Dog Years: A Brief History of a Pivotal Century
At the center of our sport’s history is the tumultuous 20th century. The period between 1899 and 1999, often referred to as the “American Century,” ushered in a breathtaking acceleration in the rate of change, not just in the general culture but also in our various niche occupations and pastimes.
The rapid evolution of the sport of purebred dogs during this whirlwind century coincided—not so coincidently—with an unprecedented growth in wealth, technology, and science. A hundred years of world wars, population shifts, social upheavals, and great movements like suffrage and civil rights similarly reshaped the sport as they reshaped the nation.
In the beginning, there were sporting-dog and pack-hound trials. Soon after America won its independence, gentlemen (and not-such-gentlemen) sportsmen were testing the skill of their field dogs in rudimentary competitive trials. As early as the 1830s there was a lively market for sporting periodicals. By the 1870s entire books on the subject, Arnold Burges’s landmark “The American Kennel and Sporting Field” comes to immediately mind, were deemed necessary.
It is hardly surprising that trialing would take off so quickly in America. Hardy souls living on the frontier depended on shooting irons for sustenance and protection. The colonies relied on these adventurers, farmers, and professional hunters to form the citizen militias that were the backbone of the Revolutionary fighting force.
By 1791, when ratification of the Bill of Rights guaranteed the right to bear arms, the gun and the gundog were already cherished staples of American life. In Britain, by contrast, with its rigid class system and punitive laws dictating who could and could not own weapons—and even certain breeds of dog—the right to bear arms was, and remains, a rather exotic concept.
The growth of conformation shows was no less meteoric. 1859 is the generally accepted birth date of dog shows in England, and by the 1870s all-breed shows had taken root in America. These were crude affairs by today’s standards. Without the guiding hand of a central regulatory body, the results were wildly inconsistent—that’s where the AKC came in. But these early events were crucially important to the sport’s development. It was at such embryonic shows, staged by sportsmen obsessed with the performance ability of their dogs, that “Form follows function” became the unofficial motto of the sport.
By the dawn of the 20th century, the stage was set for the golden age of American dog sports. This age can be roughly divided into two eras.
First came the era of large-scale kennels, when pre–income tax millionaires engaged in spending wars in their attempt to dominate the sport as they had dominated business and finance. It was during this era, too, that competitive obedience became an AKC event, thanks in great part to the evangelizing of obedience gurus Helene Whitehouse Walker and Blanche Saunders.
As life in the 20th century became increasingly less formal and more self-involved, what would come to be called “companion events” followed suit. In chronological order of introduction came obedience, tracking, agility, rally—each a little freer and more individualistic than what came before.
The second half of the 20th century can be called the era of democratization. The late-1940s postwar boom in income and leisure time gave just plain folks the means to keep small-scale kennels and make enduring contributions to the sport, and the large kennels gave way to middle-class “weekend warriors.” The advent of televised dog shows, especially Westminster, brought the glamour and excitement of big events into living rooms nationwide, inspiring people from all walks of life to get into the game.
The 1957 demise of the original Morris and Essex show, in all its genteel old-money glory, is a convenient dividing line between the two eras.
Much has changed since the days when such giants as Mrs. Dodge, Alva Rosenberg, and Percy Roberts cast their imposing shadows in the ring. But at its core, in its heart of hearts, the sport holds values that are ever constant. An exhibitor will always beam with pride as she stacks her dog for a big win shot. A good retrieve has always been a good retrieve, and the soulful gaze of a trusty gundog will always be the sportsman’s sweetest reward. The deep satisfaction handlers will derive from a flawless obedience routine this weekend is the same as it was in the early ’30s, when the event was new.
Of course, the point of it all—past and present—has been to produce good dogs, sound of mind and body. This will always be so.
And the AKC itself, despite many superficial changes, remains true to the core mission set forth by its founders on a September day in 1884. It was put well by an AKC president of the mid–20th century, William E. Buckley, who once assembled the staff to remind them, “Always remember: We are a service organization. The dogs are not here for us, we are here for the dogs.”