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DOG Show, or dog SHOW?

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74 – November/December 2019

By Wayne Cavanaugh

When trying to understand the ever increasing shift in what it takes to win at American dog shows, I keep coming back to the same bunch of questions. If dog shows are about evaluating breeding stock, why must a dog “nail the free stack” from 10 feet away, regardless of the breed? Why must a dog lead it’s handler by 10 feet going around the ring, regardless of the breed? In breeds where markings do not matter, why do they? If a breed requires a dense, water resistant coat, why do they have to be blown dry backwards and covered in mousse? Do we underestimate the ability of judges to find good breeding stock based on breed type and merit alone? Little by little, maybe unknowingly, we participate in the subtle shift in emphasis from the dog to the show. We watch from the sidelines as the evaluation of breeding stock turns into the canine version of America’s Got Talent. The goalpost gets moved a few inches at a time until it requires an entirely new field. It’s called incrementalism. I know that we are better than just poses, sequins, speed, and spotlights. Rewind 30 years ago to the Houston shows at the Astrodome. Huge entry, great dogs, great judges. The Best In Show line-up was brilliant, thick with quality. Ringside was three deep. One of the best judges in history was adjudicating. The judge went back and forth and then asked each handler to step out into the middle of the ring with their dog. While this might not have been the first time, it was definitely a new thing. Breeds like Dobermans are naturals but surely not all breeds and dogs were trained for such tricks and neither were the handlers. For those who remember the era, can you imagine a judge asking Bob Forsyth to come out and “nail the free stack” from afar with an Old English Sheepdog or Great Pyrenees? Neither can I. On that day, most of the dogs just walked out and kind of stood there as if to ask the handler what they heck they wanted. The scenthound was interested enough in liver to at least stare at it and drool a little. Another though, a terrier, marched out, defied the handler and its bait, and fixed her eyes on something in the crowd as only a good terrier could. She was Best In Show. Just like that. Perhaps it was a tie breaker, or the judge was biding time, or the judge correctly guessed the terrier would handle the request and wanted the ringside to see its correct terrier spunk. Either way, soon thereafter, every handler began to train all breeds for “nailing the free stack,” even in breeds in which the temperament to do so seemed contrary. Not too many years later, a magazine ad appeared for the Westminster winner that read: “The Stack Heard Around the World”. Clever enough and it was indeed quite the memorable ten-footer. It was game on; if you want to win, dogs have to cock their heads from afar while standing very still. Icing on the cake, regardless of the breed standard, is standing with hindquarters stretched out enough to slope the topline for no apparent breed-specific reason. Running ten feet in front of the handler became the norm, even in breeds where speed is clearly not a requisite. And, of course, you better have the same markings and colors as the other dogs, even in breeds where color and markings absolutely do not matter. I have to wonder if the average exhibitor of other breeds, or even novice judges from another group, realize that open-marked beagles are perfectly acceptable and are allowed to win. Same goes for blue, lemon and red beagles and beagles with a brown front leg on the show side. In fact, the entire breed standard for color in beagles is four words: “Any true hound color.” Hound judges who haven’t been to Crufts may not realize that the majority of beagles there, in the motherland, are open-marked. For pointers, the standard for color says: “Liver, lemon, black, orange; either in combination with white or solid-colored. A good Pointer cannot be a bad color.” While liver and whites once ruled the rings, today you’d think orange or black are the only allowable colors. And yes, solid-colored pointers are correct as are pointers without matching bilateral head markings and broken blazes. In fact, neither the beagle or pointer breed standard even mentions markings. In English springer spaniels, you’d be hard pressed to special an excellent open-marked dog with ticking, you know, the ones that win everything in their country of origin. Unfortunately, that road is often a big dead end for those correct but unfashionably colored dogs in the show ring. More concerning, it can also lead to a dead end in the whelping box. To be clear, I’m not a stick in the mud and understand why people like the suspense and drama of dazzle. Dog shows should be entertaining and fun. Great presence in the ring is definitely a sight to behold and admire. When a judge puts on a good show, the audience gets involved and newcomers love it. But what happens when showmanship becomes more important than the dog itself? What happens when judges feel like they have to make every dog put on a show? What if the dog they consider to be the best breeding stock doesn’t seem to want to do the dance? It’s not that I don’t like a good show, but not at the risk of eliminating dogs from the ribbons and whelping boxes that aren’t born to be free stackers or head cockers. Eliminating those dogs, and dogs with acceptable but unfashionable markings, can leave some really good dogs out of the gene pool. I’m not suggesting for one second that we should intentionally breed for non-winning markings and colors. If a breeder is trying to breed dogs that can win, no one could expect them to strive to breed to a non-winning color. If the best English setters of an era are all orange beltons without an ear patch, by all means those are the ones from which to breed. I am, however, concerned that when a really good one comes along in a different but correct color or pattern–a dog that can really help the breed–it likely will not be shown and titled, and consequently, won’t be bred. Instead of testing the tie-breaking ability of a dog to run fast and stand still from a distance, perhaps new judges could use that time to stand back and seriously ask themselves which dog would be most important in a breeding program? I know the very best judges can balance both without even thinking about it. I’m just not sure how many there are. It certainly wasn’t one show, one judge, or one ad that helped jumpstart these trends. It was a multitude of factors. Obviously, fashions change and incremental exaggeration happens. To stand out in a crowd where the judge gets two minutes a dog, maybe a glitzier presentation has the most impact. Those realities are all contributing factors. A factor I also wonder about is the influence of the judging system itself. Follow me on this one for a minute. As I’ve mentioned before, there were 437 more dog shows last year than there were in 1996, 23 years ago. The average entry last year was 773, about half the average entry from 1996. With more shows and fewer entries per show each year, clubs understandably hire judges with at least two groups to remain solvent. The system, consciously or not, continually adjusts to meet supply and demand. Accordingly, more breeds are granted to more judges. Does this mean there are enough competent judges to evaluate breeding stock? It doesn’t take a breed expert to see showmanship and glitter. Anyone off the street can do that. But it takes serious effort, knowledge, and confidence to find the whole dog giftwrapped in breed type. There are methods that insecure judges can and do lean on to please the masses and get more assignments. One is to find the top winning dogs they see in magazines and award the one they consider to have given the best performance. By that I don’t mean the dog that exhibits the most correct breed character and temperament. I mean the fastest running, handler leading, free stacker from the farthest away. Not one of those factors contributes one-millionth of one speck of a chromosome to improving breeding stock or advancing the future of a breed. But as we all know, it happens every day. The perpetuation of the showy but generic dog is a drag on the species. We do have a good number of multi-group judges who can and do recognize breed type and breeding stock and award accordingly, so we know it’s possible. For that group of judges to become the majority, however, is not probable in the current system. Until then, let’s hope the most correct dogs, the ones that are the best breeding stock, are always the ones that have a big enough bag of tricks to win. And let’s hope that 10 feet doesn’t turn into 20 feet, final laps don’t turn into demolition derbies, and dogs aren’t eventually expected to stand on their hind legs and sing Think of Me from Phantom of the Opera. One more hope. When interviewed, consider not saying the reason you gave a dog Best in Show is because it “asked for it.” I promise you, “asking for it” is not required in any breed standard for any breed. If you want to impress those in the sport who know best, consider something breed-specific, something essential for the breed, some knowledge to impart. Save “he didn’t put a foot down wrong” for when you are asked to judge Dancing With the Stars. You will impress the serious dog show enthusiasts and amaze the audience. Who knows, you might even start a trend.

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74 – November/December 2019

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  • November 2019