AKC Cluster shows began in the 1970s partially as a response to the gas crisis and partially in response to demands from the fancy. Shows had begun as one day affairs and people generally didn’t travel too far from home. As dog showing grew in popularity, kennel clubs realized there was growing support for two shows, one each day of the weekend. It was double the opportunity to finish a dog if there were two shows on the same weekend. However, most of these two day events were held in two different locations. As a child I have memories of our family showing in Lincoln on a Saturday then breaking down, loading everything into our car and driving to Omaha for the Sunday show. Still, two shows were better than one. Twice the opportunity for points and group placements.
If two shows were good, four would be twice as good and the evolution of the cluster shows was complete. Now, if you have nothing to do in January of every year, you can go to Brooksville, Florida, and show in nine shows in ten days. In August, in Topeka, Kansas, you can show in eight shows in ten days. These two clusters fill up and have great venues. Enterprising all-breed clubs court specialty breed clubs and offer inducements if they will hold a specialty with the existing cluster. This can stretch out a cluster to five days for some breeds for a total of 10 shows. This guarantees an influx of professional handlers and often quality dogs as they can charge clients more for a specialty weekend. Sometimes these clusters benefit the rank and file exhibitor, sometimes not. It is not so easy to determine when the chief motivation to show a dog changed. When patience to finish a dog was lost, and when finishing a dog in three years, instead of three months, was considered an indictment on the animal’s quality.
I am not one to say everything, or most things including dog shows, were better in the past. Many of the rule and procedural changes in the sport today have improved the show experience. Travelling eight to ten hours for a two-day event at the height of summer seems too much effort for too little payoff. Especially when the humidity rivals the air temperature and the shows are held in outdoor rings. If somebody tries to tell you how much they love doing this you are probably speaking to a local politician or an outright liar. In our area we have a weekend show. The Terry-All Kennel Club. These shows are held at a fairgrounds in a semi-rural area just outside Denver in Brighton, Colorado. These shows are the worst on the Eastern Slope. Since most of the exhibitors are locals, most show here and most swear every year, after the event, that they will not return. Of course everybody returns the next year. The grooming for this show is either in a dark, dirt floor arena, several blocks from the show building, where the floor is rutted and dusty or in horse stalls. Having never owned horses I am less enamored than some with the smell of manure and old straw. You can also groom outside your vehicle in an adjacent space. You can buy these spaces for the weekend. Savy exhibitors allow extra time upon arrival to find their spaces and persuade the person already in them to move. The weather is either blistering or freezing, both accompanied by a driving wind and often precipitation. Before the thrill of victory is overtaken by the agony of yet another lost major, we are exhausted just getting through the logistics of the venue. If this show is spurned, and one is patient, there is another show about 600 miles away. The venue is clean with indoor heated water for bathing dogs and reserved grooming. Parking is plentiful and free. Usually too early for tornados, rain and wind are a passing annoyance as you head inside the climate controlled building to the spacious rings close to your setup. Forgetting nearly anything is no problem since there are a variety of vendors. And did I mention this is a cluster! The Sunflower Cluster. A four day event in Wichita, Kansas.
In more than ten years there has not been a major in any of the three breeds we own and have shown: Kerries, Bedlingtons and German PInschers. And in those ten years, only a few times have any points been available at the Terry-All Show. In Wichita however, there usually are points, if not majors, available in all three. That is the beauty of clusters. That was the plan. That’s what we all wished for. More opportunities for points to finish dogs quickly. Four shows in good conditions bring out the exhibitors. There are enough clusters in most parts of the country to encourage handlers with their rafts of dogs to enter. Clients paying mileage are much more amenable to shelling out funds when there are four or five chances to win points. It all seems like such a better return on the dog show dollar. Locals with the same breeds can work together to build majors and points for each other. In a four or five day cluster two, maybe three, class dogs can finish. Clusters also provide opportunities for dog people to sit around and talk dogs. This is more pleasant because the conditions are usually better than horse stalls and dirt floors. At clusters there are amenities. With two or more clubs splitting expenses, larger and better venues become possible. With many out-of-towners, and nothing much to do outside the show, talking to old and new friends takes on more importance. At two day shows most of the entries are locals and dog shows are sandwiched between home improvement projects and kids’ soccer games. People show their dogs then pack up and go home to salvage some part of the day.
I love cluster shows for the most part. Without them we would never have seen the Standard Poodle bitch, Brighton Minimoto, the great Pointer bitch, Cookieland Seasyde Hollyberry, the number one dog all breeds 2011, Black Cocker Spaniel, Casablanca’s Thrilling Seduction, the Kerry Blue Terrier, Torum’s Scarf Michael, the best pure show dog our breed has every known and sometimes our own dog in the Best in Show lineup along side some of these greats. Clusters bring opportunities to learn about other breeds and your own from people you don’t see at local two day events. Clubs frequently offer seminars and judges’ education opportunities at cluster shows.
With all the good about cluster shows, where’s the downside? The downside stems from the very reason we are showing our dogs: honest competition. Pre-1970s, it could take two or three seasons to finish a dog. People had to show for the love of competition because finishing a dog could take some time. You and I, comparing our dogs and paying a third party to decide which was best. We’d square off against each other all over the state and maybe into a few others, several weekends a month, throughout the show season. Sometimes other dogs showed against us and we both lost, or one of us won and sent the interloper packing! Clusters changed all that. With a fancy much more goal oriented than in the past, finishing dogs quickly, has become the most important measure of the animal’s quality. Wins and losses at clusters get lumped together. “Look,” they crow, ” Fluffy finished in just three weekends!” You glance down at Fluffy and wonder how this happened. You’ve never finished a dog in just three weekends. The gushing owner never mentions it was three, five day clusters and all the wins came against the same group of dogs. Without a cluster, their pet would have competed seven weekends, possibly in a different division against different dogs. A truer measure of Fluffy’s quality.
Judging at clusters is as disappointing as anywhere. Sometimes it seems one judge follows the other and in traditionally low entry breeds judges appear confounded when confronted by a larger than average entry. Judges with confidence, judging earlier in the cluster, set the tone for those who follow. A convenient template for judges that either don’t care or lack the skill and confidence to apply the standard on their own.
Clusters are good for most of us. A kind of one stop shop for finishing class dogs. If you show dogs long enough you will eventually benefit from walking into an entry of class dogs not nearly as strong as your own and taking the points every day. Since clusters are bigger, you feel a lot of pride winning majors greater than the three pointers you sometimes find in just weekend shows. But, it doesn’t matter if the cluster is Bucks & Trenton, Del Valle, Scottsdale, Canfield or Brooksville, the winning dogs have only beaten the same dogs day after day. Where is the pride in that. No one would brag if they found a rival with dogs easily beaten and followed them around the division weekend after weekend. But cluster wins take on more importance due to their size. Like that old diet strategy. Put a diet portion on a smaller plate and it will look bigger. Nobody’s fooled by that. Smaller plate or bigger venue, the quality or lack thereof is the same. As the better dogs needing just a single or two to become champions finish and are moved up, subsequent judges are left with poorer and poorer specimens to chose from. But few owners perceive it this way. No need to compare a dog to the standard, just find another cluster.
Showing dogs at clusters requires perspective. If the exhibitor’s goal for his dog is to finish it young, breed it and start over, clusters are the best bet. But, if you want to train your eye, test your dogs and yourself the cluster should be just one stop. Wins and loses in diverse competition, over time, are in the long run more meaningful and provide more insight into the quality of the dogs bred and shown.