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As The Wheels Turn

“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.

Written by

Our family always had dogs. Mutt dogs, purebred dogs, but always dogs. I grew up with dogs everywhere. My mother eventually enrolled me in dog care 4-H because I was “shy and retiring and lacked people skills”….. I am the living testimonial to the success of the 4-H program! I continued into AKC shows as my family transitioned from “dogs” to the wonderful world of Purebred Dogs. I showed all of our family dogs in conformation and participated in Junior Showmanship competition. I went to college, earned a degree and worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer. Today, I am an AKC Breeder of Merit and a member of the Professional Handlers Association.
  • Kelly Lynn Smith August 7, 2014 at 9:18 AM

    Regarding the NOHS; as it stands now there exists the loophole of both “agents” and judges being permitted according to the rules. It is also widely misunderstood that it is an Owner Handled Series NOT an Owner Handler Series. It is stated incorrectly above in your article. There’s a VAST difference there in legal terminology. http://www.apps.akc.org/classic/ohs/index.cfm It is virtually impossible to prove that someone is a pro without them being a PHA member which leaves people on the honor system. And, I believe that we all know the professionals in our own breed/s. I say this having competed very successfully during the 2013 Season in the Series and making the decision to no longer participate. According to this information, the rules are changing again in 2015. Read carefully–it opens another loophole. I won’t state the obvious.

    • Laura Reeves PHA
      Laura Reeves August 7, 2014 at 1:50 PM

      Thank you Kelly for your input on the NOHS series.

  • Bob Pierce
    Bob Pierce August 7, 2014 at 10:28 AM

    Interesting article Laura

    I entered my first show in 1967 and heard the same discussion then. That first show I stayed and watched the Groups and BIS, the pro’s were pointed out to me and I admired their skills. I remember an “amateurs” dog won BIS that night .

    When I held an AKC Handlers License 100 shows a year was a tough schedule but accomplished with lots of miles and planning. Along the way you saw the same Judges on one coast then the next and over the years you became friendly with them because they were part of the dog family. Some were retired handlers that you knew, many highly respected breeders. You also met, respected and admired those owner/breeder/handlers who put some amazing dogs in the rings, they were family too. Policies, rules, misinformed and annoyed or even the best intentioned people will never change human nature. The reality is that we are dog people and once you have traveled that road you become part of the family.

    Professional handlers have been the backbone of the sport, their knowledge and contacts have helped breeders meet their goals. Pro handlers have educated, elevated and added to the sport.

    There is great history in our sport and I personally do not wish that to change or be diminished by those who want it all overnight.

    Bob Pierce

    • Laura Reeves PHA
      Laura Reeves August 7, 2014 at 1:53 PM

      Thank you Bob for your insight. I think too few people take the time to listen to history like you offer and learn from it.

  • Iva Kimmelman
    Iva Kimmelman August 10, 2014 at 2:50 PM

    Laura you are correct and so is the author of the article. This conundrum is a combination of many “ingredients”. It is like a big melting pot of good and bad.
    48 years ago, when I got started showing and breeding whippets, there was a HUGE importance on the goal to breeding dogs. We showed dogs we wanted to breed and hoped the judges would tell us we were headed in the right direction.
    We showed our whippets and raced them. We talked about pedigrees and bloodlines and litters we hoped to breed.
    Sure, we all like to win, but the newer “crowd” at dogs shows think showing dogs is all about “winning” and nothing else. Many are not even breeders. This is where I believe the war on Pro handlers is coming from.
    I agree with you that it can turn around and improve, but the AKC needs to invest in imprinting on novices what dog shows are for. They won’t listen to “mentors”, judges or their friends, but AKC has that power.

    Do I have the answers? No, but I have good ideas.

  • Pam August 11, 2014 at 10:14 AM

    Iva is absolutely right….the day of the breeders bettering the breeds is non existent, at least at the group level….the handlers have sculpted THEIR idea of the breeds into generic show dogs, and the faster and flashier their movement the better – and shame on the judges that reward this! All breeds are not supposed to be flashy movers, yet that’s what we see, at least at the top of the game…..owners with a lot of disposable funds buy and back a top dog, never minding that it isn’t a great example of the breed, sometimes even a poor example, are becoming more and more prevalent.
    Sure the pros may have the dogs groomed and trained to “perform”, but a true judge should be able to find the best example of the breed, which is something that is getting harder and harder to find, and breeders are choosing to stay home or pursue other venues to show their dogs.
    I find it a bit uncomfortable that you seem to be mocking a lot of what Mr. Tomsic says in his article, when he is spot on about the problems plaguing AKC shows.

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