My 2019 crystal ball is broken. I’ve tried trading it in on a new model, but this one is woefully obsolete, and the new models are still in production. I understand there is a backlog of orders waiting for the 2020 model, but nobody is placing bets on when they will be available. Everyone’s life is different right now. I can tell you the, “We’re all in this together!” mantra is getting tiresome and even annoying as I think more about it. If you are independently wealthy, are still collecting a paycheck or won’t have to declare bankruptcy to restart a business, or are living on a different planet, you are not in this with me. COVID-19 has literally changed everything in my life.
I am not essential on so many levels. My business, except grooming, has been deemed essential, but people cannot travel, and when they can, they won’t be willing to pay for dog boarding. I am over 65 and have COPD, and my husband is retired, so we are living on his retirement portfolio which is heavily weighted with annuities, which are regularly tanking. I have told Darling Husband he is no longer allowed to tell me how much money we lost in a one-day stock market free-fall. I breed and sell rare purebred dogs that few people will have the discretionary income to afford when we come out of this. And now, due to the bailout legislation, I can go into debt to keep my staff working the shortened hours we’ve gone to. That means I will have more debt to pay off with non-existent revenue when we can return to work. I wanted to retire this year, but this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. My entire business model depends on people having discretionary income to spend on things like vacations, rare purebred dogs, and grooming. I don’t think $1,200.00 will be able to pay for much more than necessities and bills, and it certainly won’t cover the cost of one of my puppies. People will ask the neighbor kid to watch or groom their dog instead of taking it to a professional facility like mine. That happened during the last recession, so it’s a good bet it will happen again. Not only do we not know when the virus will abate, but we certainly don’t know when the income of people sent home to be safer-at-home will recover.
Dog shows were always my respite when the rest of the world went crazy, and even they are gone for a while. Perhaps longer. No one knows how long it will take to crank up the economy from the near standstill it’s in right now, but I can assure you that there will be little discretionary spending for a very long time. The wealthy backers and handlers who work for them will still be able to compete, but I suspect the larger segment of our exhibitor population who breed and show their own dogs will be mostly absent at a lot of shows. If, like me, you work for a small business with no revenue coming in, then even when the revenue does start to trickle back, you will have a backlog of bills to pay, and no money for entry fees, much less hotels and transportation costs. I may be able to get to a few local shows, but I won’t take as many dogs as I did in the past. I don’t know if I will be able to afford a handler for my Specials, so they may have to come home. Suddenly my dogs’ national ranking does not seem so important in the whole scheme of life, though sustainability of my handler does. My own dog club’s show has about six weeks to make the decision to cancel or go on. I think we’re mostly ready to go on, but the fairgrounds could make the decision to stay closed, and we have no alternative date or site. So, we wait.
These are strange times. We don’t know how our economy will come out of this, or how long it will take. I feel an obligation to keep as many of my staff employed as possible, but right now it is to their advantage to go on unemployment and cash-in on the additional benefits provided in the federal stimulus package. We closed for a week, and everyone pitched in to do a deep clean, and now I have only enough work for fewer than half of them. This is the real heartbreak for small business owners—it’s not going out of business that’s so traumatic, though it is. It’s having to tell people who have been loyal employees for decades that I can no longer afford to pay them. That hurts the most. We have little cash, and uncertain investments. In past recessions and slow-downs we were willing to invest our own personal cash in the business to keep the doors open. But this time we can’t. Our retirement years depend on what we’ve saved in investments, and the stock market is not stable. My sister, a bankruptcy lawyer in California and Nevada is already seeing a tidal wave of business on the horizon. I may be one of her first Covid-19 clients before this is over.
And let’s not forget that at one level, our dog shows are an addiction. We get rewarded just enough to keep pulling the handle on that proverbial slot machine. A major here, a specialty win there, and we’re packing up every weekend to chase those ribbons. We hug our spouses, kids and grandkids, and come back home after a long weekend exhausted, but feeling like we did something important. All we did was feed our addiction. There were more of us unhappy with the weekend’s results than those who were happy. We congratulated the winners, and vowed to make it different the next time. We’ll train more, groom better, hide more faults, learn more coloring tricks, breed a better dog, call a judge, call a friend who knows somebody, pray the competition’s dogs show terribly, wish for a judge change—and show up to take our chances. The dice will roll, and maybe the person pointing will point to us. It’s a wheel of fortune. Sometimes we win, and often we lose. It often feels arbitrary. Wins have to keep getting bigger to satisfy the addiction. When we started, a blue ribbon in a class of two felt great, and we were happy. Then we wanted a purple ribbon, and that win felt great. The blue and white ribbon or a ribbon from a larger entry felt even better. Then we wanted the purple and gold ribbon. Those presented a new challenge. We could breed good dogs to get the purple ribbons, but the purple and gold required a reputation, so we worked on that. We bred good dogs and we started to pay attention to who we had to know to get more of those ribbons. One is never enough. Once the desire is turned on, the rest is all about getting more and better at what we do. And that includes telling ourselves every step of the way that we are righteous. We joined dog clubs and angled for ways to hire judges so we could institute a mental quid pro quo. Unlevel the playing field. Our face could be recognized more than someone elses’. And we began to realize that our faces are often more meaningful in the ring than the quality of dogs we have at the end of our leash. And we continue to go because we have convinced ourselves that it’s important. But is it?
I love breeding dogs. It’s how I got mixed up with all of this 43 years ago. I love learning about my breeds, canine anatomy, health and behavioral issues, grooming and training techniques. I am the daughter of a college professor, and lifelong learning is as much a passion as breeding dogs. For a long time, this marriage of passions served me well. My dogs got better and healthier as I became more educated. But the nagging suggestion of an addiction to dog shows also lingered in my sub-conscious. When my husband went into a 12-step program for alcohol addiction, I silently wondered if they had a program for dog-show exhibitors. I wasn’t satisfied with breeding better, healthier dogs, I had to win ribbons to feel really good. I needed the public validation that I was doing something right. Dog shows often fed that need for validation. And I loved the network of people I met through showing dogs. Even as the shows themselves shifted from an expert’s honest evaluation of livestock to popularity contests, I continued to rationalize my attendance. I could be popular. And I could still win ribbons, and I could still breed and sell dogs. And things would still be fine at home when I left. And my daughter was now starting to join me in my travels, and life was good again. I thought.
Then Covid-19 happened, and my addiction had to take a break. My business and employees needed my attention. My family’s health took center stage. I learned I could become paralyzed with anxiety. Then Joe McGinnis died, and my light at the end of the tunnel went out. I became reflective about the whole business of purebred dogs and what our place in this society is, and is going to be in the future. We were already hanging on by a thread, even as I was seeing that thread gain a little more substance in the past couple of years. I began wondering if there really could be a market for purpose-bred dogs when the “rescues” and “designer breeds” had increased so dramatically in the past ten years. Goldendoodles are so popular now, that people believe they should be paying more for this high-demand mixed breed, than for a carefully bred purebred dog. It’s now become chic to own a rescue, so that’s what the wealthy are buying. There is no broad-based sympathy for what we do, and relatively few people think it’s important for us to continue. We’re like the tobacco farmers when smoking was exposed as a bad habit. Our crazy world just got crazier. And now all of us are figuring out what other fun things we could do with our weekends. Our addiction is losing some grip.
In my opening I suggested none of us has a functioning crystal ball. On the one hand I want to carry forward the undying optimism for our sport that Joe McGinnis embodied. He was working hard on his component of our world until he died. And I truly believe that if anything can save our dogs it will be his vision for the meet-the-breeds conventions that will pop up across the country. We were on-track, and beginning to see a revitalization of passion for our purebred dogs. But even Joe did not see the devastating effects of a pandemic. He could not see the failing businesses, loss of income, and shift in priorities of people faced with the possibility of getting a disease without a treatment. Sometimes I think we’ve built a huge infrastructure to support something that no longer has a significant market. Sustainability isn’t just a word for dogs, it applies to business models, too.
We’ve all adjusted to this temporary normal, but we still don’t know what the new normal is going to look like when this virus subsides. Only time will give us an answer. If ever there was a time for serious reflection and self-analysis, this is it. Who do we want to be? What do we believe is important? How shall we market that to the wider public? Can we regain and maintain integrity with a smaller sport? Who will we choose as our vision-guides? We’re seeing firsthand what addressing a coming crisis without a plan can look like.
If this AKC world of dogs is going to survive the next five years, planning needs to begin now.