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.