, they may lead to constructive conversations between fanciers to help maintain and improve our sport.

So often in our everyday lives, we run into situations where our computers, cell phones, televisions, and so many of our other devices go a little haywire. When this happens, we can usually just shut them off, or unplug them, plug them back in, and hit the restart button to get them up and functioning properly again.

Have you ever wondered if, maybe, our world of conformation dog shows is also a little haywire? If you do, what are some of the ways you think might put us back on track and bring new families and exhibitors into the sport? As I pondered this question, I tried to look back into the history of AKC dog shows, and the changes and developments experienced over the years.

The initial purpose of our dog shows was, and should still be today, the evaluation of breeding stock. In the early history of the sport, it was generally the domain of people of significant wealth and resources. These individuals maintained large kennels of breeding stock, had kennel managers, and often employed special handlers to exhibit their stock in competition. In those days, there was a very limited number of shows—with great distances in between. In order for most exhibitors to attend them, a great deal of travel, often by train or other another means, was necessary. It is safe to say that in the early days, the average American family could not afford to even think of competing with these people. Most would not have even had the resources to purchase a purebred dog.

Historically speaking, the ending of World War II began a period of great and growing prosperity in our country. The Post-War Baby Boom and the expansion of the middle class changed America into a booming country with a great economy and unlimited potential growth. People from the middle class were now moving to the suburbs, buying their own homes, and gaining access to things that might not have been available to them in the past. Moving from a city apartment to a suburban home with a yard and other amenities that were not available in the former rental properties of most allowed many families to add the family dog to their households. Purebred dogs with AKC “papers” were now affordable, and AKC registrations were the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval in those days.

As we moved into the 1960s and beyond, the average family saw that their disposable income was increasing and that they could now join in activities that were not available to them in the past. Some of these people with AKC purebred dogs would learn about the world of AKC purebred dog shows, and many slowly migrated into our competitions. The average family liked the concept that our sport was a family sport that allowed people of all ages to come together and meet—and compete—on the same level. The fact that almost all shows were held on weekends made it even more attractive because after a week at work, they could look forward to the family going together to enjoy the competition and friendships that were developed at the shows.

As most of you know, in those days, shows were one-day events and were always held in the local clubs’ geographic areas. Clubs were allowed to hold two shows per year, but not on the same weekend. Neighboring clubs in the same general geographic area would often team up to provide two shows on the same weekend, offering a minimum driving distance between shows on the same weekend. Most of the clubs would split their two shows into some combination of Spring and Fall or Summer and Winter events. These arrangements meant that on at least two weekends per year, the communities in which the shows were held would have an opportunity for the residents to come out and be introduced to the various breeds as well as to the sport itself.

Because all the shows were held on the weekends, working people and children could still go to their jobs or school and be able to show dogs on the weekends. In many cases, depending upon the show’s location, families would leave early Saturday morning, exhibit their charges, and move to the Sunday showgrounds following Groups and Best in Show. Between shows, most families would stay at a hotel and spend the evening with friends, have dinner together, and discuss their breeds and the like while the children played together, swam, or practiced with their dogs for the following day’s show.

In those days, there were still plenty of professional handlers. But I think it is safe to say that the majority of exhibitors were breeders or owners.

With most breeds, competition was fierce, but also friendly. Most people only exhibited at the shows in their general geographic area. So, often, the competition was regularly amongst the same people and dogs. During these days, exhibitors and judges alike would get together to talk and share their thoughts and ideas. Judges and exhibitors having dinner together were not seen as a conflict of interest, but rather an opportunity to share information and learn from one another.

As it is today, winning was important. However, since you were often competing with the same people regularly, it was always important to get along and respect and support one another. Back in those days, the goals were to go Winners Dog, Winners Bitch, or Best of Breed, and if you were lucky enough to place in the Group, that was just icing on the cake.

Over the next few decades, as our country grew, so did the number of local clubs and the offering of an increased number of opportunities to compete in a geographic area. For example, I lived in Ohio, and there were numerous clubs within a two-hour drive of most major cities. It was rather easy and affordable to attend shows and compete regularly without breaking the family budget.

During the 1970s, inflation began to get out of control. Gas prices were rising, and even gasoline shortages were becoming a common occurrence. The result was that the cost of showing was also rising, as were the growing costs to the clubs to put on a show. At some point, the AKC decided they would allow clubs to “cluster” together at a common site. The thinking made sense, as the clubs could share the expenses of judges, show sites, and other items like the cost of tenting and other things needed to put on a show. Also, by allowing clubs to stay on the same site, the exhibitors would not have the burden of packing up and driving to a new location after the Saturday show.

The two days at one site shows were successful. The AKC then decided that when there was an “EXCEPTIONAL” site available, they would consider allowing up to four shows to be held over four consecutive days at that one site, as long as the participating clubs remained within 125 miles of their geographically designated area.

Depending upon your viewpoint, it was the expansion of clusters that (in my humble opinion) created a decline in our sport. Since the initial introduction of the four-day cluster, the term “Exceptional Site” has fallen away, and now it is rare to see the two-day show weekend in most cases.

The cost factors of combining clubs into clusters is a major factor in the reasoning. However, what is the overall cost factor to the sport and to the average exhibitor?

When clubs combine for clusters, it is usually with the anticipation of higher entries, a lowered cost of judges because of sharing for 4-5 days, a lower overall site rental, and other economic factors.

In some cases, things work out, and the above hold true. In other cases, club leadership can change and animosity can grow between the clubs, and sometimes this leads to a cluster break up. Also, if we are being honest, the majority of sites now being used do not fit in the category of “Exceptional.”

These clusters often come at the expense of the average American family. In the past, they could work and go to school during the week while looking forward to the upcoming weekend of shows, possibly within a short drive from home. With the growth of lengthy clusters, many families no longer attend because the shows are a greater distance from home or they can’t get off from work. Extra hotel nights, meals, and other expenses no longer fit the average family’s budget.

In some cases, the cost of a cluster is felt even deeper by the exhibitor because most clubs try to fill their panels with judges that are approved for between four and seven Groups, so that they can cover the entire cluster. Many of the same judges are then frequently used over and over again while other highly qualified judges are not considered because they may only be able to cover two or three days of the cluster.

Since the expansion of clusters into four and five-day weekends, the average exhibitor numbers are declining and the ranks of the professional handler have exploded. For those working-class people with disposable income, they now hire handlers to show their dogs. Almost all of today’s handlers now have huge, expensive RVs, and the clubs must have a facility that can park these large rigs. It is not uncommon to have anywhere from 50 to 150 of these big rigs at today’s shows, and when you add in the vans, SUVs, and regular auto parking, this alone can be the main concern with finding suitable sites.

We have always had (and we will still have) a growing number of disgruntled exhibitors. However, the cry that is the loudest today is the one: “The professionals always win.” While there will always be the case where the charge might be warranted, the reality is that the professionals are showing a large percentage of the dogs at any show, and in many cases, their grooming, conditioning, ability to hire assistants, and handling skills can often be better than that of the average exhibitor.

So, by now, you might be wondering where I am going with all of this.

I honestly believe there is a better way for our sport and our local clubs to not only survive, but thrive in the future. We live in a huge country divided into 50 states as well as Washington D.C. I decided to look a little deeper into various opportunities for our show-giving clubs.

According to the AKC website, there are about 720 All-Breed Clubs in the United States. The three states with the fewest number of clubs are Delaware, along with North and South Dakota, with two clubs each. The state with the most clubs is California, with 71. There are also only two states that are home to over 40 clubs, and they are Texas at 41 and New York at 45.

Looking further, we only have 10 states, plus Washington D.C., that are home to five or fewer clubs. Along with the aforementioned Delaware, North Dakota and South Dakota, seven additional states (Utah, Alaska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wyoming) fit in this category. We have eleven states with between 6 and 10 clubs, and they are Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, South Carolina, West Virginia, Maine, and New Mexico. And between 11 and 15 clubs call these states home: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Tennessee.

This means that over 60% of our country has a total of 249 clubs, which equates to just 34% of all show-giving clubs, with an average of about eight clubs per state.

There are eight states with between 16 and 20 all-breed clubs. They are Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, North Carolina, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Missouri. Michigan, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin fill out the next group with 21 to 25 all-breed clubs. Illinois boasts 28 clubs, while Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida have between 30 and 40 clubs in their respective states.

Looking closer at the numbers, more than 60% of our country has an average of about eight clubs per state. Looking back, before clusters, that would have meant about 16 occasions (8 clubs x 2 shows) where the local geographic area would have hosted an event, exposing our sport to the locals and providing shows within easy driving distance for the people who live in those states.

Since having been a show chair, as well as a cluster chair, I understand the advantages of multiple days and the reduced cost of facilities as well as the economic benefits they bring. However, I would propose that AKC take a good look at the cluster situation moving forward and consider the following:

In those cases where the all-breed club is also an AKC member club, and they hold the show in their home territory, the club be granted three shows on the same weekend.

The Benefits: The club does not need to work or interact with another club. They can still save money through the ability to hire judges for three days, cutting daily expense fees. The facility costs for the third day are usually lower, cutting the overall cost. Also, by staying in their home territory, they give the area a full weekend of exposure to our sport in that community, which may bring new interest and new members to the club and to the sport. This concept allows the average family the opportunity of a shorter commute to most shows while it is also easier for someone to take off one day on the weekend from school or work than it would be for two days or more.

Using the average of eight clubs in each state, it would mean that on at least eight weekends per year, there would be shows in that particular state. In many cases, it would mean an average of at least one weekend a month. This would allow the average exhibitor between 24 and 36 shows in a given year, without even leaving their respective state.

I’ll go a little deeper and use high population states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. There are 104 clubs combined in those states for an average of 34 clubs per state. This would translate into there being, on average, three weekends per month for shows within those states, with a possibility of up to 102 shows in a year, again, without the exhibitor leaving their home state. Of course, New York, Texas, and California, with their huge
population and numbers of clubs, would have even more opportunities. And each of us who show dogs also knows that our general show area moves into adjoining states, so the opportunity for more shows near the average household would be greater.

I am not advocating the total end of large clusters. But what I am suggesting is that the clusters be limited to those sites that are “Truly Exceptional.” We know these sites are extremely rare and usually only exist in larger cities with huge convention centers and similar facilities. Those types of facilities also provide an opportunity for a huge spectator attendance that does not exist at most of our present cluster sites.

I recently attended a four-day cluster where, while walking through some areas of the RVs, the smell of urine and other unsanitary conditions was a reminder of how the health of the dogs themselves can be compromised. The health and welfare of our dogs, as well as that of our exhibitors, need to be a priority over the desire for the monetary gains of the AKC, the show-giving clubs, and the professional handlers. We need to get back to the basics.

There is no doubt in my mind that if given the choice, most all-breed clubs would embrace the idea of a three-day weekend in their territory. Those clubs could have a weekend that the local community looks forward to each year. Clubs could use the Friday show to invite schools, nursing homes, and other civic organizations to attend and be introduced to the various breeds and all of the things that AKC dogs have to offer. Having an entire three-day weekend might allow for local businesses or other groups to assist the clubs with sponsorship funding, because they might see the economic impact that shows can have on the community.

These are just my insights, suggestions, and opinions. What do you think?

  • 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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