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Short Circuits Benefit Owner-Handlers

For the Memorial Day weekend, I decided to go to the Langley Kennel Club dog shows in Langley, Va. This club has a wonderful venue – a large, bright convention center with ample free parking, lots of grass to exercise dogs, waste receptacles complete with free cleanup bags and staff that regularly cleans up – and a full slate of exhibitor-friendly events including the AKC Owner-Handler Series, Best Bred-by and Best Puppy. Lots of reserved grooming space was available daily, and each day offered a nice slate of judges. I fear, however, that the club will not be able to do the same next year.

You see, Langley only hosted two shows, Saturday and Sunday, on a holiday weekend. Entries were way down this year, and word among exhibitors has it that last year’s partner club, Gloucester County, has chosen to join the June shows in Richmond, Va., to be part of a cluster that now includes nine shows at the same facility with only a one-day break during the circuit.

Many of the professionals chose to go to one of the four- or five-day circuits instead of the two Langley KC shows. I can’t really blame them. Why charge a client for only two days when you can charge them for five? But this causes hardship for the breeder/owner-handler, like me. Once again, a kennel club has chosen to move its events from a holiday or weekend to a weekday – when normal working folks have to go to the job that earns the money to keep participating in dogs.

The author is a breeder/owner-handler with an appreciation for two-day show weekends. Photo by Ashbey.

A Boon for the Professional Handler?
I have been told by some show chairs that the AKC has encouraged clubs to go the route of joining big clusters to increase their entries and disperse expenses. Some clubs have reported that this has indeed worked for them, and I admit that I have taken vacation time to go to these expanded circuits. But only retired or well-off exhibitors can do this all the time. As more and more clubs decide to gang up and not do weekend shows, the amateur has fewer and fewer options. Even if you decide to only hit the weekend of a particular circuit, you find yourself showing on the third day when the judges have already seen the pro’s entries. Heaven forbid you have a special! You will be at a disadvantage on Saturday after a judge has sat ringside during Group judging for several days and seen a well-known professional in the ring with a dog of your breed.

I’m sure this looks like a great earning opportunity for the professional. If the shows switch from a weekend date to a weekday, the owner of a show puppy has no choice but to hire someone to take their dog in the ring. Or do they? No matter how passionate we are about our sport, it is, by economic standards, a luxury. And luxuries are the easiest to give up.

It has become tougher and tougher in my breed’s ring. We now have professionals showing Rhodesian Ridgebacks even in the 6-9 Puppy class. I have had to face the reality that I cannot sell a show prospect to a novice person unless he or she agrees to hire a handler. I am starting to break down physically and have more dogs to tend to, so offering to handle my puppies for expenses only is no longer an option. The novice exhibitor can be so hard to bring along – getting easily discouraged by losing week after week. So I place fewer and fewer puppies in show homes, which leaves fewer dogs for the professional to handle and fewer entries for the kennel clubs.

It’s About the Money, Stupid
Look, I am not against someone making a living. So I am not someone standing on the soapbox saying, “Let’s eliminate all professional handlers!” When owner-handlers are truly out-handled, we should be prepared to take our lumps. Some might say – and rightfully so – that the pros can often simply make a dog look better, and there are those who say that you really don’t know what the judges are seeing, and you have to put your hands on the dog, yada, yada, yada. But I am in a short-coated breed and, quite frankly, I have had my hands on quite a few of these dogs. So there is likely a bit more going on here than meets the eye.

The problem I am seeing is that many judges – not all, thank goodness! – don’t really seem to be looking at the dogs, and those judges’ numbers seem to be increasing. I was truly mystified by this at first. One or two shows you can write off, but when it’s happening weekend after weekend, it becomes a whole different story. It turns out there is a lot of money being spent here, not paid to the judges themselves, mind you (or at least not that I know of!), but a heck of a lot is spent on campaigns to be sure.

I make a pretty good living, but there is no way that I would part with the kind of cash I’m talking about. A specials career can cost upwards of six figures – per year. Most Americans don’t have that kind of money put away for retirement, let alone accessible to spend on a dog. To make this the minimum buy-in necessary to get your dog ranked or simply looked at is obnoxious.

Now there is a trickledown effect whereby the handler with a well-backed special begins to show a string of class dogs. In the event the pro wins all the classes, the handler’s apprentices are brought in at the end for Winners, “running the board,” so to speak, to take most every award in the breed that day. It’s a good-sized numbers game, and this game is the one that’s particularly discouraging to anyone new – and anyone with a good bit of experience, truth be told. The new person enters the ring with a handicap she doesn’t even know she has. Her hard work, dedication and enthusiasm are cast aside in favor of a familiar face with a wealthy patron. Why, oh why, would anyone expect these freshmen to spend $60-plus per weekend in entry fees, along with the travel expense, food, perhaps lodging and the precious few days off, to keep going to dog shows where they always lose?

When we make it difficult for people to show their own dogs, due to availability of shows, disposable income, or both, aren’t we working against ourselves? Doesn’t this contribute to the problem of decreasing entries, and ultimately, decreasing registrations?

The Court of Public Opinion
Well, some may say that this is the way things have always been, right? It’s just how the game is played, and those who want to be in there with the big dogs had better pony up the cash, right? But if we increasingly pander to the well-to-do, we run the risk of alienating everyone else, and there are a lot more people out there who cannot afford a $100,000-a-year habit than those who can. So the numbers are working against us.

Things like the “Today Show”’s terribly biased spotlight  on AKC practices get a foothold precisely because they appeal to the “every man” who has a pet he dearly loves and wants to protect. Alienating new participants in our sport – or even the senior ones, for that matter – by making it a pay-to-play game will only reduce the number of advocates for the AKC and what it stands for. We in the fancy are already outnumbered. By creating an ever-increasing chasm between the reality of everyday life for the average person and the über-rich who can afford to hire big handlers, advertise every week in multiple publications, and fly dogs all over the country, we make ourselves irrelevant in the court of public opinion. We become easy prey for animal rights extremists. Many people out there think that spending large sums of money on a dog campaign is crazy – and some of them vote.

I’m Still Here
For the time being, I’m hanging in there. I actually went to the two-day show in Langley because it was two days when I might have a fighting chance. However, I may take two months off this summer, since many of the shows I used to go to on my summer weekends are no longer offered on the weekend. Talbot Kennel Club, for example, used to be held on the third weekend in August. When the shows moved to a Wednesday and Thursday in November, no kennel club in the area took over that August weekend. So I will now need to choose to drive more than 200 miles to go to an available show, or stay home. I plan to stay home, and I will not be taking vacation days to go to the weekday shows in November. How does this help our all-breed kennel clubs?

I will be on the lookout for those shorter circuits. They seem to be more for the lowly breeder such as myself. I just hope that the trust fund crowd doesn’t take over the sport completely.

Rhoda Springer entered the dog show world by accident in 1993, finishing her first Rhodesian Ridgeback in 1994. She has remained addicted to the show scene ever since, despite numerous family intervention attempts.

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  • Judy Silker June 22, 2013 at 12:35 PM

    Please consider entering Mid Susquehanna Valley’s weekend shows in PA. We’re on the fourth weekend in August and about an hour north of Harrisburg. Unfortunately, our entries keep shrinking each year as clusters keep adding shows and new shows are approved on the same days. Not sure how much longer we can continue to hold these shows outdoors without becoming a losing proposition for the club. We may eventually have to join a cluster or move to another weekend and a new site.

    • Rhoda Springer
      Rhoda Springer July 9, 2013 at 10:35 AM

      Judy, I love the Mid-Susq shows! In particular, the lunch available is wonderful. I for one, plan to be there.

  • ljmilder
    Linda Milder June 22, 2013 at 4:26 PM

    Well said Rhoda.

  • Mona Karel June 23, 2013 at 6:00 AM

    Not only are we losing the shorter circuits, and making it easier for handlers and wealthier owner handlers, we’re also losing the local connection between clubs and non dog people. When people can’t wander through a dog show, discovering most of the people attending are there for love of their dog, or watching the Obedience/Rally/Agility and thinking ‘hmmm, I could do this if I had a purebred dog’ we start losing support in the things that have come to matter a lot. Such as dog legislation.

  • casavero June 23, 2013 at 11:45 AM

    I’ve been showing my own dogs for over 40 years. Do I wish that entry fees were still $10.00 ?.. Yup.. Do I wish that gas was still $1.00 a gallon ?.. Of course !.. And then there was Motel 6 that was actually $6.00 !!! When I first got “into dogs” it was cheap and easy. There were lots and lots of “ordinary” people showing their own dogs. Handlers were certainly part of the game but mostly in the “money” breeds like Poodles, and Terriers. The rest of us could play and even win!.. I may be imagining it, but I think the judges were more educated and indeed even cared about the dogs more than they do now. Lately I have shown my dogs to judges whose names I have never heard and who often seem to almost be getting “through” their assignment rather than being interested or enjoying their job. Do they really know the standard of my breed? Do they care? Does that even matter?

    If we look at the history of the dog show and even the notion of the pure bred dog, we need to accept the fact that it had it’s beginnings with the elite wealthy gentlemen land owners who had hunting dogs and in their leisure they began to compare one another’s best. Then their wives thought it might be fun to do the same with their Pomeranians and Cavaliers.. The dog show and the breeding of pedigreed dogs had it’s foundation among the privileged few.. And guess what?.. We seem to be headed right back where we started. ..

    I’ll still go to a specialty now and then, mostly to see friends and catch up and I’ll do my best to give an entry to a judge whose opinion I value. I care deeply about my breed. I’ve given up a lot to keep the dogs I love. Their history and value as a functioning breed exists with or without ribbons and titles. They grace my life and that cannot be given a price tag.

  • Dave Higgins June 23, 2013 at 1:57 PM

    A well spoken article that makes a heck of a lot of sense. Factors that AKC should consider when making decisions about shows. Decisions and policy being put in place today will impact the future game and perhaps not in a positive sense. Driving the owner handler from the game affects the capabilities of club’s to continue to exist. Professional handlers are not the driving force behind the all breed clubs that sponsor events.

  • rachelgeordie
    Rachel Romano Kelly June 23, 2013 at 3:08 PM

    Small local shows are an important link for breeders to be able to interact with the public, educate them about their breed, and help them see that we are dedicated dog lovers (unlike what the animal rights activists make us out to be). Ask breeders should support them whenever possible eager and ready to interact with the public. I attend dog shows as well as other dog events like field and rally. Rally and Agility trials are a step in the right direction to fill in the gaps left by so many shows going to mega-cluster format. It is also a venue that tends to be more welcoming to newcomers. Well-written article that brings up some good points.

  • minnahpage
    Melody Tate June 23, 2013 at 8:17 PM

    Wonderfully said Rhonda.

    On top of all the outstanding points you make about things in general, out here on the left coast, we find AKC’s “commitment to the owner-handler” even less believable: How can an organization proclaim “We love our owner-handlers so much we’ve created a national titling series in their honor”, then not ensure there are actually shows offering the competition? This year, there are 2, yes a big whopping 2, shows in Northern California participating. Not 2 weekends, 2 shows. One was in May, at a show where the nearest dog-friendly hotel is 25 miles from the show site, and the other is the last weekend in August….at another location with limited nearby dog-friendly lodging.

    It seems like AKC is intent on driving the owner-handler (particularly the ones who aren’t Breeder-Owner-Handlers) into the arms of a registry whose focus really DOES support the owner-handler.

  • Karen Lee June 24, 2013 at 4:30 AM

    This is such a trenchant and true article. It seems at times as if the entire dog game is run for the benefit of the people who do nothing but go to shows and the people who have big money and can pay for handlers, ads, and campaigns. Some breeds are obviously worse than others, but I’ve definitely observed enough in the Ridgeback ring to know what you are talking about. I, too, am very worried about the future of the sport. I am starting to feel like I shouldn’t bother to put show puppies in novice hands because they will likely become discouraged. It takes professional-level presentation to do anything much in my breed now. I’m not saying you have to hire a pro, I’m saying that you have to be able to show like one. So, the novices who have a learning curve to master can easily become discouraged. Not everyone is a “natural” their first year in the show ring.

  • Eileen Bailey June 24, 2013 at 6:53 AM

    Rhoda, you got it just right. Ridgebacks were an owner-handled breed when I begin in 1987, but no longer. Like you, I find it increasingly difficult to place show puppies because I can’t, in good faith, tell people “your family can have fun and do this yourself.” They can’t, for exactly the reasons you state. And like you, I can’t afford to take time away from my job for big circuits, and I can’t afford a huge advertising campaign. Where, oh where, are the judges who actually judge dogs??? There are a few of them out there, but the honest, knowledgable ones are getting older and fewer. If the AKC wants to salvage itself, it’s time for some big changes.

  • Jo Ann White June 24, 2013 at 4:12 PM

    I’ve been involved in the sport since 1967 on a limited income, and in a coated breed requiring a LOT of grooming. Sadly, I agree with much of this article.

  • Sotzume June 24, 2013 at 6:29 PM

    I am a breeder/owner/handler who finds the sport of dogs given over to the give and take of the professional handler and the judges. The sport no longer really supports the owner handler and in fact, has become completely dominated by the professional who earns their living from dogs and from judges who earn, at least, a portion of their living from dogs. Why have a standard when the judge just puts up the dog that the pro “tells” them to put up by handling them. In my breed, the professional has been the dominant force for decades. I’ve seen owners/amateurs get out of my breed. And I see no one new coming in. Certainly no young people. The system is broken…period. I just came from a show where the professionals won everything…with the exception of one win. The quality of the win in my breed was low…very low indeed. I packed up, went home and didn’t return. I spent the following day enjoying myself….and not in the brutal heat, without a quarter of a million dollar rig to a/c my dogs. The AKC needs to change things fast if they want the sport to continue.

  • Pat Hoffmann June 25, 2013 at 5:47 AM

    Excellent Rhoda, great article !

  • Jinnie June 25, 2013 at 7:29 AM

    As a B/O/H and someone who has finished dogs from the A/O/H class I am in agreement with much of what is written. We need to remember that WE are the AKC and that if we don’t like something we need to work towards a solution.

    I have felt for a long time that Pro handlers are often given an easier road towards their judges license and as they move from the handler rank to the judges ranks it is easy for them to go with what they know and award a professionally handled dog. If it comes down to a tough choice between a Pro handled and an Owner handled the nod will go to the Pro since the judge knows how hard it is to make a living handling dogs. All prospective judges need to be on the same path, breeders and handlers so that the ranks of judges is not so heavily weighted one way or the other. There is a place for every level of competiton in dogs as long as you have a good dog you should get a good look.

    Remember if you choose not to go to a show you normally attend, make sure you let the show/cluster chair know why you aren’t coming and what might make you come back.

    • Lynda Beam (Canine Candids by Lynda) September 9, 2013 at 10:14 AM

      Jinnie’s statement is so important, without feedback shows have no idea what you like or don’t like about their show. I’m also surprised shows don’t put out surveys for people to fill out AT the show, or a survey online to find out what brings people back.

      What brings me back (when I’m showing .. when I’m taking photos, I just want to hopefully shoot for free!) to a show is something unique like great shopping, really good food (the pies at Clinton IA KC are fabulous).

      My favorite judges are those with a pleasant demeanor, no matter who they put up. I guess I’ve hit the point where it’s just not really that important to win as it is to have a good time at a dog show. And I long ago decided my life will still be complete if I never get a Best in Show :)

      The longer I do this (and the more I ring steward), the more I realize that most judges do try … but it’s a fact of life that some judges are better judges of dogs (and sometimes some breeds) than others, just like some breeders do a better job of breeding than others. To expect someone to know every breed with the knowledge of a breeder is somewhat unreasonable. There are so many breeds, and a rush to get breeds, and then to get groups so they can get hired occasionally. You can often think of it as on the job training. They know the basics when they start, but they keep on learning as time goes by.

      I learn new stuff all the time at dog shows, and I’ve been showing dogs pretty actively for about 40 years. Many judges don’t have that much time in, so judges, please do be receptive if someone wants to talk to you about your judging, especially if you are new. And handlers, please be kind to your judges and approach them nicely if you have a concern about their judging, but try to be as objective as possible.

  • Rebecca Gardner
    Becky Gardner June 25, 2013 at 8:08 AM

    Wonderfully written article, so true and unfortunately so sad. We amateurs spend so much time and heartbreak raising our show prospects, being true to our standards then go to the shows with pride in our dogs to be beaten by inferior specimens shown by the professionals who “let’s be real….have the judges in their back pockets”. Let’s start judging the DOGS, not the pros. The AKC must wake-up or they will certainly lose in the end as WE owner-handlers will walk away never to return!!!

  • Amy Bizzell June 25, 2013 at 1:20 PM

    So true of the Nor Cal circuit! The Hollywood of professional handlers! They will soon find more owner handlers jumping ship! The AKC is even making the requirements to become a breed judge impossible for the average owner handler. I think judges should be required to take a class every two years so they are up on all the breed standards they judge.

  • Jen Lazowski June 25, 2013 at 1:40 PM

    What we haven’t mentioned here is the long term damage being done to breed type. When decisions are made because “so and so” can get me more assignments or can bring me more entries it is a bad path for us to be on.

  • Lynn Arnold, President Langley Kennel Club June 26, 2013 at 5:31 PM

    As an owner/handler I agree with much of what’s written in this article. But as President of the show-giving club, I’d like to present the other side of the coin.


    Your entry fees no way near cover the cost of putting on a dog show, with a $29 entry fee; $3.50 per entry goes to AKC and almost $10 per dog goes to the superintendents for the matting, rings, signs, catalogs, premium lists, judging programs, ribbons, etc. That leaves about $15 per dog to rent the building, pay for judges, provide security, those trash cans and poop bags you raved about, the clean up crew, an EMT, a show vet and a myriad of other miscellaneous costs.

    As a two day show many vendors will not attend – vendor income is a necessity to help pay for an indoor building with air conditioning. And as you pointed out – handlers will not come to a two-day show, thus reducing our entries by about 300 – 400 dogs. So the club loses money and if you lose money, you can’t afford to put on these shows – nor do any other activities that clubs do.

    Langley Kennel Club is a very active club, a high percentage of our members are actively showing their dogs as owner handlers. We received tons of praise for our Memorial Day shows – most of them very similar to your comments – thanking us for having a show that was owner handler friendly. However, we cannot conduct shows that lose money, so we are actively looking for another club to join with us to make our 2014 shows a 4-day circuit.

    • Sharlene July 1, 2013 at 8:41 AM

      Lynn Arnold wrote a wonderful post. I am the Assistant Co-Chair for the Langley Shows.

      There are ways you can help keep owner handler shows in the black. Help us with supported entries and breed specialties. If your breed club would be interested, please don’t hesitate to contact me.


    • Rhoda Springer
      Rhoda Springer July 9, 2013 at 10:43 AM

      Lynn, I too like to be realistic and it is so true that kennel clubs work so hard to put on shows. And you guys did a great job and should absolutely be looking for another club to join you on your circuit — afterall, it is a holiday weekend and would work to all of our benenfit.

      But I feel the need to add a few things here. Reality is a little funny sometimes — it can be what we make it. I believe we should find it strange that a club made up of breeders and owner-handlers needs to put on shows tailored almost exclusively to professional handlers and vendors. To me, it kind of feels like a starving man preparing a meal they will never be able to eat.

      I need to put on my thinking cap though, and come up with solutions and not exclusively on observations!

  • Robyn July 3, 2013 at 4:58 AM

    Rhoda, Excellent article. I too started out in 1994 showing a Norfolk Terrier, even though everyone told me I would have to hire a professional to finish him, I was able to get his championship on my own. Would I be able to do that today? NO WAY. The judges today are not looking at the dog and paying attention to the standards. They get paid on the number of dogs that are entered under them, and we all know as a owner handler we aren’t coming to the show with 30 dogs. As you said, every time I go to a weekday show I have to use my personal vacation from the office, and if you want to be seen enough you end up with no vacation. In addition, after four days of showing and living in a hotel room it gets pretty expensive and tiring for the dogs with no real exercise like they would get at home. Sorry to say I can’t afford a $400K mobile home and attached trailer and car with a scooter and bicycle. Oh and you forgot to mention that even though there is the bred by exhibitor class..guess what? Professional handlers co-own many of their clients dogs and we have to fight them in that class also. Everyone I’ve spoken to says that showing is just not fun anymore..it’s too political, too expensive and now too many in one cluster. Many of my friends have decided to forgo the breed ring for agility, earthdog, rally, dock diving and other fun activities.

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