On with the Show!

Like people, some dogs are natural showmen and love to be in the spotlight while others, more modest perhaps, prefer private pleasures.

Jinx, of Stony Brook, Long Island, is a very beautiful black Pug and certainly has the look of a breed champion. But every time she was put into a show ring, her tail went down and her whole demeanor spoke of misery. So her breeder allowed Jinx to be adopted by the loving family with which she now resides. And these days Jinx radiates happiness, never thinking, I’m sure, of the show ring.

As Paul MacLean of Ocean Spray Labradors of Norton, Massachusetts, a breeder of award-winning dogs explains it, “A show dog is a special dog, no matter what breed. It has to have breed type, an outgoing personality, correct structure, and that ‘here I am, look at me strut my stuff attitude.’”

Kathy Kiley, the owner/handler of Rory, her Champion Irish Setter agrees. “The personality of any dog plays a role in how they show,” she explains. “Do they enjoy the ring and the attention? Winners do. It will be evident in the way they move in the ring . . . the look they give the judge when he examines them . . . the sparkle they have while doing something they love. Some lovely examples of breed just aren’t happy unless they are at home with their people. The dog show world isn’t for them.”

In The AKC’s World of the Pure-Bred Dog (New York, 1983), Steve Cady sums it up: “Make no mistake about it. Show dogs may be the snobs among America’s fourteen million registered pure-breds, but they are athletes competing in athletic contests. In addition to being outstanding specimens of their breeds, top dogs must have the temperament to handle the stress of crowds, the stamina to survive constant travel by land and air, and the showmanship to exude happiness in the ring day after day. They must look like a winner and act like a winner.”

Show dogs are indeed very special. But in today’s world, criticism of dog shows and breed standards is commonplace.

“Showing dogs is so cruel!” moan those who don’t know any better. Clearly, they’ve never seen the enthusiasm certain animals have for flaunting their good looks before the world. They also don’t realize that the same glamorous show dogs are also usually beloved and pampered pets. An animal cloistered in a kennel just wouldn’t show well.

And I like to think the criticism from people who complain, “Why didn’t you get a rescue? There are so many unwanted dogs in the world!” is equally unfair. Why is it better to take a chance on total unknowns rather than select a puppy where you can be reasonably sure of what you’re getting? If you love dogs, the choice is personal.

Paul MacLean concurs. “While people like us love the purebred dog, there are others who just love dogs in general. Our son has a poorly bred Pug and a mongrel that resembles a large rat and he loves them both and so do his wife and children. But there is a downside to a dog of unknown lineage. You have no clue about the personality or any other family traits. Nor can you predict what health problems may be lurking in the pet.”

What prompts people to get involved in the world of show dogs?

For some it is undoubtedly the love of a specific breed and the traits for which that breed is known: the elegance and speed of the Afghan Hound, the intelligence and chic of the Standard Poodle, the feisty nature and leprechaun looks of the Chihuahua. For others, both the camaraderie the show circuit fosters and the wholesome, competitive spirit provide the motivation. There are also those animal lovers who see it as a pleasant way of making a living and, sadly, there are even some who see easy profits as a goal. Alas, this last group, apart from being the least sportsmanlike, are also the most apt to be disappointed. Breeding show dogs could hardly be called a profitable business.

Kathy Kiley tells how she was inspired to be part of the show world. “When I was eight years old I read a book called Champion Dog: Prince Tom, a story about a show Cocker Spaniel. I knew then that I wanted to own my own show dog one day.” And she has managed to do just that despite some earlier setbacks: puppies with impeccable lineage who didn’t look quite right or beauties who preferred home and hearth to the world of show business.

“In the eighties, after having owned and loved two of the nicest Labs anyone could ever have wanted (but neither of which was of show quality), we decided we wanted to be part of the dog show world,” recalls Paul MacLean. “We then bought a nice female, but as anyone in the game will tell you, they do not all work out. She was a lovely girl and she warmed our bed for fourteen years, but she did not produce a show dog of merit.”

How exactly does the world of show dogs work? That is, how does a dog earn the prefix “Champion” and are there specific degrees of excellence even among champions?

Kathy Kiley, who was once a teacher, outlines the basics with precision and clarity:

Dogs who are not yet champions compete against those of their own breed and sex. The winners of each class then come back to the ring and the judge will choose one of those to be Winner’s Dog (or Winner’s Bitch for the females) and that dog is awarded points toward their title of champion. Depending on how many of each sex are entered will determine how many points the dog wins at that show. A dog must get fifteen total points to become a champion and at least two of the wins must be three to five point wins. Those are called majors. Once a dog is a finished champion, he can then go on to earn his grand championship where he competes with others who have achieved that status. At that stage, the dog must win three majors and a total of twenty-five points.

There was a time when the world of showing dogs was elite and private. People with names like Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, Mrs. Frothingham Wagstaff, and August Belmont held sway over a small, insular universe. Today all that has changed and anyone can participate. It is, however, a time-consuming endeavor and can mean three or four weekends a month on the road and many show weekends are three or four days long. It can also be quite an expensive proposition. Although the cost of entering a show is relatively modest (usually $30 or $35), once you figure in hotel rooms, food, gas, tolls, and equipment, expenditures escalate. Furthermore, if you’re campaigning a dog to be number one in breed rankings, the cost of professional handlers and advertising enters the equation and the total can climb into tens of thousands of dollars.

Is it all worth it?

Why not?

If the dogs enjoy the recognition and applause, if the breeders like the excitement and challenge, and if people like me savor the pride of having the prettiest dog in town, why not indeed.

Issue Twenty Two