Lining Up

It is the first true winter night we’ve had all year.  The year is only nine days old, but two days ago we were all wearing shorts and flip-flops and now we’re searching the backs of our closets for winter boots.  There are six inches of very light snow piled up on the roads and the yards.  Schools are closing and the local news stations have done their best to whip up the fear of a brutal morning commute by showing video of cars sliding into each other.

The new show season has started.  These first shows bring out an interesting mix of dogs.  Dogs just starting out, last year’s winners waiting out the weeks before Westminster and some dogs just out of the Miscellaneous classes vying for their breed’s first AKC championsips.  California and Florida are the locales most associated with these first few weeks of the new year, but Texas and Minnesota had shows, too.  No matter where dogs show they all seem happy out doing something with people they like to do them with.  There are a lot of hopes behind the dogs out on the circuits.  But it takes more than wishing to make a dog a winner.

Three things make a winner at the dog show game: a really good dog, a good handler and a fair judge.  All three of these are in short supply today. The show climate is very different now than what it was even ten years ago.  There were fewer shows in those times. Many of the shows today are fewer than 600 entries.  This is successfully exploited by those with the money to travel to SmallTown, USA, with a mediocre dog and pick up several good wins on paper, at least, while the bigger dogs and their handlers, are elsewhere.  Before anybody longs to return to the days of far fewer shows remember, fewer shows mean fewer opportunities to win on any level.

Overall, a careful look at the people involved in dog shows now a focus more on the winning than on the dogs. A kind of obligatory lip service is paid to breeders of quality dogs, but it’s the wins that matter most. If a dog wins a couple of nice placements some owners are on the hunt for a monied backer.  Admittedly, it’s fun to see your dog’s name in the Weekly Wins column, or the superintendent’s results pages.  It’s more than a little satisfying being perceived as a winner by your peers.  The irrefutable evidence in their faces, in print.  And since many people aren’t even clear on the fine points of their breed they have no choice but to accept these wins alone as proof of  a dog’s quality.

The need for immediate success has changed the idea of a really good dog into a really generic dog quickly and easily trained. Able to endure the rigors of a show seasons on the road.  A brief reading of the breed standard detailing the conformation of  some of the show game’s biggest winners doesn’t seem to match what’s in the ring at all.  When I was first going to shows with my parents, the German Short Haired Pointer was a moderate sized breed, not the behemoths seen winning today.  At a large show in the lower mid-west, two years ago, a popular judge called for the wicket on an entry of Britanies.  Knowing very little about their standard I knew two of the dogs in the classes were oversized, and there is a size disqualification in that breed. Both were shown by handlers with familiar faces in the sporting dog ring.  As the judge attempted to measure one of the dogs, the handler applied pressure to the animal making him crouch just an inch or so lower. Clearly the handler knew his exhibit didn’t meet the written standard. The judge noticed this and instructed the handler to reset the dog.  The two dogs eventually measured out.  The major broke and many of the exhibitors were unhappy.  The two dogs were back in the same ring the next day.  This time the judge didn’t seem as concerned about the breed standard and the two dogs, found unworthy the day before, awarded winners dog and reserve. That day everybody lost.

If you couldn’t drag your dog around to all the shows necessary to pick up enough wins to finish him, or to make him a ranked special, you hired one of the half-dozen or so professional handlers in your area.  These people were skillful and had learned their craft through lengthy apprenticeships with more seasoned professionals.  They took on clients that could pay, but that also had dogs worthy of winning.  In those days, you knew the dog was a good one if it showed up with Eddie or George because they wouldn’t disgrace themselves showing a lesser specimen.  Their reputations were on the line.  People making their livings showing dogs could groom what they showed and knew something about the breeds they presented.  The same handler showed a Pekingese differently than a Doberman and differently than a Fox Terrier.  Look in any Group or Best in Show ring today and you will see a kind of generic presentation.  Every dog must free stack, free bait and do it all at the end of a six-foot, or longer, lead.  The handlers hold the lead in one had and make a casting motion with their other hand, full of bait, in the direction of the dog as if they were fly fishing.  There is no motivation to improve handling and presentation skills if the same method works for every breed, every show. What seems necessary today are legions of aged-out juniors acting as assistants, not apprentices, who show up ringside to minister to the dog and handler with water, sprays, towels and an occasional cell phone.

Similar to handlers, judges were people who had the highest integrity. Respected in their field and revered for their depth of knowledge about the breeds they judged. They viewed themselves as guardians of the sport.  They were more concerned about finding the best dogs than they were about their next assignment.  With so many more shows comes the need for many more judges.  These people must come from somewhere.  Often, they are retired handlers or bored breeders.  These people are more aware of the win statistics than what it takes to become a skillful judge.  Thanks to the various online reporting services we are all too aware of the connections between some high-profile judges, handlers and exhibitors. The information is both enlightening and disheartening:  a group of handlers, judges and owners vacationed together in Upstate New York.  The same group of people rewarded and awarded each other throughout the last show season.  The 2010 season saw judges picking dogs owned by their business managers, shown to them by handlers who have been their employees.  None of this was technically illegal. The perception of fairness in judging is all important.  Exhibitors need to believe that wins are not bought and paid for, if only figuratively. We all need a fair judge to be winners.

As this show season starts everyone has the best of intentions and lots of dreams.  Owners of the first few winning dogs will begin the long season holding their collective breath waiting to see if the early wins were part of a trend or a one time flash in the pan.  We hope the year is full of good sportsmanship on all sides of the dog show equation.  It would be a welcomed change to see breeders show only their best, not just what they’ve bred.  To see handlers showing fewer dogs, but better quality dogs.  And to see judges with the knowledge and courage to pick truly worthy dogs, not just the ones shown by the more recognizable lead holders.  And it would be the best of all to hear exhibitors quit complaining about handlers winning everything and get involved in local kennel clubs where their constructive voices could be heard.

Let’s make 2011 a great show season.

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