There is a HUGE juxtaposition between rescued dogs and purebred dogs. Somewhere in the middle fall the hybrid breeds but because they are bought, for simplicity’s sake let’s add the oodles into the purebred side – AKC breeders don’t cringe just yet, hear me out.
Why Does Society Make Me Choose?
With campaigns like “adopt don’t shop” and a general malign of breeding dogs thanks to puppy mills; purebred dog breeders – that are responsible for keeping the various recognized breeds around – are on the decline. The AKC (American Kennel Club) knows this and has been fretting over it for the past 10 years. I have found myself caught in a weird world of both. On one side I am a dog fancier, breeding every few years for health, temperament and conformation.
I train and show my dogs in the sport of conformation, coursing ability, agility, barn hunt and nose work. On the other side I volunteer for a breed rescue, work with hundreds of rescued dogs in my pet care business and donate time and money each year to local shelters. I also am a staunch supporter of no-kill rescues. Depending on the given day I am either supporting the continuance of purebred dogs or I am advocating for homeless dogs.
Why the dichotomy? Why is society making me choose to adopt or shop? Both have their benefits.
I REALLY do not want to argue in any direction for or against either. EACH side has its pros and cons and each side is filled with extremes. I want to discuss and celebrate the good that exists and for the intention of this post, prevent the detriment of the loss in attendance and participation in AKC dog shows.
My Background in Dog Showing
Quick background on how I got involved because honestly, showing a dog in a dress was THE LAST place I ever guessed you would find me – my family agrees. I used money given to me to put towards an IRA for graduation (seriously who thinks about retirement at 21?) to buy myself a Boxer puppy. I had done everything right, sought out a health conscious breeder, went to the dog show to watch the sire become a champion, the puppies whelped the same day, it was like magic. I followed up to see when I could pick out my puppy only to eventually be turned down; all those puppies were deemed “show prospects”. Well no one ever asked if I would have been a show home; but I had more to learn.
Back in 2001 my friend went on the Internet and found me a puppy in Pittsburgh, Kansas, yes I said Kansas. Yes I most certainly supported a puppy mill but I had no idea, it was an adorable picture of a bunch of Boxer puppies on a computer screen back in 2001. All that effort I put into finding a well-bred dog went down the tubes because someone deemed me unworthy. Anyway, that little puppy mill Boxer would be the most important thing to ever come into my life. Tank shaped the rest of my world, led me to my husband, started me down my pet care career, helped me win the greatest industry award and guided me to my passion of pet health; eventually to right now as I write this blog. Sounds crazy but the meaning of that dog and the impact he would have on my life is unimaginable.
Tank eventually developed a disease among other issues he had. The disease was called degenerative myelopathy, essentially ALS for dogs. It was devastating for Tank, my husband and I to witness and it changed our lives forever. Through research I found out the disease was caused by a genetic mutation and that it could be avoided in breeding practices. So I discovered that to fix and prevent a breed that had crawled into my heart, I needed to fix the breeding practices. At that time many of the breeders didn’t want to talk about DM, or didn’t even know about it. Those that did would use the argument that there are so many other health concerns you can’t just focus on DM alone. They were right, I decided to focus on the complete breed. Boxers are NOTORIOUS for health issues, most purebred dogs are because, well – they’re purebred. We’ve messed around with nature to create consistently beautiful beings; in doing so we’ve played around with genetics and made some unhealthy combinations. There are reasons particular breeds are prone to particular genetic problems and the only way I saw to fix those was to breed myself.
In order to learn the ins and outs, the decades about Boxers and breeding Boxers you are best off getting a mentor in AKC conformation. Luck was bestowed upon me when my mentor turned out to be a pet sitting client, she just so happened to have show Boxers and lived in my town!
Conformation is the sport with the highest amount of breeders, people that show their dogs in conformation are putting their blood, sweat, tears and finances under the scrutiny of a judge – who must have also bred dogs – and asking that judge to pick the best specimen of the breed. Generally based on the awards of several judges, the dog becomes a champion and is entered into breeding programs. NOW there are literally 100’s of twists and turns that path can take but that is the very basic principle. So breeding and better breeding starts with purebred dog fanciers. This eventually will help the puppy mill situation because many puppy mills will pay to use a champion stud, that’s a story for another day; puppy mills need education and better regulation but I will not digress there, this post is already super long! In summary, conformation exhibitors exhibit the best of their breeding stock, selling pet puppies to loving homes and keeping the very few, if any in the litter to be displayed to a judge. The judges then decide if they are representative of the breed and award them points towards championships.
Conformation Show Numbers are Down
That’s the abridged version so what the heck does this have to do with me telling you conformation show numbers are down? They’re down because the generation that made dog fancying popular is getting significantly older and frankly – going extinct. Despite Millennials being the largest demographic right now and the largest pet owning population, they aren’t entering conformation shows. I only entered the arena because I had diseased dogs and I saw this as my way to fix them, which is a very narrow view of a truly wonderful tradition. AKC shows celebrate the breeds we created and have come to love. If you want a Golden Retriever to be everything a Golden is, you need to support a breeder. Not all AKC registered breeders are created equal, there certainly are those that pay their filing fees, breed in their backyard and sell for a buck or two. The people that need our support are the breeders that pour their life into these breeds to maintain, improve and perpetuate everything that makes the world love a Golden Retriever.
This has gotten lengthy and while I know I should keep this to 1000 words or less in our busy world, I encourage you to read on.
An Account of a Dog Show
In November I went to a dog show near my parents’ house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, my Boxer bitch (yeah we can say that) needs one more major to be a champion. Is she perfect, no but is she worthy of being incorporated into breeding stock – yes! I want her to become a champion to help not only build my novice breeding credentials but to illustrate that enough judges out there agree. You can’t get all your points being judged by only 1 judge.
While visiting I convinced my mother and sister to attend the dog show with me. I snuck them back into the grooming area to see firsthand what the rest of the world is missing. Below is my sister’s (she is an ER nurse) account of her trip to the Maryland Dog Show:
“At 7:45 in the morning on Friday we pull into the parking lot of the Civic Center. The parking lot is full of RVs, trailers and trucks with numerous dog breed stickers plastered on the bumpers. Here I am at my very first dog show where I actually get to sit with the actual handlers and see the behind the scenes action. My sister has brought her dog to show in hopes of gaining one more win to make her dog a champion. I have been to dog shows in the past but merely as entertainment when I was younger. This is a treat today because I am with my sister who is a guru in the dog show world and I am excited.
We walk through the doors to the Civic Center with her dog on the leash. Inside there are cages everywhere. There are dryers running and people walking by with any and every dog breed imaginable. I am on sensory overload. I could stand there all day and just people watch. There are people dressed in suits, skirts, dresses, jeans, and a multitude of footwear. We make our way to the Boxer area where there are at least 15 boxers with their owners (my sister is showing her female Boxer today). We find some seats in the area and watch the ring in front of us. Now I am interested to see what goes on behind the scenes of showing a dog. Here are some of my keen observations…
There are all ages of people who show dogs. I would say the ages range from 15 to 65. Every dog has a very small chain link leash around their neck with a built in collar. This doesn’t look like it gives the handlers much control, but I am wrong. These dogs are attentive to their handlers and are completely food driven. And that is one of the many things that I learned from this experience- not all owners show their own dogs. Owners can choose to have someone show their dog(s) for them for a fee. These people are known as handlers. And owners don’t always own the same breed of dog. I saw some owners show as many as three different breeds. Watching the handlers in the ring is an entirely different experience. These people have a never ending supply of some sort of meat in their pockets or stuffed into their bra straps. I am told that the meat could be beef liver, chicken or some other type of yummy dog treat that is easily made into tiny pieces used as bait. There is something a little disturbing about this so called bait. The handlers will put the bait in their mouth to entice the dog to look at them. Sometimes they throw the bait out in front of the dog in order to distract them while the judge is critiquing the dog. Now here is the disturbing part, that same piece of bait will be picked up by the handler and put back in his or her mouth to be used again. All I could think of was how many shoes and paws have walked on that floor and where said shoes and paws have been. Then I move on from that thought and I start looking at the array of clothing worn. Now, showing dogs requires a decent amount of capital and it is obvious that most of the owners and handlers do not spend much of that capital on their show wardrobes. Now some have coordinated suits and matching skirts and tops but when it comes down to the footwear, it is a free for all. I guess no one has made a stylish shoe for running around the show ring.
Altogether, my first experience behind the scenes of a dog show was pretty awesome. I saw so many different and beautiful breeds of dogs as well as humans. I was amazed at the time spent on grooming these dogs and how intense they are in the show ring. I was also impressed by the temperament of the dogs while outside the ring. I never saw one dog lunge at a person and they were generally content to be petted after asking permission from the owner. This was such a rewarding experience and I really learned how much work goes into showing a dog. It is very impressive.”
Since my view of dog shows is jaded, I thought it appropriate to let my sister tell her viewpoint. While she has a dog of her own and found many of the dogs their exquisite, I could not convince her to join me in the journey of competing. She will most certainly attend more shows and appreciate the work put into maintaining the breeds she adores.
Dog Fancy, Not Just Fancy Dogs
So my now long-winded point is, please take a look at the world of dog fancying, which I think the word “fancy” is TERRIBLE! It’s more like dog appreciating. There are so many breeds built for so many jobs and I do many of those jobs with my working breed!
I’ll writing a blog post in conjunction with this on how to find a show and what the actual etiquette is – please don’t approach a dog or handler right before the ring and please do not bring your family back into the grooming area without guidance from an exhibitor. Respect the behind-the-scenes as you would at the theater.
I beg you to come watch a show, purebred dogs should be in our lives to stay, these breeders are not contributing to the over-pet population, they have wonderful homes lined up, some have waiting lists! These are not rescue homes being lost to breeders, these are people that grew up with a Golden, a Boxer or are wanting to run agility with a Malinois they are going to the source – the people that have dedicated their lives to making better dogs. If the dogs do not work out in their new homes, these breeders take them back; we make a lifelong commitment to every dog.
If anything, go to admire the dogs. They are ADORED by their owners, appreciated by the judges and should be admired by you. Dogs have been our best friends for thousands of years, we first altered their genes when they decided to hang around us, cause hey – the food was easier to get and the attention and jobs were an added bonus.
Pride Not Prize
To squash the misconception that there is money in dog shows, which many people think let me put it this way; you pay a bunch of money to enter the show, more if you use a handler and the only thing you win if you do is a ribbon, maybe a toy and only a trophy if its a special win. It’s about pride, not prize. There is a saying, “if you want to become a millionaire showing dogs, you have to start out as a billionaire.”
I hope you enjoyed the National dog show at Thanksgiving and Christmas and if you missed those, Westminster is in February, nationally televised. It is winter and it will be for many more months. You can’t take the family to the State Fair or out apple picking now, but you can go to a local dog show and I encourage you to. They’re fun, and so are the exhibitors!