Rocky Mountain Cluster – Losers?

You could say we were losers at our own shows this year. True, it was the first time in six years we came away with nothing in the win department. True, we had two very nice dogs entered and neither one was really a contender, but we didn’t mind. We are in a rebuilding year with these two dogs. They need to show to learn and progress and build the skills of their handlers with them so when it is their turn to win they will be ready. No dog becomes a better showman by sitting home in the kennel or on the couch. What was remarkable about this year’s Rocky Mountain Cluster was how people responded to four large dog shows without highly ranked dogs, and big name handlers.

The AKC has spent a considerable amount of time and money trying to devise ways to keep people interested, and entering, shows. First they added the Amateur/Owner/Handler Class. A sort of whiners class, created to make the non-professional handler/owner feel he is able to compete for a class placement without automatically losing to the professional. It was probably hoped that people entering this class would be slow to realize that to actually get the points, for winners dog or bitch, they would have to compete against the very handlers they feared. I guess nobody ever told these whiners that the two things every amateur can do with their dog is learn to be a better handler and groomer. And these things can get you wins. Entries in this class never were legion, as there became a kind of stigma attached to entering it. The unique aspect of dog showing is that the neophyte exhibitor can compete with his dog, side by side, with the most skillful, professional handlers in the sport for merely the price of the entry. With fair judging the amateur can beat the pros and do regularly. Our sport is full of owners that can hold their own with the best professional on any weekend.

Last year, the AKC proposed re-structuring the seven groups. A move nearly universally voted down by the constituent member clubs. The AKC apparently forgot that there are very many small, under 800 dog, shows where there could conceivably be only four or five dogs in some of these “new” groups. That would make it easier for some breeds, and therefore more people, to place in many of the groups. It was hoped this might encourage more people to keep showing their dogs since garnering a group placement would be easier. They probably looked at the success the Pembroke and Cardigan Corgis have had at the group level since the advent of the Herding group in 1983. Prior to that time, these low-legged dogs could rarely overcome their more flashy Working group-mates in the judge’s eyes for a group placement. The new group made them stand out and made placing easier. But did this new-found competitiveness encourage more people to own and exhibit Corgis? I think not. People own a particular breed because of the attributes of those dogs, not because it may be easier to win in a show ring with it. Likewise in exhibiting dogs. Being Group 1, out of four dogs is hardly something to brag about.

Since we all know that the professional handler has a perceived advantage in the ring, the AKC, masters of speaking out of both sides of their mouths, passed a rule, effective in January of this year, allowing exhibitors showing their dogs in the Bred-By-Exhibitor class, to have somebody other than the breeder/owner take the dog into the winners class for the points. People who believe they have bred nice dogs, but also believe they can’t win against the professional, much like those drawn to the Amateur/Owner/Handler Class, have a chance to have their cake and eat it, too. This was probably done to encourage more people breeding dogs to enter shows. And since only AKC registered dogs can enter AKC shows this is a win-win for everybody. There are already perks in place for people finishing a dog out of Bred-By, and now it seems the AKC is admitting that there may be an advantage, under many judges, to having a bigger face on the lead of the dog you want to win.

On May 12th, of this year, the newest of the AKC’s ideas to encourage the little people to keep on showin’ take affect. This is the Grand Champion title. Taking a page from the agility book, where there is no shortage of titles to win and people enter trials in droves, the AKC is offering a new conformation title: Grand Champion. UKC has had this for years, by the way. This is the same organization that the AKC eschews and refuses to let its judges participate in. But the AKC vs UKC rivalry is another topic. The purpose of the Grand Championship title is to encourage people to keep showing their dog after it achieves its AKC championship. The rules were so unintelligible that the sport’s governing body has had to send out at least three clarification statements through member club delegates. One of the problems with this new title is that it takes “majors” to win it. That is calculated on how many dogs and champions are in the entry. With majors in most breeds nearly impossible to find, it will take a significantly long time to achieve this title in most breeds. This may defeat the purpose for the title since most people aren’t very good at delayed gratification.

The AKC itself states: For many owners there is little incentive to continue to exhibit dogs that have completed their championship title. All exhibitors do not have the financial means or desire to extensively campaign a dog in pursuit of top rankings. This title permits quality dogs to be recognized without extensive travel as the Grand Champion title can be earned at all shows with Best of Breed competition. What happened to showing your dog for the thrill of competition and the pride you have in owning a great representative of your chosen breed? The AKC further states: we anticipate a significant increase in the entry of champions competing for Grand Championship points at both all-breed and specialty shows. Using agility events as a model is faulty reasoning. Agility exhibitors keep competing for the sheer joy of running with their dogs. They also compete against themselves and the clock. No human intermediary to determine the winners. Most of us who campaign an AKC champion dog, do so for the joy of competition and the goals of group, specialty or Best in Show wins. All of which can be accomplished on the local level. Most of us will continue doing so even if we never achieve the new Grand Champion title.

What the AKC prefers not to think about, and is unwilling to address, is the perception that the playing field, or ring in our case, is not level. Exhibitors must believe judges will judge dogs, no matter who is holding the lead. This sometimes occurs naturally at shows, as in the case of this year’s Rocky Mountain Cluster. Every five years or so, when the dog show calendar pits our shows against the Westminster Kennel Club shows, the field levels. This means that no big-time handler, or their big time dogs, will show up at our hometown shows. This means that us locals will be able to show our dogs to judges that will be forced to look down the lead, in most cases, instead of up it, to make their selections. And if the overall quality in the groups and breed rings is not what it usually is, no matter, more winning for the rest of us.

So if our two boys weren’t destined to be winners this year, one for lack of color and the other for lack of showmanship, the dogs picked for the purple and gold were still worthy. In Kerries, the winner in the breed was a nice bitch that will clean up around here this year. There are no dogs in our state to touch her and by the time there are, she will have the reputation to carry her through. We didn’t mind losing to this bitch. The owner has paid her dues and had her share of heart ache in her breeding. The young woman who shows this dog for her makes a nice picture in the ring with the dog and that can’t hurt either.

In Bedlingtons, we prepared ourselves for out-of-towners from Washington State and Iowa. We like both these couples and their dogs, but when we saw the judging panel come up, those of us who own and show our lamb dogs locally, knew who would win each day of the weekend. The Seattle contingent on Friday and Saturday and the Iowa pair on Sunday and Monday. This didn’t lessen our enjoyment of the weekend. These exhibitors are all amateurs and tough competitors. Peyton will be there one day, but not on these days.

The AKC would do well to take note of this cluster. Entries were down about 10% but there were still nearly 2100 dogs on each of the four days. There seemed to be a lessened tension in the grooming areas and more recognition of nice local dogs is never a bad thing. We stewarded in two rings on Sunday and Monday and witnessed judges making their picks based on the standards of the breeds they judged. There were no distractions that the bigger faces provide. The absence of the top ranked dogs and handlers opened the winning up to those who are the backbone of the sport. Those who don’t have the big money to campaign a dog but still have big dreams and decent dogs. Shows where the perception of fairness in judging exists will bring in more exhibitors than sham classes and meaningless titles ever will. Most people, ourselves included, left the shows of the 2010 Rocky Mountain Cluster understanding why we lost. Something about fitting the breed standard perhaps or lack of proficiency as a handler or groomer.

Hear us loudly, AKC: If they judge us fairly we will come!

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