Originally appearing in ShowSight Magazine, June 2016 Issue. CLICK TO SUBSCRIBE. Photo by Daniel Cartier from Kentuckiana Cluster 2017.
In a recent AKC survey of dog show participants, almost half (47%) say they attend fewer shows than they did five years ago. Reasons included costs, issues with judges (breed knowledge, politics, favoritism), time constraints and difficulty getting majors. If we want dog shows to survive, we need to keep current exhibitors and attract new exhibitors. Focusing on the former, the thing individuals have the most control over is judging. The answer is simple: just judge the dogs. That’s how judges can save our sport. And exhibitors: don’t expect favors. Don’t cheat. That’s how you can save the your sport.
How do we attract new people?
I’m a huge advocate of keeping shows in their local communities rather than clustering them all in a few sites within a state. How many people wandered into a show and left being impressed by a particular breed or even left with a desire to be part of it? I did. But apparently 6-year-olds from a hundred years (or so) ago are more easily impressed than today’s adults, at least according to a study done by an AKC focus group with the goal of understanding the public’s perception of AKC and AKC shows.
The groups consisted of owners of AKC registered dogs who already had a favorable impression of the AKC.
One group was open to attending a dog show, the other to actually participating in one. Their primary exposure to dog shows was the Westminster Kennel Club show on television.
Among those open to attending shows, they were interested in agility, seeing the different breeds, having a family outing, socializing with like-minded people and seeing what went on behind the scenes. These same people said barriers to attending were that it was time consuming, exclusive, expensive, appeared to be political and the shows were hard to find out about. They thought the beauty pageant aspect was boring, overly formal and they couldn’t understand the judging or procedures. And they had questions about the logistics of attending, such as what to wear or could they bring their own dog. Again, what can we do to make this better?
1) Free, or very inexpensive, spectator admission
2) Focus on local publicity as a major club activity, not an afterthought
3) Provide a contact number for questions, and man it with your most personable members
4) Provide a judging schedule beforehand, online, at veterinary clinics, feed stores and wherever else you posted announcements
5) Post online and provide handouts at the show explaining what happens in judging
6) Have club members circulating with “ASK ME!” type badges or t-shirts
7) Dog show tours are great! But also take them behind the scenes, chat to people grooming.
8) Provide chairs or rest areas so they don’t have to leave once their feet are tired. Optimally, have a club member who can chat about dogs there.
9) When possible, offer a Meet the Breeds area, even if it’s just a few breeds rotating
10) Exhibitors: Let people pet your dogs. Be ready to help when somebody looks confused. Stop talking to each other long enough to welcome spectator’s questions!
Among those open to participating in a dog show, the major draw was agility, which they saw as fun. They liked the idea of being with like-minded people and of competing, and also saw it as a way to teach kids responsibility. They saw agility as more fun, faster paced, easier to learn and more natural, as compared to conformation.
Their barriers to participating in conformation were having ineligible dogs (spayed, neutered or with breed DQs), difficulty getting a good show dog, time and expense and lack of “Beginner Shows” where they could learn in a less stressful environment.
So besides all of the above, we need to provide fun matches, training classes and help finding a show dog. More agility classes could be a way to lure prospective competitors in, especially those with dogs ineligible for conformation. And don’t forget beginner level events like Canine Good Citizen, Coursing Ability Tests (and actually the new Fast CAT seems easier for a club to put on, and just as much fun) and the new introductory agility competition. Have a Therapy Dog group. Show them we do more than dress up and trot in a circle.
Many had seen the AT&T documentary video of the AKC National Dog Show (if you missed it, watch it on U-Verse.com). I thought this was one of the better dog show documentaries I’ve seen, especially because it highlighted owner-handlers (who clearly loved their dogs) at the top levels of competition. But the focus group results seemed to disagree, commenting that the emphasis on conformation wasn’t as engaging as agility; that participants seemed snobby and un-relatable, judging seemed subjective and many were unsure as to what was happening. On the plus side, the video increased interest in attending, with comments that it seemed varied and fun, kids might enjoy it, dogs seemed happy, handlers and owners really love their dogs and handlers really cared about each other. But it actually decreased interest in participating, as viewers commented it would require huge investment in money, time and passion and that they couldn’t relate to people in shows. They didn’t like that spayed and neutered dogs couldn’t be shown, or the fact that the video focused on the “beauty pageant” and grooming.
Focus Group Conclusions
In addition to those listed above, I would add to that that spectators get a very biased view of dog shows when they just see Westminster, the National Dog Show and the AKC National—and when they focus on the potential group winners at these events. I’d quit before I started if I thought that would be my competition. With so much going at the AKC National, it would be better to focus on dogs in agility, obedience and dock diving as well as conformation, and maybe highlight some multi-sport dogs. What about the NOHS Invitational? And we need to let people know that these shows are not the norm; we have small local shows throughout the country where you don’t wear sequins and your dog gets to swim in a pond after—or before—he shows.
We need more spokespeople. Trained ones. I often cringe when I see interviews at the dog show, as crazy dog lady explains some esoteric fairy tale point about her breed nobody cares about. Perhaps AKC could offer an online class in being a local purebred dog spokesman and advocate.
Remember the reality TV show Dog Show Moms and Dads? It could have been good for our sport, but it wasn’t. Perhaps if we could convince Fido TV to run one with people who didn’t seem out of the Best in Show movie it would be better. And yes, following agility competitors would be a much better program than following conformation competitors.
One thing is clear: spectators love agility. I agree. I go to a lot of dog shows and a lot of agility trials. At shows I try to chose one breed and study it, along with its standard, but unless I’m actively watching like this, conformation judging is about as exciting as well, watching earthdog trials. But I can sit next to the agility ring and watch with only partial attention and still find it interesting. Every dog, every run, is different. It’s easy to follow what’s going on, and whether the dog qualified—except not so much if you look at the handlers, who look just as pleased with their dog either way. Can you add a My Dog Can Do That! area to your show with some agility equipment and an instructor? Even if you have to pay somebody, it may be money well worth it. Can you have a monthly or even weekly agility fun day? Is there a park where you can set up equipment, put on demos and let people have a try? Can we get more agility on television?
AKC is doing, or at least making plans to do, more diverse things to attract people.
Canine Ambassador Program
The Canine Ambassador Program consists of nearly 400 volunteers from local AKC dog clubs who make presentations about dogs to children at schools, after-school programs, scout meetings and other kid-friendly venues. The AKC site has an online directory of ambassadors, an introductory letter to schools, a dog bite presentation and other resources. Does your club have a Canine Ambassador?
In the last few months the AKC has donated more than 350 books nationwide to schools and libraries. Titles include: The Complete Dog Book, Dogs: The First 125 Years of the American Kennel Club, The Complete Dog Book for Kids, Our Dogs: A Century of Images and Words from the AKC Gazette and The New Yorker Book of Dog Cartoons. What about your local kennel club? Several years ago our small club had a book drive from amongst our members, and we were able to donate almost 70 books to our local library. Not only are the books there to educate our community members, but each book has a book plate with our kennel club’s name. But note, before donating books make sure they are in good shape, and that the library will put them on their shelves rather than sell them.
And really, they should be donating my Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds!
Meet the Breeds
The AKC Meet the Breeds events at the AKC National Championship in December and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in February are the two largest such events in the country, introducing thousands of spectators to the AKC breeds in a relaxed and interactive way. Many local dog clubs do their own Meet the Breeds events, often as part of Responsible Dog Owners Days. But why limit it to once a year? Is there a pet show in town? We’ve held ours in the local mall, local flea market (a $15 table is a deal!) and in conjunction with local pet charity events like the Doxie Derby. We’ve found PetSmart® won’t let us go there, but Tractor Supply® would welcome us, especially on one of their pet days. If you have room, add some agility obstacles and let people try with their own dogs.
Girl Scouts Patch Program
The AKC offers a Responsible Pet Ownership Patch Program to Girl Scouts at the Meet the Breeds event in New York City, and plan to do the same at the Orlando MTB starting in 2016. A second program, Going to the Dog Show: Dog Show Fun and Facts is also planned. This is another area that local kennel clubs could participate in with minimum effort. Sample question sheets are available at the AKC site, though I confess I was still a little confused how this works. Maybe because I was never a Girl Scout.
Lesson Plans for Teachers
The AKC Public Education Administrator and a team of consultants are creating dog-themed lesson aimed to debut in September 2016. These plans, which are free and address the Common Core standards, will include a teacher’s guide and student worksheets students.
Kids’ Corner Microsite
I’ve long suggested that dog websites need more kid’s content, and now AKC is doing it! They say they’ve created content and are in the process of integrating it on the website. I hope their website will be easier to navigate than the “new and improved” main website. We’ll see come their launch date, which hasn’t been announced yet.
The AKC’s Public Relations and Communications team is planning to create new and updated PSAs for digital and television sources.
Bark for Life
The American Kennel Club partnered with the American Cancer Society’s Bark for Life campaign in March of 2016. Bark for Life is an event honoring the life-long contributions of our Canine Caregivers. The AKC will use the funds to educate the public on dog health, microchipping, socialization and the link between canine and human health. Last month, Bark for Life Westchester raised $31,000.
Información en español
And the AKC has created a section on its website where brochures will be available in Spanish, reaching another large segment of our population.
Make it happen
It sounds doable. And it could be, if people would devote 1% of the energy they devote showing dogs to promoting them. “But I’m way too busy,” says the handler whose livelihood depends on dog shows being around the next few decades. He won’t be so busy awaiting his welfare check when they go away. “Too busy with this litter,” says the breeder who needs puppy buyers. She’ll be really busy keeping that litter of ten for the next ten years. Then she’ll be all alone because she won’t dare breed another. “I’m tired of nobody helping,” says the club member who keeps saying yes. One day she’ll get smart and won’t go back to a meeting. The others do the same. The club folds. The handler wonders why those lazy club members quit putting on a show for him to earn money at. The breeder wonders why they no longer promote her dogs for her. The club member wonders why nobody stepped up to save it all if it meant so much. save our sport