With Driffield coming up this weekend, we see the end of the summer show season, and for the next six months or so virtually all shows will be held indoors. Whether they are held indoors or out, dog shows are the mainstay of the pedigree world – or are they?
In fact, there are so many more things that owners can do with their dogs that dog showing has become even more of a minority activity than ever it was. To many people the idea of spending hours and hours grooming a dog, just so that it can walk a couple of times around a small ring, hopefully to be rewarded with a piece of card – for the owner – and maybe a few titbits is slightly ridiculous. Far better, surely, if we want to do something competitive with our dog to try flyball or agility or obedience or rally? If he is a gundog, why not harness his natural instincts and train for field trials? Why not try lure coursing or terrier racing? Why not, indeed, just go for a nice long walk where both of you come back tired, muddy and happy?
Why not indeed? And of course many show dogs do compete, often successfully, in other disciplines and all, one hopes, get the opportunity to go out for walks and just ‘be a dog’.
So should we accept that dog showing is very much a minority interest, attracting only those who are obsessed with perfection of form and with no place for the average owner who is proud of their dogs and just enjoys having fun with them? Dog showing does have a very serious purpose and perhaps it is time to think more carefully about the reasons why it is important that showing is kept at the forefront of activities involving pedigree dogs. Those who ridicule the show world are quick to denigrate the extremes that they observe amongst exhibitors. They point, sometimes with justification, to the amount of grooming that seems necessary in some breeds, and to the excesses of coat that can be found on some so-called sporting breeds. They leap joyfully upon any suggestion of cheating or foul play. They suggest that show dogs are only valued when they are winning and are cast aside without a thought if that winning stops. Maybe some of their comments are justified – but if that is so, do we have ourselves to blame?
Perhaps we should take a step back and look at dog shows from an outsider’s point of view. Why do we show our dogs? Most exhibitors would say that it is an enjoyable hobby for both dog and owner. The politically correct answer would be that it is a means of assessing the way in which any dog meets the breed standard; it is a means whereby a breeder can ensure that they are keeping true to the breed and can assess their own breeding programmes in relation to those of others. All these explanations are true even if some exhibitors have lost sight of these worthy aims, and are really only concerned with the end result – the prize card – and are happy to overlook sometimes quite serious faults as long as the dog catches the judge’s eye.
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Indeed, does it matter? Should we not be honest and say that dog shows are all about the people – their grooming and handling skills – rather than about the dogs? Sometimes it seems that this is true, and maybe this is why dog shows seem to have lost not only their popularity, but also the aura of magic that used to attract the general public. Crufts – the very name used to inspire and awe the average pet owner. The show is still popular, the crowds that go through the turnstiles each year are testament to that, but how many of the paying customers actually stop and watch the breed judging? They go and find their favourite breeds in the Discover Dogs area; they may spend some time watching agility, flyball or some of the main ring demonstrations – but the bulk of their time at the show is spent visiting the trade stands. For the average owner, Crufts is the place where they can indulge in some serious retail therapy on behalf of their pets.
It seems to me that in developing dog shows to the point where the emphasis is placed on personalities, both human and canine, rather than on the qualities of the exhibits and their closeness to the relevant breed standard, we have actually lost sight of the purpose of exhibition. How often, when referring to a particular dog, do we talk about showmanship or style, rather than breed type? So often, when talking about a particular dog to a breed specialist, we hear them saying, “Lovely dog, but is it really correct for the breed?”
One of the strengths of the British show scene has always been the number of breed specialists that also judge. The thinking is that the specialists make sure that breed type is kept solidly in mind, whilst the allrounders will concentrate on conformation and soundness – although still having a good enough grasp of breed specifics to satisfy the exhibitors. The breeder’s aim was always to produce a dog that excelled in breed type, had excellent conformation and moved in a correct manner for the breed, thus satisfying judges from both camps. All too often, sadly, the specialist’s opinion seems to be less relevant nowadays. Exhibitors are looking for a ‘big ring’ dog – a flashy exhibit that will catch the judge’s eye in the group.
The exhibition of dogs in conformation competition is important. Knowledgeable judges can point out a trend towards exaggeration before it becomes the norm. One of the main arguments for promoting the breeding of pedigree dogs is that the purchaser knows in advance exactly what they will be getting, that each breed is distinguishable by its size, shape, colour and coat, as well as by its temperament and character. Dog shows have a very important part to play in maintaining those standards, and breeders and judges have a responsibility towards their breeds to ensure that shows offer serious evaluation of the exhibits and are not just an opportunity for glamour and showmanship to be displayed.