Originally appearing in our SEPTEMBER 2016 ISSUE. From the monthly column "Becoming" by Jacquelyn Fogel. CLICK TO SUBSCRIBE.
I remember one of the first AKC attempts to acknowledge and honor pure-bred dog breeders. It was at one of the Eukanuba shows in California, and I was there with a stunning 6-month-old puppy that later went on to become the number one Bedlington, all systems, for two years in a row. She won the Terrier puppy groups in the three preceding shows and was awarded Best of Winners at that show. That year the AKC initiated the first ever Best Bred-By-Exhibitor competition to include all dogs that were bred and shown by their breeder. The competition included all dogs in each breed, not just the winners of the Bred-By classes. They wanted to choose the best dog in each breed that was both shown all the way through competition, and bred by the exhibitor. All dogs, including the specials and all class winners were to be considered in the competition. My puppy was 6 months and a minute old, so I had chosen to enter her in the Puppy class rather than the Bred-By class—but that wouldn’t matter in this new competition! She would still be able to compete if she won her class. The winners in each breed would go on to compete in a Bred-By Group that included both champions and class dogs—all bred by the people who showed them. What an honor.
It didn’t take long for reality to set in. Nobody quite understood how the system would work because it had never been tried before. The judges were not quite sure what to do, and some relied on the stewards to guide them. The stewards had a credit-card sized diagram that explained how an automatic win could be awarded based upon who got Best of Breed, Best of Opposite or an Award of Merit. Everyone who was eligible to compete had to mark their entry as eligible, and an asterisk would appear in the catalog next to their name if they had checked the eligible box on their entry. My entry had an asterisk, and so did the entry for the second Award of Merit winner and several other non-placing dogs. The Bedlingtons chosen for Best of Breed and Best of Opposite were not shown by their breeders. My puppy was awarded Best of Winners that day. And on that day, at the ring steward’s direction, my puppy was excused from the ring, and the judge handed the Best Bred-By-Exhibitor ribbon to the second Award of Merit winner. Even when I protested that I should be given the opportunity to compete for that ribbon with my Best of Winners Puppy, the ring steward prevailed by waiving his diagram at the judge and insisting he had gotten it correct. I left the ring deflated and angry because I believed the steward and judge had misunderstood the concept, and I was not going to be able to compete in what I thought would be a fabulous tribute to breeders, with one of the finest dogs I had ever bred. I sensed this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I was going to miss it because of a technical error.
I protested the handling of this procedure all the way to the top leadership of the AKC who finally admitted that the judge and ring steward had both misunderstood the rules, and had gotten it wrong. They should have brought back all class winners that were Bred-By-Exhibitor eligible to compete for the Best ribbon. In this case, because I had already won Best of Winners, my puppy had already defeated the other class dogs, so she most certainly should have been asked to compete with all the specials handled by their breeders. It should have been treated as a separate event, and not automatically handed to anyone except an eligible Best of Breed winner. They said I could put my protest in writing, send it to the AKC where it would be reviewed, and I would probably win, and they would request the ribbon back from the other exhibitor. But today, the dog that won the ribbon was qualified to win and would still get to compete in the Bred-By Group that evening. I decided to let it drop. Being right would not get my very special puppy into the Bred-By group that night. As it turned out, the AKC later clarified the rules and invented the Select categories for champions only (Awards of Merit could have been given to any dog, including one that had already received a ribbon for something else, e.g. a dog could be both Best of Opposite and Award of Merit winner if the judge so chose). This would make things much clearer for the soon-to-be-invented NOHS competitions. But the AKC never again tried a Best Bred-By competition for anything except the Bred-by-Exhibitor class winners.
Apparently I was not the only one to complain about how the system worked. In their attempt to make the system easy, they had made it unfair. However, that California debacle became the forerunner of the current NOHS system. I think the AKC thought that if they changed the eligibility criteria from Breeder-Handler to Owner-Handler most of their problems would go away, and they could increase their participants. And in some respects, they were correct. The system does work more smoothly now, thanks to the analysis of what was right and wrong with the Eukanuba trial—but what has it accomplished? Now instead of acknowledging and publicly honoring the breeders of dogs, we are honoring owners of dogs regardless of who the breeder is. It is a larger pool of contenders, so more entries can be submitted, but what’s the point? The regular breed judging should be identifying the best dogs in competition, so what is the NOHS recognizing? The smartest people who got lucky enough to buy a good dog? The lucky owners who have a good dog, but not enough money to hire a handler? Why have we elevated ownership to a celebrated status? If we are truly evaluating breeding stock, then shouldn’t we find some way to acknowledge the breeders of the best dogs, regardless of whether they are owned by someone else or shown by someone else? Don’t some professional handlers breed really good dogs? Why should they be disenfranchised from a system to honor breeders? Aren’t dog shows supposed to be about finding the best dog regardless of who is on the other end of the leash? I understand distinguishing breeders from all other exhibitors, but owners? Again, what’s the point?
I think the primary reason for pushing the NOHS competitions was, once again, motivated by increasing entries and revenue. I have also observed another alarming trend. If dogs are consistent NOHS winners, they rarely place in the “real” groups. It’s as though the judges are tossing the owners a little bone while they play in their own little groups, so they don’t have to be considered in the regular or “real” groups. The addition of the asterisk in the judges’ books makes it really easy for judges to determine who the amateurs and the professionals are. Now that owners have their own groups, the judges are free to point to the “real” serious contenders in the “real” groups. Double the contentment factor if you always send different people to the different groups—eight group placements instead of only four. Bingo! Except the two groups really aren’t on the same competitive plane at all.
This has recently affected me, personally. Just last month I turned over my own heart-dog to a professional handler because I thought he deserved more than I could give him as an owner-handler. The dog adored me, and we were beginning to show as a really nice team. We won several NOHS groups, and a couple NOHS BIS. I felt quite honored until I realized that as much winning as I was doing in the NOHS competitions, I was consistently ignored in the regular groups. We were noticed, and sometimes made the cut, but when it came time for a placement—well, those went to the expected professionally handled dogs. As a serious breeder and competitor, this was not what I was looking for. I don’t need an award that honors me as an owner, I want the awards that acknowledge the dogs I breed and their accomplishments. It should not matter who is on the other end of the lead. So I have now turned my heart-dog over to a wonderful handler who can win with him in the “real” groups. She can get him ranked in the breed and all-breed systems. I had gotten him to the number 2 spot in NOHS rankings, but that really meant little to me. I am proud to be his breeder, and I want people to see and acknowledge a great breeding program—not a mediocre handler (me) with a great dog.
I know that many owner-handlers are also breeders, and they are enjoying the opportunity to compete without the handlers in the ring. I like meeting these people, and the more relaxed nature of the competition was enjoyable. But at the end of the day, it didn’t do much for my dogs. Few people watch the NOHS groups. And they did seem to be a way for judges to do something for non-pros so they would not feel guilty about using mostly pros in the groups that actually counted.
I suspect the NOHS competitions are here to stay, but I am not convinced they have been good for our sport. I was excited when the AKC initiated a competition to acknowledge and honor breeders, and I like the idea of the Eukanuba Breeders Stakes, though their execution has been less than stellar. But competitions for owner-handlers? What does a win in that category actually mean? It takes focus away from the dog and puts it on the handler, and that’s not what this sport should be about. It shouldn’t matter if the handler is a professional, owner or breeder. It’s supposed to be about the dog.
I think the gap between professional and amateur handlers is widening now. I am a professional breeder, and I have a business to run. I own and manage a boarding/grooming facility with 13 employees, and I manage 25 breeding dogs. I write and I train, and I really enjoy all of this work. I do not have time to focus on one particular dog at the expense of my commercial clients or my breeding dogs. My handling skills are good, but my dogs are the last to benefit from my skills because I teach others to handle. My wonderful professional handler gets to focus her attention on the dogs she handles because that is her full-time job. She has time to work on coat care and perfect grooming, and small details of training that I didn’t have time to do. And in the end, my heart dog will look better with her than me, even though he is the same dog that I bred and showed.
The judges today are looking for those tiny differences in presentation to make their group placements. I think some of this is rooted in their insecurity about the nuances of breeds they judge. I don’t know many owners or breeders who have the time to put into perfecting the show part, but they are still trying to show and breed good dogs where nuance matters. They have the dogs, but not the time to make them show like the professionals. With the NOHS groups the judges now have a way to keep the masses happy while the professionals compete unimpeded in the real groups, sometimes with inferior, but well dressed and trained-to-the-nines examples of breeds. It is no wonder that I have learned to enjoy specialty shows far more than all-breed shows. At least at a specialty, it’s still usually more about the dogs than the show.
We live in a world of unintended consequences. The unintended consequences of the current NOHS system is a widening gap between professional handlers and owners, and the further disenfranchisement of breeders.
It certainly isn’t about breeding better dogs, nor is it about training new judges to learn the nuance in the breeds they judge. In the long run, I don’t think it will be good for the sport because it ignores breeders and elevates owners and professionals. The AKC still has not gotten the message. It’s the breeders who are the foundation of the entire system. Without good dogs bred by knowledgeable breeders, nobody has a job. We’ve just about run out of time on this one, but nobody seems to be noticing.