Today’s breeder and exhibitor participates in a sport that embraces new technologies even as it upholds long-standing traditions. Online entry services, digital advertising and pedigree databases allow contemporary fanciers to preserve and promote purebred dogs in the new millenium. Innovation, however, is not new to the sport of dogs. In fact, technology has repeatedly been the breeder’s greatest preservation tool and the exhibitor’s best means to ensure a future for the sport.
When the members of the Westminster Kennel Club held their first dog show in the Hippodrome at Gilmore’s Garden in 1877, a technological and cultural revolution was underway across the U.S. A dozen years after the Civil War had ended, imagination and invention were changing the manner in which Americans lived, worked and played. Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell led the way, certainly, but so too did a group of gentlemen hunters from New York City. Their exhibition of dog breeds from around the world sparked an interest in purebred dogs that has endured despite two world wars, the Great Depression, and the propogation of the “Doodle!”
The “First Annual N.Y. Bench Show of Dogs” was certainly innovative for its day. “Workmen tore down barriers and partitions that had been part of the circus that had just closed and used the lumber to construct benching,” notes AKC President William F. Stifel in his celebratory work, The Dog Show: 125 Years of Westminster. Interestingly, before bandmaster Patrick S. Gilmore purchased the open-air arena, the structure at East 26th Street and Madison Avenue was the site of “Barnum’s Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome.” Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum had leased the New York and Harlem Railroad depot from Cornelius Vanderbilt. The showman, politician and businessman organized events at the site that featured acrobats, prancing horses, and chariot races with female drivers. Of the site’s transformation from railway depot to circus tent to musical theater to dog show hall, the editors of Field & Stream wrote, “There is no place in this country so admirably adapted for the purposes of a Bench Show.”
As America’s interest in dog shows grew, the infant sport began to organize—and innovate. In 1878, a code of rules was arranged for holding bench shows and field trials throughout the country. A national governing body for dog registrations and shows was established in 1884, with Westminster selected as the American Kennel Club’s first member club. Two shows were held in New York City that year, the only time Westminster has hosted biannual events. A February show was open to the Sporting breeds, and a later exhibition in the fall was held for Non-Sporting breeds, Deerhounds, Greyhounds and Fox Terriers. In 1889, the AKC published its first issue of the American Kennel Gazette to connect the sport with fanciers in all (42) US states and territories.
Innovations continued to propel the dog sport forward at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1904, arm bands with catalog numbers were worn by exhibitors for the first time. Three years later, a panel of 10 judges awarded Best in Show for the first (second and third) time at Westminster to Ch. Warren Remedy, a Smooth Fox Terrier bitch owned by Winthrop Rutherfurd. That first win signaled the arrival of the Fox Terrier as a force to be reckoned with in the show ring. However, not every breed or new award caught on with fanciers of the day. The Mexican Hairless wouldn’t be recognized as the Xoloitzquintli for another century and, in 1910, Company 8 won the only class offered by the club for Fire House Dalmatians. Even by today’s mutable standards, this award has to be considered one of the more innovative attempts at garnering attention from the dog-loving public.
As America transformed itself into an industrial nation, innovations were regularly introduced to the sport. In the 1920s, five Groups were established to better organize the growing number of recognized breeds. Imported dogs won Best in Show so often that the AKC established a top award for American-Bred dogs. Show-giving clubs proliferated and sanctioned matches were introduced. Show catalogs were organized by Group, instead of alphabetically by breed—or breed size! Most importantly, the threat of diseases such as distemper were ever-present so veterinarians were required to be present at every event.
The economic hardship of the 1930s challenged most Americans, many of whom sought comfort in a canine companion. Consequently, registrations and participation in the sport actually grew, and the number of recognized breeds increased by nearly two dozen. The AKC established its own library during this period and offered Children’s Handling Classes to welcome young people to the sport. The organization also required licenses of anyone who charged a fee or was paid to exhibit dogs. The Professional Handlers Association that was established in 1931 provided a network of support and a solid foundation for the future. During the Great Depression, the sport of dogs had grown so much that the Morris and Essex Kennel Club drew a record 3,862 dogs (4,456 entries) to its 1939 show in Madison, New Jersey.
The dog fancy continued to innovate despite 1940s wartime rationing. Gas conservation encouraged individual clubs to hold shows in the same building and on consecutive days, and benched shows could now be held over three days for the very first time. To further reduce expenses, some clubs chose to do away with benching altogether. Some held obedience trials in an effort to boost entries. Despite the difficulties of the day, exhibitors managed to support entries by carpooling to shows. (Many were encouraged to enter dogs in the new Bred-By Exhibitor Class.) Some exhibitors, of course, had no need to share a ride. The dogs of Mrs. M. Hartley (Geraldine Rockefeller) Dodge always arrived in style in a custom-built Cadillac with an extended all-steel body. The lady’s “estate wagon,” a technological innovation that predates the construction of US Interstates by nearly two decades, was a precursor to every station wagon, mini-van or motorhome that has ever shuttled dogs to and fro.
In the post-war years, Americans became enamored with a new form of technology. In 1948, Mr. & Mrs. William A. Rockefeller’s Bedlington Terrier, Ch. Rock Ridge Night Rocket, became the first purebred dog to be selected BIS at Westminster on live television. The exposure proved beneficial to the sport of dogs as the post-war economy boomed. Conformation shows increased in number and grew larger in size. Likewise, obedience trials and field trials proved a major draw for returning servicemen who had participated in the Dogs for Defense program. Several legendary handlers and judges of the 20th century came to the sport in this way. By the 1960s, a provisional judging system was in place and field reps were employed at conformation shows full-time. Restricted “champions-only” shows were tried, but their appeal was limited as they reduced the numbers of dogs that could be shown by professional handlers.
Significant changes were made to the sport during the 1970s, many of which reflected societal changes. In September 1974, Mrs. Fred (Julia) Gasow of Salilyn English Springer Spaniel fame became one of three women to attend an AKC Delegate Meeting for the first time. Other changes were strictly economic. Rising postal rates and printing costs necessitated abbreviated premium lists and a smaller AKC Gazette. Additionally, an oil embargo resulted in a reevaluation of clubs’ territorial limits and show dates. The “clusters” of shows that resulted proved popular with show-giving clubs, professional handlers, and puppy buyers who were beginning to register more than a million purebred dogs annually.
The 1984 AKC Centennial Dog Show and Obedience Trial signaled a new beginning for the sport of dogs in America. The Herding Group was just a year old when the German Shepherd Dog, Ch. Covy-Tucker Hill’s Manhattan, was awarded Best in Show at the Philadelphia Civic Center by judge Mr. William L. Kendrick. This singular win happened on the eve of a technological revolution. Nine months before the Centennial Show, the Westminster KC had its show presented live on cable TV for the first time. Cable television (and satellite TV) provided the sport with unprecedented visibility. Registrations and show entries grew along with the number of show-giving clubs and the types of events that were offered. By the 1990s, interest in purebred dogs seemed limitless. However, the reliability of conformation and obedience entries came into question. Agility was on the rise and the Canine Good Citizen Program seemed a noble response to a growing anti-purebred dog sentiment. Though registrations continued to rise, most parent clubs had already formed rescue committees to manage the potential surplus of unwanted pets. >
In the new millenium, changes affecting the sport of dogs were largely made in response to emerging technologies—and unprecedented tragedies. The coordinated terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 put search and rescue dogs front and center in the American consciousness and, as the digital revolution shifted into high gear, the World Wide Web soon delivered dog show news and information to everyone’s smart phone. In 2005, breed judging at Westminster was telecast via streaming video for the first time. In August of that same year, live telecasts from the Gulf Coast spawned the craze for “rescue dogs” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Together with an increased demand for so-called designer dogs, “retail rescue” operations put the purebred dog community on the defensive for the first time in modern memory. Unscrupulous “puppy brokers” were quick to utilize the Internet as a marketing tool, increasing demand for their mismatched mongrels. Unfortunately, most preservation breeders were late to grasp the notion that everyone (including the typical puppy buyer) was shopping online.
During the 2010s, registrations and entries at most conformation shows and obedience trials decreased, often dramatically. To counter the losses, the AKC developed a Grand Championship title and welcomed “new” breeds and performance events at a remarkable rate. In a single decade, more than 30 breeds were recognized and a string of companion and performance events was introduced. As obedience entries declined, rally obedience found a receptive audience among new and seasoned exhibitors. Likewise, events such as barn hunt, dock diving and scent work proved appealing to fanciers in search of new titles and experiences. Even Westminster, that most venerated of kennel clubs, embraced this new direction by introducing its Masters Obedience and Masters Agility Championships. Still in their infancy, these introductions signaled a sweeping change in a sport that embraces standards of performance every bit as much as standards of perfection.
At the dawn of the current decade, purebred dog breeders and exhibitors looked to the future with cautious optimism. The 144th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was a resounding success, and the year 2020 seemed poised to become an exciting one for the sport of dogs. However, even the most optimistic fancier could not have predicted the events to come. When shows were cancelled in response to the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, the future of the sport—and its participants—never seemed more uncertain. Threats from the AR movement seemed a distant concern and the calamities of the previous century paled in comparison to an unseen enemy. Yet, even in the throes of despair, the community of dog fanciers managed to stay connected. Communication technologies offered teleconferencing, distance education and social interaction to thousands of exhibitors, many of whom were otherwise isolated from the world. (The AKC even extended its hand by offering Trick Dog, Rally, and Act 1 & 2 Agility titles to dogs evaluated through video.)
The idea that the sport of dogs in America has always been “this way” or “that way” is a false impression. To the contrary, the community of purebred dog fanciers in America has always responded to challenges, great and small, by adapting to its circumstances. After all, no organization manages to exist for 135 years without changing with the times. Never has it been more criticial for the sport to find innovative ways to adapt.
Last month, all eyes were on Guthrie, Oklahoma, as the Bartlesville KC, Mid-Del-Tinker KC, and Claremore KC of Oklahoma opened their doors to the first AKC all-breed shows to be held in more than three months. Following on the heels of a successful match in Florida and a specialty show in Ohio, the Oklahoma clubs found unwaivering support from fanciers longing to return to the ring. (Entries closed in less than an hour, drawing dogs from across the country.) Branded “The Learning Cluster” by its organizers, the shows proved that an event’s success relies heavily on preparation, planning, presentation and, most importantly today, prevention. To this last point, the show chairs and their committees have been roundly lauded for their seamless introduction of mandatory masks, armband stations, and other innovations intended to safeguard the health and safety of all.
And speaking of prevention, the time is surely now for show committees to decide if they are prepared to promote purebred dogs in the 21st century. With spectators prohibited from attending shows for the foreseeable future, the question must be asked: “Are dog clubs and dog shows still capable of serving the public interest?” Well, the technology to do so is already available. While the first show was underway in Oklahoma, I was able to watch the Group judging from my home in New Jersey thanks to an exhibitor who kindly streamed the goings-on from a smart phone. The experience of watching the show “live” was reassuring for me as I’m sure it was for countless breeders, exhibitors and judges who were unable to attend. As the seven Group winners stepped into the BIS ring, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful for the future and proud of the dedication and determination expressed by so many in the sport. The experience seemed nothing short of miraculous. I wondered, “How amazing is it to be able to watch a dog show this way? Any person who enjoys dogs can watch from wherever they are!” I privately congratulated the day’s winner and looked forward to tuning in again over the next three days. Unfortunately, streaming from the subsequent shows never happened. Apparently, the action was prohibited as noted in the premium list. Though personally disappointed, I couldn’t help but feel that an opportunity to connect fanciers had been missed at a time when the community needs to feel connected more than ever. In the future, will show committees utilize current technologies to promote their clubs (and the sport of dogs in general) or will the status quo continue despite the need to preserve purebred dogs by any means necessary? “Live Stream Clusters” could help to redefine the sport for a technology-dependent audience, and they could help to save it in the process.
Innovation & Technology (Re)Define the Dog Sport
by Dan Sayers
1939 Estate Wagon
Technology and dog shows have always gone together as demostrated by Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge’s custom body 1939 Cadillac. Photo courtesy of St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center.