By Sierra Milton

The mockumentary "Best in Show" movie took a humorous look at the world of dog shows.  While tongue-in-cheek, it is doubtful that the characters portrayed did not immediately bring real people to the mind of anyone who has shown dogs for any length of time.  How many of us do not know at least one person who will put their last dime into entering a dog show instead of rent?  Or those to whom winning validates their lives and is their sole driving force?  Who has not driven all night in the hopes of getting that win?  Do you know someone who will stop at nothing to win?  Is winning your raison d'Ítre?

So, what effect does the integrity of exhibitors have on the sport of showing dogs?  In my piece "Judge and Ye Shall Be Judged" I examined the various components of dog shows and the effects that each has on the future of purebred dogs.  It is important to look at the 'other person' in the ring - the exhibitor.   The exhibitor may be a neophyte, amateur, professional hobbyist or professional handler.  Regardless of rank, the person at the end of the lead has a significant role in the future well-being of purebred dogs.

As we have already determined, dog shows were originally established as a means of determining which dogs most embodied the standard of excellence determined for each breed and should be used for breeding in an attempt to reach the ideal type symbolized by that standard.  Dog shows, much like horse and other livestock shows, should be a proving ground and a means for exhibitors and breeders to determine how close they were to the standard and in what areas their stock needed to improve.   These events also served as both educational forums and places where neophytes could go in search of mentors and knowledge about the sport and their breeds.   The AKC states that 'Competition in conformation and performance events can best demonstrate the progress that has been made in breeding for type and quality, and/or for practical use, stamina and obedience.'

The statistics show that most dog show exhibitors quit within the first five years.  Serious questions must be asked to determine why our sport fails to nurture and encourage long-time involvement.   It is rare that the first 'show dog' owned by a person is immediately successful in the show ring.  More often, the first dog is little but a learning show experience - in what type is, the mechanics of dog showing and presentation, application of the standard, and the cost of campaigning.  Today's society is such that enthusiasm and motivation seems to only be fuelled by winning.  Mentoring, an essential element of successful showing and breeding, is scarce.  Too often we see neophytes that come into the show scene as 'instant experts'.  This mentality alienates the very people from whom the new exhibitors should and could be learning.   

What should come first? - learning about the breed or showing?  If we accept that the purpose of a dog show, in the past and today, is to ".demonstrate the progress that has been made in breeding for type and quality, and/or for practical use, stamina and obedience", the answer is clear.  Without a doubt, those interested in showing dogs should first be a student of their chosen breed.  Form and function must go hand-in-hand and without first understanding both of these fundamentals properly, presenting a dog to its best is going to be far more difficult, if not impossible.  Far too often, breeders encourage first-time owners to jump into the show ring without first mentoring them on anything other than how to stack and how to move their dog.  Many of these first-timers actually enter their first show without even observing a show or even having attended handling classes.  Many of these exhibitors are doomed to lose, sometimes not based upon the quality of their dog, but because they lack the necessary knowledge, experience and confidence.  Many judges, rightly or wrongly, look for that 'show dog' - the dog who does not step a paw out of place, has 'ring presence' and a handler who ensures the dog is always in a favourable position to catch the judge's attention.  Many judges do not have the time for the youngster or new exhibitor who may be 'on' for a few seconds out of the allotted two minutes.  If it comes down to two dogs, the steady dog and handler will invariably win.

Sadly, the vast majority of dog show exhibitors seem to labour under the impression that the purpose of dog shows is purely to win.  Winning means ribbons; ribbons denotes accolades; accolades leads to prestige; and prestige equates to higher stud fees and puppy prices.  Surely successful breeding programs are those that can command high prices - or are they?  Regrettably, there are people who breed, and truly believe that they are breeding for the betterment of their breed.  They do not understand the history of their breed, how movement in their breed is akin or different to other breeds, how to decipher pedigrees, recessive and dominant traits and genes - all the very basics of what knowledgeable breeding is about.  No, Virginia, that highly successful show dog can not be bred to every bitch and produce better puppies than what he is and no, that lovely multiple best-in-show bitch will not produce an entire litter of group-winning, best-in-show puppies unless the breeder has done a tremendous amount of learning about pedigrees and genetics and has had a bit of luck thrown in.  Winning ribbons, while demonstrating the progress that has been made in type and quality, is only part of the equation when it comes to breeding for better dogs in the future.

The very nature of dog shows dictates that far more exhibitors will go away from a show disappointed than elated.  Ultimately, cutting through all the place winners, best of breed and group placings and winners, there is only one top dog - that Best in Show winner.  Except for that one Best in Show winner, the owners of the other dogs, while perhaps elated with their wins, still harbour some disappointment in not winning more.  The class placements wish they had won Winner's Dog or Bitch (or CC in the UK); the Winner's Dog and Bitch wish they had won Best of Breed; the Best of Breed wishes they had won the Group; and all those Group winners wish they had won Best in Show.  Added to the mix are the various 'competitions' for Top Breed Dog (using either a number of dogs defeated in the breed and/or a number of dogs defeated at the group level system), Top Group Dog, Top All-Breed Dog, Top Stud Dog, Top Dam, Top Puppy - and so the list goes on. 

Lynn Hall stated in her book Dog Shows for Beginners that "Winning is fun. Winning is a high that equals any chemical high ever invented. Losing is not fun, it's just a long day, a long drive, and a lot of work capped by disappointment. Most people lose more than they win, but one good win can keep us afloat through a lot of losses. . . We want the win. We want the elation of sailing out of the ring with that blue or purple scrap of fabric. We want the job of being a gracious winner at ringside, followed by whooping elation all the way home."    But, what cost are we willing to pay for that win?  Sadly, while the fierce competition should encourage exhibitors to show better dogs, the need to win often lures many exhibitors to the dark side of showing - the realm where the rules of polite society and the good of the breed no longer matter.
C.A. Sharp terms those who want to win above all else as 'Incorrigibles' and, while she was speaking of those who hide genetic problems, the term is also apt for those who value the win above the future of the breed.  In the Summer 2000 edition of Double Helix Network News, she said "You all know them.  The ones that put winning above all other goals.  'It doesn't matter as long as the dog wins,' is their mantra.  Their dogs must win, as must their dogs' offspring, and woe betide to anyone who stands in their way as they pursue greater breed and personal glory.If a genetic problem isn't apparent they will ignore it.  If it can be (surgically) fixed they will." and ".If someone else knows about the problem, the Incorrigibles will use any means at their disposal to shut that person up, ranging from veiled threats and rumor-mongering to blatant bully tactics and threatened legal action."  Only a very naÔve exhibitor who has never spent much time in the grooming areas or by the ring-side listening would not be able to give at least a half-dozen examples of ways in which dogs had been 'enhanced' for showing - from the less intrusive, such as scissoring, chalking, coat 'conditioners' and permanent dyeing to the more diabolical, such as surgical alterations, dental braces and filing, and drugs. 
Those who are willing to sacrifice the future for the glory of winning are not new to this era of showing.  "When it came to correcting faults, some of the oldtime handlers were pretty unscrupulous.  In fact, there were very few tricks they didn't use.  Of course, judges had a far more liberal attitude than they do today.  It was not infrequent to find that a pricked button ear had been corrected by crushing the cartilage with an emasculator, or that an undershot mouth had been improved by filing down the bottom teeth.  The third eyelid may have been removed when a dog showed too much haw, and perhaps a few drops of atropine were used to dilate the pupil of a light-eyed dog so as to make the eye appear darker.  Poor tail carriage was corrected by severing the nerve that controls the tail.  Dogs that "showed tongue" could be given orally a substantial amount of atropine.  The use of MacDougall's Sheep Dip as a substitute for chalk improved the texture of certain terrier coats, and laundry bluing used in the rinse water when bathing white dogs helped to remove yellow stain.  Rust or tan colored markings could be brightened with iodine or permanganate.  Abnormally rough coats could be smoothed down with sandpaper, and the quality and quantity of the coat improved by giving minute amounts of arsenic, daily, in the form of Fowler's Solution.  The texture of terrier coats could be made to feel harsh by applying a solution of sugar in water.  Collie and sheltie coats would respond well to being sprayed with beer instead of coat dressing.  Thin dogs and poor eaters might be given shots of cortisone to increase their appetite; this drug might also cause edema, thus making them look fatter.  Tranquilizers of various types could be administered to nervous or highly strung animals.  Naturally, the American Kennel Club and all honest exhibitors would frown on such tricks if they were being used today.  Being caught at it would mean certain disqualification."

Yet, all too often those of us who believe that if we want to win we have to breed or own better dogs turn a blind eye to those who are indulging in unethical, corrupt, or even cruel practices in their quest for laurels.  Whether it is fear of being ostracized by our peers, not wishing to 'get involved' in the ensuing investigations, or other reasons, the result is the same - the future of the breeds are being jeopardized.  Those dogs that are winning are the ones that most people flock to, rightly or wrongly, for puppies.  The stud fees and puppy prices commanded are princely and the lines to own one just like 'Ch I'm Really a Fraud' are long.  These imperfections being changed in order to win - whether chalking, tattooing pink noses, creative scissoring, dyeing imperfect coat colours, surgery, ear set corrections, dental braces, testicle implants, behaviour alterations, or the host of other violations - are still part of the dog's genetic make-up.  Quite often those who breed to or get a puppy from 'Ch I'm Really a Fraud' have no idea that the dog actually is not as presented and do not realize that, if they too wish to continue the 'winning ways' with the next generation they may need to follow the same alteration route.  But, the damage is done and the offspring, the numbers compounded by the popular sire syndrome, will impair the future improvement of the breed involved for generations to come.  All the disguises in the world will not change the dog's basic phenotype. 

Is it only alterations to a dog's appearance or behaviour that imperils the future?  No, the behaviour of exhibitors also effects the sport in ways that are just as wounding, but less readily apparent.  There are plenty of ways that an exhibitor can adversely harm not only the breeds' welfare, but also the sport.  Is there a dog that your dog just can not seem to beat?  Rumor-mongering, whether about the breeder, the dog or the other exhibitor, will aid the campaign to unseat that winner.  And if that does not seem to work - how about intimidation?   Just maintain an aggressive posture, push past the other entrants and be sure to jostle their dogs as you do so, position yourself and your dog in a manner that does not permit the judge to see the other exhibit, refuse to indulge in pleasantries, scowl a bit or even refuse to offer well-wishes if the other dog places higher than your charge; and do not forget that it may be possible to intimidate the judge too. If the judge prefers another dog, be sure to tell him and all those in earshot all the bad points of the dog he just gave the win to.  If you really want to make a point and impress everyone, either refuse to take the award and stomp outraged out of the ring; or take it and then toss that odious piece of ribbon or placement card into the nearest trash receptacle - or even better crumble it and throw it to the ground!  What bullying campaign would be complete without a few loudly spoken words or even a shove or two?  And, while all of this is going on, be sure to ignore that the public may be watching and judging the quality of purebred dogs based on the quality of sportsmanship and behaviour of those holding the leads.

Sportsmanship often flies out the ring when it comes to competing.  Not only do some exhibitors jostle for position, believing that being among the first in line gives them a psychological edge, but there are also a host of other handling 'techniques' that can be employed to improve their chances for that win:

. Pushing to get in front of a quick moving dog and then moving their entrant at a slower pace, forcing the other exhibitor to either slow down or move in a manner that leaves a wide gap between the two dogs.

. Moving a quick-paced dog deliberately up on the heels of a slower dog or even letting the faster paced dog move to the end of the lead in a tighter circle so that the faster dog actually blocks the slower dog from the judge's view.

. Dropping liver or other bait and not picking it up.

. Squeaking a small toy 'to keep their dog lively' just as the judge is looking at or starting to go over another dog.

. Stacking the dog in such a way that it blocks another dog.

. The list goes on.

Decorum and good manners should be a part of every exhibitor.  The very integrity of our sport depends on adherence to the rules set forth by the various kennel club registries under which we all compete.  Unfortunately, there are, and always have been, those people who believe that rules are for others and that the end justifies any means.  The AKC has six different sections cataloguing the manner in which violations may be penalized, with numerous infractions and their penalties listed under each of the subheadings.  The punishments range from reprimands to lifetime suspensions, with fines of $50 to $5,000.  None of these would be necessary to list if the violation had not previously occurred.  The sections include:

. Misconduct toward a judge - physical or verbal abuse, inappropriate public criticism, unsportsmanlike conduct.

. Disorderly conduct - physical altercation, abusive or foul language/verbal altercation, personal property damage, impairing a club's ability to retain a site, failure to control a dog at an event, sexual harassment, disruptive behaviour at an event.

. Inappropriate treatment of animals - physical abuse or neglect at or in connection with an event by an individual and by a club, whelping dogs at event site, unacceptable conditions, dogs and/or facilities, cruelty or mistreatment in connection with an event.

. Violation of AKC Rules/Regulations or Club Regulations - Showing the wrong dog without voluntary correction, substitution, complicity with a judge, benching violations, disregard of published club regulations (such as parking, exercise pens, crates in aisle, selling puppies, etc.), entering/exhibiting altered dog (temporary, such as dyeing, chalking, coat additives, drugging), entering/exhibiting altered dog (permanent, such as surgical alterations, dental alterations), wilful refusal to return ribbon or prize after award disallowed, gun safety violation (by gunner or club), providing fraudulent information on an entry to show an ineligible dog.

. Registration Violations - not affecting the Stud Book.

. Registration Violations - affecting the Stud Book.

How does all of this harm the well-being of our breeds?  Quite simply, if the best dog is not put forward, the whole purpose of a dog show - remember shows should be 'a means of determining which dogs most embodied the standard of excellence determined for each breed and should be used for breeding in an attempt to reach the ideal type symbolized by that standard' - the standard of excellence may be unduly changed to reflect those dogs that are winning and those dogs will then be used for breeding.  Every exhibitor who alters a dog, fails to abide by the rules and convention of civility, and who fails to represent purebred dogs and the sport of dogs in a manner that the general public will perceive favourably, harms all of us, including the very breeds they purportedly love.

It is high time that we ALL took responsibility for demanding that our sport and the future well-being of all our beloved breeds take precedence over the almighty wins.  For those who believe that winning is all that matters and have to win at all costs, consider that you are not paying the ultimate price - it is being paid for by every other exhibitor and dog that is competing fairly by the rules.  But more importantly, it is the future of our sport and well-being of our beloved breeds that will make the ultimate sacrifice for generations into the future.

There will always be those immoral few who will justify their actions and make the dog world a bit darker.  The rest of us will treasure the true friendships we have gained from showing, enjoy the bonds established between us and our showing partners, endeavour to show dogs that are competitive without artificial alterations, and maintain a true sportsmanlike attitude, all while keeping in mind that winning is wonderful; but it is not everything!

©2004, Sierra Milton.  

First published in The Canine Chronicle, January 2005.