At a recent dog show, several littermates of both sexes, handled by assorted novice owners, were entered in the 9-12 Month Puppy class. While none of the puppies exhibited disqualifying faults, they were generic in type and not what I would consider “show quality.” The judge that day agreed. The puppies were not up to the competition, and the owners were disappointed that a younger, better-made puppy from the 6-9 Month class beat them for Reserve. At the completion of breed judging, one of the novice owners, who had seen me at earlier shows, approached me and asked, “What happened?” I explained that this particular judge preferred other dogs to hers. I asked the owner if the breeder of her puppy had sold it as “show quality.” The buyer had been told the puppy was “finishable.” Not the same thing in my book.
Back in the days of more entries in nearly all breeds, and fewer — but larger — shows, good breeders were elated to come up with a lovely show prospect or two in even the choicest of litters. The absence of disqualifying or major faults did not make a puppy “show quality.” Some puppies with minor flaws or a less extroverted attitude might be retained for breeding, and the rest would go to great pet homes, with the stipulation that they be spayed or neutered.
Today, as shows have gotten smaller, but multiplied in number, and with fewer class animals needed to make a major, some breeders seem to be pushing the envelope as far as exhibiting pets. The sad reality is that pretty much any dog can be called “finishable” if he’s entered in enough remote shows and competes against dogs of poorer quality. But to what end? The breeder, of course, who convinces her naïve buyers to show their pet-quality dogs gets to boast about an all-champion litter. If owners balk at the cost of paying for entry fees and handler services, the breeder quickly reminds them that, in time, they can breed their own litter. Typically, the breeder stays on the paperwork as co-owner to complete the pyramid scheme.
No breed benefits from “cheap champions,” but no owner, after paying to show and finish a pet, would be expected to tell the world that the title isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. So, mediocre champions get bred. For these breeders, the goal is not to produce better dogs with each generation but to simply produce finishable dogs and rack up championships. Typically, the same owners who can’t discern between finishable and show quality also don’t realize that every champion should not embark on a Specials career, even if money is no object.
Most judges don’t want to discourage exhibitors by withholding ribbons and points, particularly in parts of the country where the overall quality of the dogs exhibited might not be top drawer. The one judge on a circuit who considers it his duty to withhold on a lesser dog will probably be condemned on social media for his “brutality” (read: honesty) when every other judge hands over the purple ribbon and poses for the show win photo.
So, how do we resolve this frustrating problem? I think we — judges and caring breeder-exhibitors — need to look at owners and how we interact with them. Commercially-minded breeders won’t give up their cash cow and will continue to find gullible buyers. On the other hand, owners are usually more receptive to education. In time, many owners do develop an eye for a better dog by attending shows, talking to fellow exhibitors, and studying the winners and the dogs that produced them. These are the up-and-comers who must be encouraged, invited to join breed clubs, and made to feel welcome in the sport.
If a novice demonstrates her interest in the sport by continuing to enter her pet in dog shows, this is the time that a good breeder can gently intervene and offer her a co-ownership on a better dog, without denigrating her pet or bad-mouthing the pet’s breeder. Take the high road and give a novice with potential a break. We need them badly.
At the same time, judges can help by being kind yet honest, explaining to an exhibitor that her entry is lacking in the show dog essentials, and gently encouraging her to find a better-quality animal. Many a successful exhibitor took the early advice of a caring judge or generous breeder-exhibitor and never looked back.
Allan Reznik has been an Afghan Hound fancier since the early 1970s and also owns and exhibits Tibetan Spaniels. He is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster, who has served as editor-in-chief of several national dog publications. He appears regularly on radio and TV discussing all aspects of responsible animal ownership. Allan is an AKC permit judge of Afghan Hounds, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and Tibetan Spaniels.