“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, Take a sad song and make it better”

Just the other day I ran across a most disturbing article in Dog News. In it, licensed AKC judge James Tomsic assured the readers that pretty much every single problem facing dog shows today could be traced to the bad influence of professional handlers.

Who knew?

While the editor’s note in the magazine said they disagreed with 95% of the content of the article, they were printing it anyway because so many people believed it to be true.

Journalistic integrity issues aside, that is mind-boggling.

I knew that the hard feelings and high emotions on this topic were out there, but I was blown away by the level of bitterness, never mind the over-reliance on rampant speculation, expressed in this piece.

“As the economy has declined and the cost of living and travel expenses have risen, the presence of Professional Handlers (PH) increased two-fold in the AKC class competition for championship points.” Dog News, July 11, 2014, James Tomsic

I’m not even entirely sure where one would go to find facts and figures, data and/or statistics as to who showed what dog at what dog show. One could look in catalogs and identify dogs with an agent listed, but that certainly is not fool proof. Clearly the author doesn’t know either, since no actual sources were cited.

“And we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died…..”

The author decries judges who “look at the wrong end of the leash” when they award ribbons. It seems there is a real conundrum here. If a judge is judging dogs, they don’t look at the handler, they simply put up the dog they believe best fits the standard. If that dog happens to be shown professionally, the judge is attacked for having favored a professional. If a judge starts looking at the handlers to be sure they are awarding some random “fair” number of owner-handlers, how are they possibly able to assess the dogs in the ring?

“Choosing the winning dogs based on the PH who is hired help and not committed to the advancement of the client’s breed can often propagate changes in the breed that may not be easily repaired.” Dog News, July 11, Tomsic

Are we to assume this person who has proudly made public his opinions in regards to judging the dog will not inadvertently notice the dog’s handler? I have sometimes made a mental note of certain judges who seem to be more interested in awarding owner-handlers than looking at the dogs in the ring. This fellow saves us the trouble of guessing and wasting clients’ money.

“Today, even with higher quality dogs, breeder/owner/handlers are, more often than not, simply point fodder for the PH. As the number of PH increased in the classes, breeder/owner/handlers have done the math and determined that competing against the familiar face that shows up at all the best dog shows in town, winning under the same judges, was financially unfeasible.” Dog News, July 11, Tomsic

The reasons for the decline in entries at AKC shows are complex and multi-faceted. They have been addressed by some of the luminaries in the sport. This particular article offers no useful information except to illustrate the notion that a few sour grapes spoil the whole batch.

“The purist and traditionalist breeder/owner/handlers are leaving AKC competition in search of more equitable venues like UKC, where PH are excluded unless they are showing their own dogs.” Dog News, July 11, Tomsic

Just in my own circle, I know dozens, probably hundreds of breeder/owner/handlers who would be shocked to hear they are not purists or traditionalists simply because they have remained in the AKC competition venue. Personally, I am of the opinion that in order to improve your breed and your breeding program you must earn a championship title by defeating dogs at the highest level of competition.

“The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind…”

Now, I tend to agree with Thumper that if you can’t say anything nice you shouldn’t say anything at all. So, to be fair, I did find one tiny sliver of commentary in Mr. Tomsic’s article with which I could agree.

Dividing AKC conformation shows into Open and Amateur is a notion I have long advocated, although I have yet to come up with a seamless transition that makes it feasible.

Conformation is the only competitive venue in which professional and amateur are forced to compete head to head at all meaningful levels. In field trials, Open stakes are offered in which Professional and Amateur are both allowed to enter. Amateurs win the Open stakes on a regular basis. Amateur stakes are offered in which Professionals are not allowed to enter. These stakes are frequently judged by Professionals. Two titles are offered. Field Champion, which denotes the majority of points were earned in Open stakes, and Amateur Field Champion, ditto for Amateur stakes.

Certainly there is a level of tension between professional and amateur in the trial world. It is competition, after all. But generally, the angst is much lower and the sport as a whole offers a generally more supportive environment.

Professionals continue to make a living in these sports. Amateurs pursue AFC and FC titles and compete, judge and win in the Open stakes. I find it to be, mostly, a much kinder and gentler system than the one in place in the Conformation arena.

I suspect the National Owner Handler Series was designed with this basic principle in mind and perhaps would offer a reasonable transition to a new theory of conformation shows. This program has received mixed reviews to date, based on the chatter I hear, but at least it’s an effort on AKC’s part to move in this direction.

We participate in a competitive venue. There will never be a “level playing field.” There will *always* be somebody who is better at the sport than you are. With that said, bringing AKC conformation shows into line with the existing field trial system would certainly be a form of “equalizer.” This may or may not be the answer to bringing dog shows back from the alleged brink. But I do think it is worth pondering.

As always, this is JMHO.