Last week I presented some figures that clearly demonstrate, as everybody seems to know these days, that even our biggest AKC dog shows are fairly small compared to most major events overseas. Few all-breed shows in the U.S. have as many as 3,000 dogs, yet Great Britain, Scandinavia and several countries on the European continent regularly present dog shows that are two or three times as big, on occasion even larger. Let’s look a little at the particulars.

Great Britain is, of course, where the sport of purebred dogs started. For more than a hundred years dog shows have been more popular in the U.K. than anywhere else in the world. Circumstances there are very different from the U.S. As they say, “geography is destiny,” and there’s no question that the relatively small size and large population of both people and dogs make the British Isles ideally suited for these purposes. The entire area of Great Britain covers only 94,000 square miles, smaller than Oregon, but over 62 million people live there, with a correspondingly large number of dogs, which helps account for the fact that almost all the major British shows are huge by American standards. This applies not just to the famous Crufts dog show, which as mentioned earlier regularly attracts an entry of 20,000 dogs. Something like 10,000 dogs used to be a standard entry size for many of the British shows, and although figures have dropped in recent years, the average British championship show is still several times larger than an average AKC all-breed show. There are only a couple of dozen of these “general all-breed” events, which means that campaigning, at the level many do in the U.S., is virtually unknown. The relatively short distances mean that all the top dogs can compete at almost all the shows, and none of the all-breed championship shows overlap, so you just can’t “go somewhere else” and avoid the competition.

This pattern is repeated to a less extreme degree in Continental Europe: Germany has 81.7 million people on 137,847 square miles; France, 65.3 million on 260,558 square miles; and Italy, 59.5 million on 116,347 square miles. All are much more densely populated than the U.S., making it more likely that a dog show exhibitor who lives there would have easier access to dog shows than his American counterpart. It also helps, of course, that it’s so simple to cross the national borders in Europe, so many show their dogs in a foreign country on a regular basis. Most of the big international shows in Europe cater to non-native exhibitors for the simple reason that they bring in hundreds – or thousands – of foreign entries. As mentioned earlier, many of the top shows in Europe are bigger than even the largest AKC shows, varying from the FCI World Show, which had over 18,000 entries when held in Hungary last month, to several thousand dogs at many other shows.

The top shows in Europe, such as the FCI World Show, welcome hundreds – or thousands – of foreign entries. Photo by Dan Sayers.

Big Entries, Small Populations
The Scandinavian countries do not fit the same profile, but accumulate large entry figures in spite of small and relatively widely dispersed populations. It’s almost a miracle that Finland, with only 5.4 million inhabitants, can have as many as 7,500 dogs at its biggest annual show, and several others that are at least twice as big as anything we’re used to see in the U.S. Sweden isn’t far behind; I just checked on its KC website and found that all the all-breed shows held so far this year have had between 2,500 and 4,000 dogs entered. There are some very big dog shows in Norway and Denmark as well. The high figures are particularly surprising because most of the Scandinavian countries, Finland especially, aren’t easy to get to for foreign exhibitors from most other areas – certainly not from the European continent.

Russia offers a particularly interesting comparison to the U.S. in that it covers an even larger area (actually, Russia is almost twice as big as the U.S.) and registers a lot fewer dogs, yet manages to host an annual show in Moscow in March that’s nearly twice as big as anything AKC can boast of – the previously mentioned Eurasia event. Just how that’s possible is difficult to say, but the figures are impossible to argue with.

There were over 1,000 all-breed shows in Russia last year, a few hundred fewer than in the U.S., but a large enough number that it’s surprising – and impressive – that some of them achieved as big entries as they did. The smaller European countries had fewer shows, just over 100 each in France and Italy last year, and only 28 in Germany. Finland had 43 all-breed shows, Sweden, 38 and Denmark, only 13. Looking at Europe as a whole, though, there are several hundred annual shows to choose from in an area that’s comparable to the U.S. — which means that dog show exhibitors over there probably have about as many choices as most of us have here.

Crufts dog show regularly attracts an entry of 20,000 dogs and an enormous throng of spectators. Photo by Karl Donvil.

The Smallest Shows Anywhere
If the above makes you feel bad about the fact that at least in this respect the U.S. lags behind Great Britain, Scandinavia and most of continental Europe, let’s make it clear that we’re far ahead of many other countries.

You only have to cross the border to Canada to realize that quality and size don’t necessarily go together. Our northern neighbors breed some of the best dogs in the world, yet the average Canadian all-breed show is much smaller than AKC’s. The absence of any big, major events is actually startling: are there any shows in Canada that attract 2,000 dogs today? Or even 1,000? If so, I’d like to know where they are.

To the south, it’s the same story. Latin America has produced some wonderful dogs, yet shows in this part of the world are in general fairly small. I can’t think of a single event that’s comparable in size to the major events in Europe or U.S. Brazil is in almost every respect the dominant country in South America, covering the largest area (almost 3.3 million square miles), having the most people (193.9 million), registering more than 120,000 dogs, and hosting 842 all-breed shows last year according to the 2012 figures – but most of them had only a few hundred dogs. Argentina registered more than 70,000 dogs and had nearly 400 all-breed shows; Mexico produced 35,000 registrations and had just over 150 shows, but none of them was large by international standards.

Australia used to have some of the biggest dog shows in the world. Almost all of the important all-breed activity is centered around the annual Royal shows (so called because of their link to the Royal Agricultural Society) in each state, with those in Melbourne and Sydney in the past receiving as many as 5,000 to 6,000 entries. That’s not the case anymore, although the quality is still there, and the major Royals are still at least as big as the biggest AKC shows. Australia is almost as large as the continental U.S. in size, but with only 23 million people, around 65,000 dog registrations, and well over 1,000 all-breed dog shows held last year. In some ways the situation is very similar to that in the U.S., and in others, so very, very different.

Many feel that Asia is where the future of the dog sport lies. I used to think so, too, but I’m no longer so sure. The Japan Kennel Club has certainly succeeded in building an amazingly strong following in just a few decades, and Japanese breeders are producing the world’s best dogs in some breeds, but there’s still no dog show in Japan that gets really big entries. Last year JKC registered more than 350,000 puppies and held over 200 all-breed shows, but other than the FCI show in Tokyo, which can get 2,000 entries, none has managed to create a strong international profile. The same goes for the other Asian countries, and we’re still waiting for dog shows to catch on in China — something that many of us would have expected to see stronger signs of by now. There’s an FCI Asia show each year, but it doesn’t seem to attract the same kind of press or attendance that, for example, the FCI Section show in Europe does.

The Real Reason?
So what is the real reason some countries have so much bigger dog shows than others? There’s no consistency to the facts and figures I’ve found that would explain the big differences. The love for dogs and the interest in dog shows is clearly universal, even more so today than it was just a couple of decades ago.

One very basic, obvious requirement for pet dogs and dog shows to have a big following in any country is a decent standard of living. Obviously, before people can even think of showing and breeding dogs – or get involved in any hobby activity at all, for that matter – there needs to be a solid middle class with enough time and money on their hands to devote to dogs. No doubt the social changes in Eastern Europe are part of the reason this area has become such an important player in purebred dogs in recent years. This also explains why many other countries are as yet unable to be active in dogs. Of course, anyone who’s been studying the changing social conditions in the U.S., with the deepening economic divide between rich and poor and the “disappearance of the middle class” will wonder how much this may account for the diminished activity at dog shows.

Personally, I think that’s only a small part of the reason, though. In the countries where dog shows get really big entries showing dogs is a popular activity because you get value for your entry fee, and the shows are regarded primarily as a fun hobby – not a business. At AKC shows you may win a ribbon, but that’s usually it: no explanation, no education, no accountability from the judge. Your dog is probably defeated by a heavily promoted top winner who is professionally presented in such a manner that even the most ignorant novice will realize that it would be almost impossible for him or her to ever achieve that level of perfection. Furthermore, you have no idea what the judge thought of your dog, and if you’re naive enough to ask, you’re not very likely to get a useful answer.

Incidentally, the entry fees are often much higher at FCI events than in the U.S., which seems to indicate that if people feel they are getting something for their money they don’t mind spending more.

If you’re not having fun, and if you don’t think you’re getting value for your entry fee, why would you come back? No wonder a lot of people who are initially intrigued by the idea of participating in AKC shows soon decide that it isn’t for them, find some more enjoyable weekend pursuit and drop out after a couple of early attempts.

Critiques and Grading
At major shows in Great Britain, the first two placements in each class can look forward to a written critique of their dog that’s published in the weekly dog papers. There are almost no professional handlers, and the atmosphere at British shows is far more relaxed and conducive to the average exhibitor having a nice day out than we’re used to in the U.S. At all shows in Scandinavia, and most in continental Europe, every single dog receives not only a grade (Excellent, First Grade, Second Grade, etc.) from the judge, but also a written critique that – at least in theory – outlines the dog’s faults and virtues. As in England, the general atmosphere is far more relaxed than at AKC shows, where the participants’ behavior is far more restricted by rules and regulations than it is in other countries.

Could the reason our AKC shows don’t attract nearly as large a following as the big events overseas be that they are often simply not fun, not rewarding enough for people who are just looking for a pleasant day out? Is it possible that the very characteristic that makes our shows run so smoothly and impress foreign visitors – the professionalism that’s evident both in and outside the rings – is exactly what turns off new fanciers? Or would it be possible to make some changes and attract a lot more people?

Is AKC listening? I’m not sure anyone in a responsible position has even addressed the important problem of attracting more fanciers to our dog shows, yet you would think it would be in AKC’s, as in all our collective interest, that dog shows increased in size and popularity to a degree that guarantees the survival of our sport.

Or is the problem that we really don’t want our AKC shows to be a fun place for newcomers to attend?

I would love to hear your thoughts.