Allowed to Fail

When I was a kid in elementary school we had something we called Field Day. This was a kind of kiddie Olympics held at the school. Kids chose what to take part in, all the track and field events were offered, with the exception of any of the events that required kids to throw heavy or pointed metal objects. We did have a softball throwing event, however, and since the ball was almost too big to grasp nobody got hurt even if you took one to the head. There were team and individual events. There were also winners and losers. If you were an athletic kid, which I was, it was a great day without classes, and you brought home all kinds of ribbons. If you were no good at sports, you didn’t win anything and didn’t bring home any ribbons.

Fast forward a few years and things changed. There were no longer winners or losers at Field Day, there were only “participants”. Everyone got ribbons for participating in each event and there was really no competition at all. All of the kids still knew who was good at the sports and who wasn’t, but nobody was allowed to fail. Just showing up was good enough. After a few more years the whole Field Day was called off. What fun are games, or sports, if nobody can win.

In dog showing there is a proposal for very much the same thing. The DSSA (Dog Show Superintendents Association) presented their idea of how to save the AKC and dog shows to the AKC at the 2009 DSSA annual meeting. Anybody who shows in UKC conformation events will be familiar with the concept: Two shows in one day. I know, some of you might say, obedience clubs are already permitted to do this. But obedience doesn’t really rely on judges to pick the winners. Maybe in some instances, but obedience trials are nothing like conformations shows and to compare them is ludicrous. I’m not going to go through the proposal point by point. The idea has been well thought out and from the perspective of dog show superintendents, you can see the attraction. Everybody is concerned about declining entries and the AKC, DSSA and many dog clubs are all scrambling to come up with ideas to encourage more people to enter more shows.

This proposal aims to be all things to all people. I’m not sure how I feel about this two shows in one day idea. With the current crop of judges, and their seeming lack of in-depth knowledge about many of the breeds they judge, I can see the judges in show two rubber stamping the picks of the judges in show one. The DSSA claims having two shows in one day will make people hang around the shows longer and talk to each other, presumably about dogs. Just like in the good old days. Those must be the days when things were more fair and the “small people” had a chance to take home a few ribbons? Somebody from the DSSA needs to spend a couple of seasons exhibiting week in and week out and they would see that declining entries has a lot less to do with talking to each other and a lot more to do with the general state of the judging taking place and the all too frequent cannibalization of exhibitors by their own kind. I would hate to be a newbie at shows now.

The proposal also claims the two shows in a day plan could be instrumental in retaining the viability of smaller clubs. They site impressive statistics to show that in fact last year there were 226 shows with fewer than 600 dogs entered. Such small entries cannot be profitable for clubs and the DSSA and the AKC are very invested in keeping these struggling organizations alive. I know the function dog clubs serve the dog owning public. They do much more than put on one or two shows every year. They are a source of information, support and puppies which in turn, bring in registrations and a few show entries. But if a club cannot be self-sustaining, why shouldn’t it be allowed to fail? How valuable can any organization be to the community if it can’t value itself enough to at least retain, if not build membership?

Something else the DSSA and the AKC should consider: if these failing clubs die off, their members will join other clubs and strengthen these. More money and talent would become available to clubs that are thriving. Furthermore, if struggling clubs disband, there would be fewer shows and this would lessen the burden on the already overcrowded show calendar while driving up entries at shows put on by the more successful clubs. With fewer shows on the calendar, there would be fewer judges needed every weekend. Maybe clubs could be more selective about who they hire and judges would have to demonstrate true dedication to their craft to be attractive to the clubs.

This is not to say that the AKC needs to lay out a criteria of success and failure and evaluate every club under its umbrella. Clubs cannot be singled out and told to disband. Failure and success are natural functions of any endeavor. There are many factors that contribute to each. Dog clubs that fail do so for some of the same reasons any business fails. Sometimes members’ disagreements factionalize a club causing an irreconcilable rift. Money becomes an issue in some. And still others lose membership due to declining population in an area and the inability of the club to maintain interest in being club members.

We’ve all been to shows where it is obvious the club is in trouble. The judging panel reflects the bargain basement fees the club is able to pay and the venue is usually not one that draws people from out of the area. There were shows in May of this year in Texas where the total entry was 252 dogs. There were not enough Terriers to have a Group 4 awarded. If this club couldn’t attract more that those few entries how long can they remain solvent? Should they? What kind of help from the AKC or the DSSA would be needed to make this show a destination for exhibitors next year? How many years will it take for this club to be successful or for it to fail? Time and resources might be better spent on clubs that do attract entries and offer the chance for points and majors. While it might be momentarily titillating to think of entering a show like this just to have a guaranteed group placement, what does that say about your ability to compete with your dog against those of his breed? A Group 1 ribbon looks good on anybody’s wall, but if you only beat four other dogs to get it did you really win anything at all?

We are living in times that are uncomfortably uncertain. Nobody wants to be unsuccessful in any pursuit. This includes dog show clubs. I applaud the DSSA and the AKC for applying creative thinking to a problem that threatens our sport. But in these lean times, a bloated show calender, with 226 shows too small to turn a profit, isn’t healthy for the system we have. Allowing failing clubs to do so encourages creativity on the part of all clubs and naturally relieves some of the pressure declining entries cause. Clubs that have to worry about surviving cannot offer the dog community anything but a lesson in futility. The built-in safety valve in a free society, or the AKC system of dog shows, is failure. Neither the AKC, nor the DSSA, should be afraid to let it happen.

Like the kids at Field Day, you can give everybody a ribbon but it doesn’t make them a winner and the real winners know it.

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