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Spectators meet with exhibitors at the AKC's 2019 Meet the Breeds.

The recent Westminster Dog Show and the Meet the Breeds event that preceded it gave breeder-exhibitors a grand opportunity to engage with the public and the media. Decades ago, benched shows were the norm, not the exception. Exhibitors settled in for the day, sharing lunch with their competitors and happily talking about their dogs to interested spectators.

Today’s hurried “show and go” environment doesn’t give participants in the sport much of a chance to relax and enjoy the interaction between their dogs and the public. That’s why Meet the Breeds is such an important element of the week. Parent club booths are lavishly decorated, many volunteers dress up in national costume to celebrate their breeds’ heritage, and families visiting the event stop at every booth to collect literature and take selfies with the dogs.  If ever you can arrive in New York City in time to volunteer at your club’s breed booth on the Saturday before Westminster, by all means, do so. It is a very rewarding experience.

Giving a Good Impression

Because Westminster is such a hugely important show, tension runs high and not all exhibitors are able to successfully compartmentalize; some are stressed out for 48 hours. Walking the aisles of the benching area for two days as I did, accompanying TV crews, a range of emotions was on display. Many exhibitors appreciated the value of media exposure and happily chatted with reporters for a short segment. Others—and not always those with coated, time-intensive breeds—had meltdowns at the very thought of setting down the brush and the can of hairspray to talk about their dogs for a few minutes. What a disservice they did to their breeds—and what a bad impression they made on spectators who were in the vicinity to observe the breeds that interested them. Surely they wondered if those same breeders would be just as inhospitable to them, inquiring about a puppy, as they were to the crew of a national TV show.

Participating in dog shows every weekend, it’s easy to lose sight of how bizarre the preparation of our dogs for the ring can look to the outside world. The cords of a Puli tied off with hair clips, Bloodhounds wearing gold lame snoods, Westies standing in a basin of chalk powder… these are not everyday sights to John Q. Public. So we can either cheerfully answer the public’s questions about these grooming rituals, explaining that their pets wouldn’t need such elaborate primping, or respond with condescension and eye rolls, sending spectators hastily on their way—and perhaps into the waiting arms of “designer dog” breeders who will treat them more respectfully.

How to Handle Public Interest During Stress

If someone approaches you with a question or asks to photograph your dog just as you are rushing to get to the ring, hand them a business card and invite them to come to your set up later. Never be too busy to appreciate the public’s interest in your dogs and breed. Always bring breed handouts with you that contain relevant websites and email addresses.

Taking our hobby seriously doesn’t mean we have to take ourselves too seriously. Are we eccentric? Of course. But no more so than the folks who travel the world playing competitive bridge or competing in orchid shows. Let’s embrace it! Explain the nuances of our grooming to those who are interested enough to ask. The message to send the public is: we may be eccentric, but we’re fun! We’re also a smart, passionate, committed, well-informed community of dog experts and the very best place to obtain your next puppy. Don’t push interested spectators away; invite them to share our passion with us.

All the judging at a dog show doesn’t happen in the ring. It also happens when the public observes us interacting with spectators, reporters, and stewards. We are always on display and being judged. It behooves us to explain our sport to the uninitiated and welcome the newbies.
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