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In a dog show world dominated by professional handlers, showing dogs is not for the faint of heart or the owner-handler. This is a case for reform.
If there was an award for the dog with the most second (or last) places, Junior would rank among the most successful in the Mastiff breed.
Junior and I have lost to aggressive and fearful Mastiffs, limping and injured Mastiffs, and Mastiffs that look more like Great Danes than those in the Dane ring.
We have been defeated by Mastiffs that refused to stand still for the judge, Mastiffs that cowered with their tail tucked while being stacked, and Mastiffs that were openly hostile to other dogs in the ring.
More times than I can count we have departed the ring with our red or yellow ribbon only to hear people say, “You should have won that.”
What is a Big Dog Mom to think? Is this akin to “No, those jeans don’t make your butt look fat at all (wink, wink),” or are all these kinds of people right that Junior should be doing better in the ring?
He should be winning… at least some of the time.
Believe it or not, this post is not about Junior. It is not to generate sympathy for the perpetual loser. And it is not even about Mastiffs.
This is about dog shows. It is about judges and handlers. Dog shows are supposed to be about the dogs, but are they?
‘Constantly Evolving Variables’ of the AKC Dog Show
Dog show veterans have told me:
“The purpose of a dog show is to evaluate breeding stock. If a dog doesn’t win after being evaluated by multiple judges, it should not be bred.”
“Dog shows are a competition. Professional handlers are part of the strategy of winning.”
“It’s not just about the dog. The reality is a lot more goes into a judges decision; how the dog is presented, who is presenting him, if the judge likes the handler, prior experience with the handler on a different breed, judge’s experience with the breed, and many other ‘constantly evolving variables.’ It is not just about the dog and it never will be.”
Winning isn’t everything. But it is something. And when it consistently fails to happen due to these “constantly evolving variables” what is a person left to think about dog shows? What is she left to think about her dog?
And if the purpose of a dog show is to evaluate breeding stock, is a dog that never wins not breed-worthy? What about dogs that DO win? Is it necessarily true that dog show winners are worthy examples of their breed or more worthy of being bred?
These are not rhetorical questions, keep reading.
Dog Show Brags
If you are on Facebook, you have seen them.
“So and so wins Best of Breed”
“9 month old puppy takes Best of Opposite over specials”
“New AKC Champion with limited showing.”
Given all of the ‘constantly evolving variables,’ that go into the decision as to which dogs rise to the top and which don’t, what do these brags really mean? Who deserves the congratulations, the dog or the handler?
I had an AKC champion once. Linus was an AKC Champion. He was professionally handled. He won numerous times over specials, took Best of Breed several times, and championed quickly with limited showing.
Some might see these brags and think, wow, he must have been an impressive example for the Mastiff breed. With his success in the ring, I was told more than once he was worthy of breeding. To some, it was irrelevant that he needed to wear a basket muzzle like a permanent appendage outside the ring.
He was a winner. He was an AKC Champion.
If the purpose of a dog show is to evaluate breeding stock, Linus passed that test.
If the value of his wins is based on the quality of his handler, he passed that test too.
Bias in a Dog Show?
I had the opportunity tonight to observe the Working Group judging at a large local dog show.
After courtesy pat-downs and trots around the ring, the judge made her way around to make her first cut. The only owner handler in the ring did not make the first cut. After her initial cut, she went on to select her Group 1, 2, and 3 picks, forgetting the number 4.
The judge proceeded back to the front of the line where two female professional handlers were chatting and the three of them giggled with one commenting “Which one is it going to be today? Hahaha!”
The dog that was originally selected for a Group 3 was replaced with one of those handlers with her Group 4 placement being the other handler. Clearly having a relationship with the judge paid off for these two ladies.
To be fair, my experience in observing the group ring is limited to this one experience. How common this blatant bias is, I cannot say. I have to believe there are judges out there who don’t succumb to such human pressure in the ring. This particular judge was clearly not one of them.
So, while I am not anti-professional dog handler, I am anti-corruption in the dog show ring.
I am not a sore loser. I am saddened that a win in the dog show ring often has little to do with the dog receiving it.
A Possible Solution? AKC Owner Handler
According to the American Kennel Club, more than 80% of show dogs are handled by their owners. “The AKC National Owner-Handled Series celebrates the dedication and enthusiasm of owner-handler exhibitors” allowing them to compete in a separate competition against one another.
While this is a nice gesture, we shouldn’t need a separate series within the AKC in order to level the playing field for owner-handlers if they make up 80% of the dogs being shown. If judging in a dog show is in fact about the dogs and not about the ‘constantly evolving variables,’ having a separate series for owner handlers should not be necessary.
Here’s my point. Owner handlers are not like girls asking to join the Boy Scouts (oh, wait…). They are simply asking for an equal opportunity for their dogs to be judged fairly.
These dogs and their owners have made a tremendous investment and do not deserve to have that squandered by the systemic corruption that is the current state of the AKC dog show.
Winning is Not Everything.
No, winning is not everything. I tell my kids this all the time. It is the process that counts, not the outcome.
You could say that the process of socialization at the dog show when Junior was a puppy was the most important thing, not his winning at 6 months old. And I would agree with you.
Today, however, it seems to me that I am paying the AKC for my own tears because as an owner-handler in a ring of professional handlers, I cannot compete. The deck is stacked against me and the odds of me winning are slim to none, regardless of the dog at the end of my leash.
Realistically, Junior may never become an AKC Champion.
He may never be the “type” judges are looking for. He will never float around the ring or present himself in a show-stopping way because that is not who he is. He is a Mastiff. A big, typey boy who is not perfect.
While it is my opinion that what he offers the breed far outweighs his imperfections, I am confident that his biggest disadvantage is the person at the end of his leash.
Putting the DOG Back in the DOG Show
Dog shows should be about dogs and dogs alone.
Blaming the current state of bias and corruption on ‘constantly evolving variables’ is an easy excuse for those content with the status quo.
Put it this way, if dog shows are not about the dogs, perhaps we think of another name for these events.
Just a thought.
If I have ruffled any feathers, it has been my pleasure.