Twenty years ago, the South Windsor Kennel Club began holding a Meet the Breeds event in Hartford, Conn., in hopes that it would help the general public learn a little something about purebred dogs. On October 21 and 22, 2012, more than 30,000 people attended what is now the Connecticut Pet Expo, and local AKC club members and fanciers provided more than 300 dogs for the Meet the Breeds Showcase of American Kennel Club purebred dogs.

Peggy Wampold, president of the South Windsor KC, says that when her club first decided to put together a Meet the Breeds event, she found people to participate by looking through local show catalogs and contacting people who had dogs entered in the Bred-by-Exhibitor class. “I started that first year in June calling for the November event,” she says. “Now it’s a lot easier because most of the people who come have been coming since the very first.”

A Meet the Breeds event is the perfect way to introduce people to purebred dogs and to educate about responsible dog ownership, as this Golden Retriever and her owner are doing. Photos courtesy of Peggy Wampold.

Indeed, breeders and exhibitors now take their dogs from all of the New England states to be part of the Meet the Breeds Showcase in Connecticut each year. Participation really began to grow about six years ago when South Windsor members realized that, with potentially problematic dog legislation being proposed more and more often around the country, they could help educate the public about purebred dogs by promoting local kennel clubs and the American Kennel Club. This year 14 local clubs participated, and many other exhibitors went on their own to introduce their dogs to the public. According to Peggy, nearly all of the 175 AKC-recognized breeds were represented, as well as a few Foundation Stock Service breeds.

AKC President Dennis Sprung and former AKC Vice President of Event Operations Robin Stansell came up with an innovative way to get more clubs involved when they agreed that AKC would write a letter to clubs who sent members and dogs thanking them for doing their part for public education. AKC all-breed clubs who send more than six members, and specialty clubs who send more than three, can use the event as one of their requisite public education activities. “It was a boon to the specialty and all-breed clubs,” Peggy says. “No work or expense for the clubs, but wonderful public exposure.”

Petco and the Connecticut Humane Society were the sponsors for the 2012 Meet the Breeds and Connecticut Pet Expo in Hartford.

Through their collective participation, these clubs and fanciers are also able to remind local politicians that dog people are a group of voters. “Having worked for a municipality,” Peggy wrote in 2007 for two all-breed magazines, “I know that politicians pay a great deal more attention to organized groups than they do to individuals, and we want them to know that there are organized groups of responsible dog owners in our area.” One club has a banner that says, “At the other end of a leash is a voter.”

Peggy believes that if fanciers don’t take it upon themselves to get out and promote their purebred dogs to the general public, and encourage people to buy an AKC dog from a reputable breeder, “then we are failing them.” Further, she believes that this kind of public education is crucial to the future of our sport. “If we do not get out to promote our sport, then we won’t have one in a few years to participate in. Our dogs and the way that they behave in public are the greatest ambassadors we have to educate the public about responsible dog ownership.”

A young man gets to know an Australian Shepherd with a friendly tummy rub.

Both the Massachusetts Federation of Dog Clubs and the Connecticut Dog Federation, which is made up of 34 AKC clubs in the state of Connecticut, participate in the expo, and distribute information about how legislation can affect pet ownership. The federation, which is a club of clubs rather than individual members, has a lobbyist that keeps members apprised of upcoming dog-related legislation and the status of proposed bills.

Members of participating clubs feel that it is crucial to present a united front. “We do this under the Connecticut Dog Federation banner because we are all members of CDF and we want the politicians to know that we’re a strong and organized group,” says Peggy. “This is very important, as PETA and HSUS have done an excellent job in convincing people that they do not want a purebred dog, that they want only a shelter or rescue dog.”

Kip Kopatch is just one of many fanciers who take their dogs, in this case an armful of Japanese Chins, from around New England for the Meet the Breeds Showcase. From Rhode Island, Kip has participated every year since the very first.

The participating clubs make sure that the AKC logo is visible at their booths during the expo. The clubs make available literature about AKC and dog ownership, including AKC coloring books as well as crayons whose boxes bear the South Windsor KC logo and the club’s breeder referral contact information.

In the end, it is the individuals themselves who put in the time and effort for something that is important to them. “The dedication of the dog show people who do this is tremendous,” says Peggy. The New York City Meet the Breeds event is the same weekend, as are dog shows in Springfield, Mass., and New Jersey. There are also National Specialties, hunt tests, pointing tests and herding, lure-coursing and earthdog trials the same weekend. People either come from their other events to be part of the Hartford Meet the Breeds or skip those activities for the weekend. “Some of our people did the New York Meet the Breeds one day and ours the other day,” Peggy says.

The breeds are divided by Group and go into a large ring, where an announcer tells the crowd something about each breed.

Visitors can learn about the breeds of dogs at the expo in two ways. They can talk with breeders and owners while they meet the individual dogs, and they can see and learn about them in a large ring where the dogs are brought in, divided by Group, while an announcer shares information about each breed with the crowd.

As Peggy points out, the owners who take their dogs are truly dedicated people who love and are proud of their breeds and their dogs. To be part of Meet the Breeds, they must groom and prepare their dogs, gather up their necessary equipment, and load and unload their vehicles as though they were going to a dog show, except that it is purely for the benefit of the public – and purebred dogs.

Visitors could even meet rare breeds at the 2012 pet expo, such as this Carelian Bear Dog.

What is accomplished at the Meet the Breeds venue is something that simply can’t be done at a dog show or performance event. Whether competing in conformation, obedience, agility or another event, participants are busy preparing or competing with their dogs. “We all know what it’s like when we’re getting ready to go in the ring,” says Peggy. “At a Meet the Breeds event, we’re there just to showcase our dogs and tell the public about our breeds, and why they should want to buy a purebred dog.” Owners are also able to talk to people about all of the activities that they participate in with their dogs other than conformation dog shows. Many people who visit are learning for the first time that the American Kennel Club sponsors many events other than dog shows.

A family meets a Great Pyrenees and its owner.

The Connecticut Pet Expo, sponsored this year by the Connecticut Humane Society and Petco, also includes a cat show, a parrot show and a rare breeds dog show, as well as more than 100 vendors with every imaginable pet product and service. Naturally the kennel clubs couldn’t possibly put on an event of this magnitude on their own. An exhibition management company called Jenks Productions//LINK “Jenks Productions” to organizes, sets up and promotes the event, and collects the entrance fees. The club members and fanciers supply the dogs. “Our relationship with Jenks is mutually beneficial,” remarks Peggy. “We could not afford to do this on our own.”

Today’s Connecticut Pet Expo is a far cry from the first Meet the Breeds gatherings held by the South Windsor Kennel Club, and is a testament to what dog clubs and fanciers can do when they work together for the good of purebred dogs.