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The Future of Conformation Shows

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138 – April, 2015

by Gerry Meisels

A few weeks ago I stood by the ringside along with some of my friends and watched the judging in a Terrier breed, not my own Westies though. We watched several breeds, and I found out pretty quickly that my friend felt that the judge consistently put up the best known face in the ring. I couldn’t disagree with his opinion of this multiple group judge. Then we got ourselves a cup of coffee and the conversation became very wide ranging, from the decline in entries, to the aging of club members and exhibitors, the quality and cost of show facilities, individual dogs of various breeds – you surely have been in similar conversations yourself. After about half an hour or so we both became quiet and sat opposite each other on one of the food court’s picnic tables. Then out of a clear blue sky my friend said, “The way things are going, there will be no conformation shows in ten or fifteen years.” My friend, a long-time breeder and exhibitor in a Terrier breed different from mine, is quite knowledgeable about dogs and shows. He owner-handled one of his dogs to the top of the rankings, and has served as show chair and president of his club. The sense of the statement, that Conformation Shows (CSs) were in decline, did not surprise me but the vehemence and strength of that statement blew me away and set me to thinking. Are things really that bad, or is it just that shows are changing?

The future of CSs is very important to us. Conformation shows have been my wife Sylvia’s and my own life for half a century, and we sure don’t want that life to end, we’d never see our friends from all over the country again or have the pleasure of seeing typey, well-structured dogs in good condition and well-presented. You might say that I am a connoisseur of fine dogs, as one might be a connoisseur of good wines. It is not a good analogy, especially because my primary driver is my love for my breed and our own Westies.

Why would a knowledgeable person be so pessimistic about the future of conformation shows? It is certainly a common enough perception that there is cause to be concerned. Since 1996 the number of entries in all-breed and specialty shows has declined 20%,* and the average entry per all-breed show has declined 38% over the years. The average age of exhibitors and club members has increased. Show facilities have become ever harder to find and more expensive. Some good show grounds have either priced themselves so high that shows, especially the smaller 2-day shows, cannot afford them, or have imposed conditions impossible to meet. For example, one center decided to no longer allow camping. AKC’s requirements that show grounds must meet have changed. Instead of providing benching areas, the major consideration now (in addition to the continuing need for ring, grooming, and spectator space) is room for recreational vehicles. The relatively large fraction of exhibitors who come in an RV has a number of consequences. Shows that can provide campground amenities, especially electricity, are much more attractive to RVers. Camping at the shows also favors the drift to clusters. After all, it takes the same effort to set up and break down for a five-show cluster as it does for a two-show weekend, and the fuel costs are the same as well. We’ll get to the 600 pound gorilla in the room – judging – a little later.

There are, however, encouraging signs. Maybe, just maybe, things are beginning to turn around. AKC reports that its initiative to take advantage of social media is already paying dividends, and that the Facebook page now draws more than 3 million followers. This is a good first step to regain the interest of young people. Another encouraging sign is that registrations and entries have stopped their 20 year decline and increased slightly from 2013 to 2014. The Owner-Handler competition and the Grand Championship titles may have played a role in leveling entries. Similarly, the average show size was the same in 2014 as it was in 2013, about 60% of what it was in 1996. There are also encouraging signs that clubs and their show chairs are trying to make their shows more interesting and fun for exhibitors and spectators is by providing concurrent companion and performance competitions. Clusters accommodate the increasing use of RV’s. While adapting Conformation Shows to a different environment requires changes, change is a normal process and does not by itself spell the end of conformation shows.

The 600 pound gorilla is what happens in the ring, which was I think my friend’s major reason for pessimism. The complaints about bad judging are certainly not new, but have become increasingly more pervasive and louder. Much of the complaining can be written off to the frustrations of having lost and to kennel blindness. I have stood ringside many times and heard a loser’s complaint: how could the judge put up this dog, it has a bad topline (or whatever is good about the loser’s own dog) when the dog that won had, for example, much better type and movement. Regrettably, however, this does not explain away all of the accumulating anger. Every experienced exhibitor knows that it is possible to finish any dog that does not have a glaring fault with enough persistence and the use of a well-respected handler. Similarly, it is a common opinion amongst some that achieving the top statistical rankings reflects the owner’s pocketbook more than the quality of the dog. The point is that a large number of exhibitors and breeders have lost confidence in judging. It is very damaging that this disrespect is often very obvious at ringside and thus to the casual observer who has come off the street. It is much more difficult to re-gain respect than to keep it.

One dramatic illustration of the sense that the conformation ring is no longer seen as serving to evaluate breeding stock is the introduction of alternate evaluation processes. For example, the Golden Retriever Club has established the CCA program in which a panel of experienced breeders, exhibitors, and/or judges examine and report to the owner their analysis of their dog. Other clubs are beginning to develop similar programs. The most important step to assure the future of the Conformation Shows is to re-establish the credibility of judging. There are many ways to do that, such as providing effective means to secure feedback, mandatory continuing education, periodic formal post-approval review, etc. Only AKC’s Board of Directors can create the regulations that would be necessary to establish such a program.

Assuming that credibility of judging will be re-established, CSs are likely to evolve in two directions. The first is in the type of shows, which will sharpen the distinctions we see now. Weekend shows will be substantial and traditional in large cities such as New York and Chicago. In other parts of the country, the size of two-day shows will, in my opinion, continue to decline gradually. Few will offer more than a point or two in most breeds. Some will disappear, while others will scramble to find partners so they can go to 4- and 5-day clusters. The entire concept of club territories and rights to them should be reexamined because it no longer makes sense when show locations are determined by availability of facilities and partnerships rather than service to the community. In many breeds the smaller shows will draw specials that comprise the entire entry for the breed. Why show for a meaningless win in the breed when there is no competition? I think it’s because the exhibitor hopes for a placement in the group which will result in a boost in standing in the all breed competition category. The ranking thus becomes a proxy for a measure of quality.

The second direction is a further sharpening of the distinction between exhibitor types based largely on the reasons why they exhibit, and their wealth. There will be the traditional breeder-owner-handlers who show for the love of their dog, the love of their breed, to earn bragging rights with their friends and/or kennel club members, or to make the puppies they breed easier to sell at a better price. They will show mostly in the classes, and retire their champions when they are finished. They will typically get only to shows within a two- or three-hour drive from their homes until their dogs are singled out, i.e. need only majors. They will then seek out shows likely to have a major. Particularly in the smaller-entry breeds they will try to “build” majors for each other so the guesswork is reduced. Basically, they compete on the local level.

At the other extreme will be those who seek to move the breed in the direction they think is best, look for major national recognition, and earn their bragging rights with major figures in the breed and those who are active in the national breed clubs. Every serious dog person knows who the top dog in their breed is, his/her handler, and the owner. Some take pride in owning a top dog. While a few owner-exhibitors compete successfully at that level, the demands on time to put the dog into the best condition and to take them to every show in a larger radius leads to the overwhelming majority of “campaigned” dogs being shown by professional handlers.

This part of the sport is not for the average person because it requires six figure annual expenditures. The Owner-Handler series is an attempt to level the field somewhat and provides a parallel pathway to a different, but less prestigious set of national rankings.

While the classes and group/BIS competition are at opposite ends of future development, the specials (BOB) competition falls in-between but will increasingly fulfill a dual role: to serve the breed while also developing into an almost separately conducted show within the show because it is the entry point to the rankings-driven group and BIS competitions. That competition is especially important in low-entry breeds and in low-entry regions where group competition is the only achievable recognition and independent of the number of dogs of that breed within the normal show range.

Thus it seems very likely that the essence of conformation shows will remain, but barring dramatic action by AKC the nature of the CSs will change gradually and increasingly emphasize differences rather than commonalities. Change has always taken place and always will, and dog shows are no exception. While conformation shows of the past may be disappearing, there will be conformation shows of the future for many years to come.

* These and other data are taken from “Just the Facts”, Bobby Christiansen, www.infodog.com

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Posted by on Apr 17 2015. Filed under Current Articles, Editorial, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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