Why are the biggest dog shows in America so much smaller than their foreign counterparts? That question is often heard these days, and in view of the huge entry figures that some overseas shows attract on a regular basis, it’s a justified concern. Are we doing something wrong? How do we attract new fanciers? Is there anything we could change so that our biggest shows would at least be similar in size to the foreign events we hear so much about?

If we want dog shows to flourish in the U.S., this is an important subject. In this two-part article, let’s first look at the overall picture worldwide with more detailed information about the biggest shows in the U.S. In part two, we’ll move on to take a closer look at what’s happening in other countries. Perhaps it’s possible to learn something from what foreign dog clubs are doing.

In brief, the bottom line is that we in the U.S. have nothing that compares with the biggest shows overseas, size-wise. The famous Crufts dog show in Great Britain regularly attracts an entry of around 20,000 dogs every March – this year the catalog listed 20,566 individual dogs. The 2013 FCI World Show, held in Hungary a couple of weeks ago, had more than 18,000 dogs entered. The FCI’s so-called “section shows” in different parts of the world can also get huge entries; its FCI Europe Show may get up to 10,000 dogs. A number of other major events in Europe also attract large entries: for example, Eurasia in Moscow had well over 6,000 dogs entered for two days in late March. The Scandinavian countries, in spite of relatively small human populations, often attract huge entries: both the international year-end shows in Helsinki and Stockholm in December last year had more than 7,000 dogs, while there were nearly 6,000 in Oslo.

Meanwhile, the biggest all-breed dog show in the U.S., according to AKC’s own official 2012 statistics, was the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship in Orlando, Fla., on December 15 and 16, with exactly 3,443 dogs participating, and that’s the biggest AKC event in years. Only two other shows, KC of Palm Springs in California in January and Evansville KC in Louisville, Ky., in March, had as many as 3,000 dogs in competition. In general, today, any AKC show with more than 2,000 dogs is considered large, and the average all-breed entry, based on the figures AKC provides, is only around 800 dogs.

The AKC/Eukanuba National Championship in Orlando, Fla., was the biggest all-breed dog show held in the U.S. in 2012. Photo by Dan Sayers.

Size Versus Quality
Size and quality don’t always match. There’s no question that we have some of the best dog shows in the world right here in the United States. Foreign visitors flock to Westminster, and more come to AKC/Eukanuba every year. They are almost universally enthusiastic about the smooth, well-organized AKC events, about the quality of the handling and presentation of our dogs, and often, but not always, about our top dogs as well. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that, by and large, dog shows in America are probably better organized than any others. There are exceptions – occasional AKC shows that aren’t up to par and a few overseas shows that run every bit as smoothly as the best American events – but overall, we can be satisfied as far as the practical arrangements go in the U.S.

If our shows are so good, why aren’t they bigger?

Before trying to find a reason, let’s look at past entry figures. There’s a general perception that AKC entries have fallen off drastically in recent years, but that drop is in fact not nearly as large as one might suspect. Last year, based on published figures for “number of dogs competing in events” (to use AKC’s terminology), there was a total number of 1,159,299 dogs entered at 1,437 all-breed shows, and 121,742 dogs entered at 2,432 specialty shows. These figures were slightly lower than the year before, when there were 1,163,394 dogs competing in, again, 1,437 all-breed shows, and 124,634 dogs in 2,344 specialties. Specialty entries have fallen off more than all-breed entries in recent years, in spite of the fact that the number of specialties has increased much more than that of the all-breed shows. This is a roundabout way of saying that all-breed competition is a little less strong now than it used to be, while there are many more specialties with many fewer entries than in the past.

For the record, in the early 2000s, as well as most of the 1990s, entries remained fairly stable around 1.3 million dogs shown per year at all-breed shows. There were many fewer specialty entries than today, primarily, as mentioned, because there weren’t nearly as many specialty shows.

AKC has a separate category for limited-breed events, which are what we usually call Group shows. There were 167 of those in 2012 against 152 the previous year, and the number of entries was actually up as well, to 36,420 last year from 34,740 in 2011.

Taking all these numbers into account, I don’t think entry figures have dropped more in the U.S. than they have anywhere else. The worldwide economic crisis hit everywhere, and although detailed figures are difficult to come by from foreign events, they seem to have lost entries to about the same degree as in the U.S.

The Kennel Club of Palm Springs has been among the largest all-breed dog shows every year from 2003 through 2012. Photo by Dan Sayers.

The Biggest AKC Shows
Now let’s look a little more closely at the biggest AKC all-breed events for the past decade.

Easily the country’s top dog show for this period was the Kennel Club of Palm Springs, which hit the Top 10 list, based on the number of dogs in competition, every year from 2003 through 2012, and was the country’s biggest show for four of these years.

Runners-up were Evansville KC and Louisville KC, which are part of the same cluster. Both made the Top 10 list each year, with Evansville hosting the year’s biggest show three times and Louisville, once. The difference in numbers lies in which day each show is held. The Saturday on which Evansville traditionally falls almost invariably gets a few more dogs than the shows held in the same location the day before or after. That didn’t stop Louisville KC, which hosts both the Friday and Sunday shows, however, from hitting the Top 10 list with both shows every year!

To get on the list of the country’s 10 biggest shows, there usually have to be at least around 2,500 dogs present and competing at the show these days. With absentees, double entries, etc., the entry figures are usually at least a couple of hundred higher.

The only other club, in addition to those mentioned above, that was featured among the Top 10 shows in the U.S. every year through the past decade was Dog Fanciers Association of Oregon in Portland in January.

Other clubs which hit the list more than once include:

  • • The Saturday show held by KC of Palm Springs in January, eight times;
  • • Beaver County KC in Canfield, Ohio, in August, six;
  • • DFA of Oregon’s “other” show a couple of weeks later, six times;
  • • Harrisburg KC, Harrisburg, Pa., April, six;
  • • Richland County KC, Cleveland, December, six;
  • • AKC/Eukanuba, Orlando or Long Beach, Calif., December, four;
  • • Brevard KC, Orlando, December, two;
  • • Central Florida KC, Orlando, December, two;
  • • Del Valle Dog Club of Livermore, Pleasanton, Calif., October, two;
  • • Mid-Kentucky KC, Louisville, March, two;
  • • Santa Maria KC, Ventura, Calif., July, two;
  • • South Windsor KC, West Springfield, Mass., November, two;
  • • Springfield KC, West Springfield, November, two;
  • • Tualatin KC, Portland, January, two; and
  • • Trenton KC, West Windsor, N.J., May, two.

The Golden Retriever Club of America has had the largest single-breed show twice during the past 10 years. Photo by Kayla Bertagnolli.

Biggest Specialties Anywhere
This article mainly deals with all-breed shows, but it’s worth adding a few words about specialties as well. As opposed to the all-breed shows, there’s no question that the biggest AKC specialty events attract more entries than any others in the world. The only one I can think of that would dwarf anything we had would be the Sieger show for German Shepherd Dogs in their native country. In the past they could easily have 2,000 dogs competing, but I believe entries have dropped drastically in recent years.

By far the biggest single-breed show in the U.S. is hosted by the amazing Labrador Retriever Club of the Potomac, which has headed the list for the past eight years in a row, usually with 700 to 800 dogs, and reaching a peak of 896 dogs present and competing in the regular classes in 2008. I’m not sure what the club’s secret is; it’s not even the parent club. When I tried to interview a few officers a few years ago, they seemed almost unaware of their show’s unique status.

The only other single-breed clubs to make the list every year during the past decade are the Golden Retriever Club of America, which was number one twice, once jointly with the Labs, each having 849 dogs shown, the American Boxer Club and the Poodle Club of America. Unlike many of the other national specialties, PCA is always held in the same spot from year to year, which no doubt helps makes its entries more predictable. Some of the roving nationals fluctuate wildly as far as the number of entries, no doubt depending on location.

Other breed clubs that have been among the 10 biggest specialties in the U.S. at least once in the past 10 years include:

  • • The Collie Club of America, eight times;
  • • American Shetland Sheepdog Association, seven;
  • • American Whippet Club, six;
  • • Flat-Coated Retriever Club of America, five;
  • • Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the U.S., four;
  • • Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, three
  • • Samoyed Club of America, three;
  • • Siberian Husky Club of America, three;
  • • Great Dane Club of America, two;
  • • Irish Setter Club of America, two;
  • • Newfoundland Dog Club of America, two;
  • • Borzoi Club of America, one;
  • • Dachshund Club of America, one; and
  • • Saluki Club of America; one.

It’s obvious that low registration numbers are no obstacle for some breeds achieving very impressive entries at their nationals!

One caveat: I have not included the American Spaniel Club in the above statistics, since it’s not a single-breed club. These days AKC does not allow recognition of multi-breed clubs unless they conform with one of the regular AKC Groups, but ASC was obviously grandfathered in; it was founded in 1881, three years before the American Kennel Club. Why it’s listed with single-breed specialty shows in the AKC statistics I do not know, but even though it gets big entries in most of the Spaniel breeds featured, it’s usually not as big as the biggest single-breed specialties. In 2012 ASC placed third on the list, between Golden Retrievers and Collies, but 250 dogs behind the top-ranked Labrador specialty.

Deciding Factors
Let’s look at a few factors that may influence entries at dog shows.

First, a country’s size matters. The United States covers a very large area; you can’t really compare it to, for example, any of the European countries, most of which are more like a U.S. state in size, although usually much more densely populated. A lot of people and dogs living in a small area will, of course, affect how likely it is for a dog show exhibitor to have easy access to shows.

One suggestion that’s often offered as a possible reason for AKC’s comparatively low entry figures is that we’ve got too many shows, offering too many choices. There are shows within driving distance for most people in the U.S. almost every weekend, which means a lot of owner-handlers – who have jobs, homes and families to consider – simply can’t go to as many shows as can a professional handler. When a show weekend increases from two days to three or four, many exhibitors may choose to enter just one or two of them, which of course means the total number of dogs exhibited during a weekend may be much higher than at any one of the participating shows. In other words, if weekends were shortened to include only two shows, entries at these would likely be larger than they presently are.

To check if the figures bear out this theory, I added up entries at the recent four-day Mission Circuit in Los Angeles. A total of 2,101 dogs were entered at least one day during the weekend, but the biggest of the four shows – Saturday’s Antelope Valley KC – had “only” 1,847 dogs, or about 250 dogs less. Of course, we don’t know that those who chose not to enter all four days would have come at all if the weekend had been condensed to, say, two shows, but it’s definitely a thought.

By the way, I did not realize until I started looking closely at the figures that Miscellaneous, Junior Showmanship and obedience entries are obviously counted for “Total Dogs in Show” as listed in the catalog. I have no idea why rally entries are not included, but I know that AKC will count only dogs present and competing in the regular conformation classes for the purposes of all-breed rankings.

For your information, here are the Mission Circuit day-by-day entries, as listed in the catalog: Friday’s Los Encinos KC had 1,488 dogs entered; on Saturday there were 1,847 at Antelope Valley KC; on Sunday the San Fernando Valley KC had 1,757; and on Monday, which was also Memorial Day, there were 1,454 dogs entered for San Gabriel Valley KC.

In case you wonder about the relative size of the various Groups, on the biggest day there were 301 Sporting dogs entered, 184 Hounds, 369 Working, 124 Terriers, 309 Toys, 237 Non-Sporting and 222 Herding dogs.

More research needs to be done, but I don’t think there’s any question that the large number of shows may be impacting their size negatively.

In part two of this article, which will be published next Wednesday, we’ll look at some of the big – and also at some of the not-so-big – foreign shows, and offer a few suggestions for how U.S. clubs might be able to attract higher entries.