The Purpose of Dog Shows: Just One Opinion

By Christine Chapman, Hounds of Woodwind

Stock Photos

Note well:  the following is merely my opinion formed after nearly 50 years of showing purebred dogs.

Are dog shows really about evaluating breeding stock any longer?  Historically, they were.  That is the how and why these events came into being.  Two factors were the driving force in dog shows initially.  First, judges were known and respected as to their knowledge of anatomy, function, grooming, conditioning and what we would now call the biomechanics of structure.  They were generally considered experts on only a few breeds and their opinions were avidly sought before a breeding was consummated.  Second, dogs were brought in front of the judge on a platform in pairs and judging proceeded as a sort of elimination process with the better of the two dogs remaining on the platform and the next contender brought up for comparison.  There was no competition past the breed level.  Most advertising was simply by word of mouth and so often limited to the local level to offer stud services or to sell puppies.  Breedings were often within driving distance, since shipping semen was not even thought of yet much less available and shipping the bitch long distances could be as problematic as it is today.

As purebred dogs and their competitions grew in popularity pressures began to build, on judges, on breeders and on show giving clubs. Demand for puppies meant breeders could be tempted into doing a less considered breeding just to provide those puppies to the buying public. As the public became more aware of dog shows they wanted to bring their purchased puppy to compete, so new clubs formed, and our sport grew and grew.  More shows meant that more judges were needed, but the time for learning everything necessary to truly evaluate the dogs before them wasn’t fully appreciated. Rarely did a new judge have years of horse experience or ages of breeding and showing their own dogs before they began their plunge into formal judging.

When variety groups were added to the picture, pressures got even worse.  Advertising, point systems and the rise of handlers who, instead of being employed by one large kennel to train, condition, and present dogs from that kennel exclusively, began to accept clients with fewer dogs as an income base. Now shows became “the dog show game”.  Shows were much less about finding the right stud dog for a particular bitch or evaluating a bitch as to her suitability as a brood matron.  They became more of an ego trip. No longer was winning Best of Breed the ultimate compliment a dog could achieve from a respected judge. Group wins and Best in Show wins became the yardstick by which dogs were considered as “worthy”.  Points and ranking systems became the yardstick, and as they became embedded in our dog show culture the original point of finding excellent breeding stock became diluted. Now the point was to have top winning dogs.  Dogs advertised heavily, campaigned heavily, touted by their handlers to judges who may be less than confident in their ability to find the most correct dog brought before them, potential puppy buyers to impress with incredible show win records became our norm.  Of course, many of these top winning dogs are worthy representatives of their breeds.  But some are not quite up to the mark. So, here is our dilemma.

Are dogs shows still the mechanism by which we find breeding stock?  My answer is a conditional yes. Dog shows are the place to see the dogs in person.  We come as bitch owners to meet a dog we have seen advertised and that we think may be the right choice for our girl. We come as breeders to see progeny produced by others’ dogs as well as to see our own in the same ring with our competitor’s for side-by-side comparison. We also come to socialize with people who are as enamored with our chosen breed as we are, to exchange information, to educate those desiring to learn more about our breed and to be available to puppy buyers who are considering adding to our breed to their family.

But when we allow ourselves to be swayed by an astounding show record, to be seduced into thinking that ribbons are an indication of true quality we begin to tread on a very slippery slope. Ribbons can never change genes and genes, not ribbons, are what are at work in the whelping box.  Look back into your breed’s history and see how often a top winning, record-breaking dog not only never produced progeny better than itself, it also didn’t produce anything as good as itself.  Sometimes they never produced anything at all.

So, in some ways we have come full circle.  As breeders we must be the ones to learn, study, examine our chosen breed until we fully understand anatomy, function, grooming, conditioning, and biomechanics.  We must be cognizant of the quality of both the judging and the competition on the day when we consider Best of Breed wins. We must choose the best breeding partners, each for the other.  We must continue to learn about our own breed and about dogs in general to not fall prey to kennel blindness.  We must present the best dogs we produce to the best of our ability to knowledgeable judges in order to represent our breed in the best possible light.  And that closes the circle if we allow it.