The Remedy for Ringside Rumination: Dog Show Dialogue Doesn’t Have to Be Negative
From the October 2018 Isssue of ShowSight. Click to subscribe.
(Pictured above- Dog shows are the ideal place for breed-specific conversations. Photo by Dan Sayers)
Dog shows are in trouble. Entries are plummeting. Majors are few and far between. Costs for everything are soaring. Everything is “politics!” The constant refrain from some fanciers who lament the current state of affairs at AKC conformation shows can be enough to turn anyone away from the sport. To listen to the chronic complainers, you’d think there’s no better way to spend a weekend than to drive great distances to compete in a sport that offers no competition or chance to win. “The system is rigged,” say the spoilsports to anyone who will listen. Their ringside rumination—imposed on friend and foe alike—is distracting and their chorus of contempt can be deafening. However, for exhibitors in search of stimulating conversation, dog show dialogue need not be disparaging, dismissive or destructive. For exhibitors in search of stimulating conversation, dog shows can still offer ample opportunity for spontaneous discussions about the breeding, showing and evaluation of purebred dogs.
At one recent local show, I stood alongside a breeder of many top-winners in the Herding Group. As we watched the judging of this particular Group, I began to consider the overall proportion of some of the breed representatives in the ring. The dogs in question were beautiful, certainly, but something about them seemed “off.” Although they certainly looked the part, their height-to-length ratio seemed atypical to me. As one particular dog circled the ring, I asked my neighbor for an experienced opinion. Without hesitation, this longtime breeder explained how dogs of that particular breed are intended to work, and why symmetry of outline is so important. Length in the breed, she emphasized, is due to a long ribcage and dependent on proper angles, front and rear. During the examination of another dog, I asked for the lady’s opinion about dentition. Again, without skipping a beat, she quoted that breed’s AKC standard and offered a persuasive argument to suggest that standards are written—and approved—with a built-in bias. The preference is clear, she argued, with standards that read, “Teeth are level or scissors.” In the opinion of my ringside mentor, “level or scissors” is not the same as “scissors or level.” The first term, she emphasized, is preferred whereas the second is merely acceptable. I’ve been thinking about the order of words in a sentence ever since.
While watching a recent Sighthound specialty, I made a quiet comment to a friend about a particular dog in a class. “Look at that dog’s beautiful neck-to-shoulder transition,” I remarked spontaneously. As it so happened, the dog’s breeder was standing on the other side of my friend and she overheard my candid critique. “My dogs are well-known for their front assembly,” she declared with no false-modesty. A sense of relief came over me, as did a desire to learn more about her ability to produce a front with such fine, sloping shoulders and return of upper arm. As each class entered the ring, the exhibits from her kennel proved unmistakable. Their front assemblies were distinctive when compared with that of their competitors. When the Open Bitch class entered the ring, I was again struck by one particular exhibit. When I commented on this bitch’s well-made front and stunning head, her breeder didn’t hesitate to specify an obvious short coming. “She’s too small,” was the reason the lady gave for placing this exquisite creature. The message was clear: Breeders who can reproduce quality consistently also have the ability to make decisions that lesser breeders may find difficult.
Not every dog-related discussion begins with a bang. The simplest of greetings can sometimes lead to the most memorable conversations. At one Sunday show this past summer, I stopped by a handler’s set-up and found myself part of a dialogue I won’t soon forget. Under the canopy of an RV, surrounded by dozens of ribbons and rosettes awarded just that weekend, I spoke with a second-generation dog man who didn’t seem to care much about those silken sashes. In fact, he considered “winning at all costs” to be an albatross around the necks of many of today’s professional and owner-handlers. Though he felt many of the dogs being shown today are worthy of their win records, he bemoaned the fact that some of the folks who handle these dogs are not the least bit interested in breeding dogs of the same quality. It seems that many of today’s “handlers” are motivated (perhaps burdened) by a system that rewards the win—often despite the dog. According to the professional handler I spoke with, the sport isn’t dependent so much on the ring as it is the whelping box. “Handlers can’t expect to stay in business if there are no more breeders,” he reminded. “If handlers are motivated only by ratings systems or the promise of another bonus, what is happening to the dogs?” The gentleman’s question is worthy of consider. For if the dog sport is not led by dog breeders, it’s going to be led by the dog traders.
One of the very best reasons to attend a dog show is to spend time with others who’ve also taken up the cause to preserve your breed. Once the competition has ended, fanciers will often sit back and relax with the people who are just as crazy about “your” breed. Over a potluck lunch or post-show dinner, breed-specific conversations are inevitable. Sometimes the banter is idle chitchat, but the conversation can become quite focused when the participants are serious dog breeders. At one recent show, I enjoyed an impromptu discussion with one such breeder. Neither of us had a dog entered on the day, but we took advantage of the time together to share news and information about health testing, grooming styles and potential stud dogs in our breed. Our exchange included mention of dogs we’d seen in the flesh and those we know only through social media. We compared notes on type and temperament, and we shared opinions on the breed standard. Without a single point on offer that day, we somehow managed to delve into a breed-specific discussion that invigorated and encouraged us both.
You never know who you’ll meet at a dog show. While talking with this publication’s Executive Editor Emeritus, Joe McGuiness, I was introduced to a friend of his who has bred —among other things—dogs, cavies and love birds. One of the more interesting aspects of talking with someone who has successfully bred and exhibited a variety of animals is to come to the realization that a genuine breeder is someone so compelled to breed they can do so successfully with fauna of his or her choosing. A true breeder is an artist whose medium is flesh and fur (or fin or feather.) Anyone can breed a litter of puppies or a clutch of nestlings, but a Breeder with a capital “B” can do so with greater consistency and success. These masters always have a clear vision for the animals they wish to produce and they have the ability to overcome the many challenges they encounter along the way. Like great dogs, great breeders have that indefinable “it” factor. And though their good instincts are a birthright, the wisdom they possess can freely be imparted to those who wish to learn.
Dog shows are not in trouble—yet. But the sport we so thoroughly enjoy depends on each of us to support one another and engage in conversations that are encouraging and respectful. Our love for dogs has brought us together and it’s our love for the dog sport that will keep us together. After all, there’s really no place quite like a dog show for people who like to “talk dogs.” Just remember, the dog show dialogue doesn’t have to be negative.