Last weekend we attended our first breed shows of 2023, other than PBGV National. This was partly because we’ve been prioritizing agility, partly because Ginny only needs majors, and mostly because breed shows just aren’t that appealing. I will say that I enjoyed getting to see a lot of PBGV friends that we don’t get to visit with often and getting to meet some Facebook friends in person. I just struggle a lot with the concept of dog shows as the only meaningful evaluation of breeding stock and find it hard to get motivated to participate.

I want to be clear that I am fully in support of thoughtful and purposeful dog breeding.  This is the case whether someone is breeding show dogs, performance dogs, assistance dogs, detection dogs, and yes even (gasp) pet dogs. I love PBGVs more than anything else in the world and preservation breeding is the path that I am on, but I completely respect that there are valid reasons for crossing breeds to achieve a particular purpose. Not necessarily the “get a male poodle and breed him to everything” type of breeding program, but I can see why someone might choose a sport mix and realize that Golden/ Lab crosses are extremely common assistance dogs for good reason. I also realize that there need to be ways to evaluate breeding stock that are as objective as possible, but this is where dog shows lose me. 

In theory, the purpose of dog shows is to compare dogs against each other and select the one that most meets the breed standard. This seems reasonable, but you don’t have to spend a lot of time at shows to realize that there are some flaws with this plan.  In reality, there are a huge number of factors besides the quality of the dog that make a big difference in outcomes. To me, this makes it really hard to get too excited about the results of any show. 

I think a big part of the problem is that over the years, dog shows have become much more about the “show” than the dogs. It seems like in a sport devoted to selecting breeding stock, breeders should be the most important people. In reality, the priority at dog shows seems to emphasize professional handlers, multi group judges, wealthy backers, magazines, and corporate sponsors over breeders pretty much all of the time. Maybe the economics of the sport aren’t feasible without this being the case, but it makes it hard for a breeder owner handler to get excited about taking time off from work or giving up other more enjoyable events to go to dog shows.  I wish shows could be more like the Certificate of Conformation Assessment program offered by the Golden Retriever Club of America where dogs are evaluated against the breed standard, instead of being judged on factors like “asking for it” or  “looking the part”, which I find hard to do as someone who is not comfortable dressing like a 1960s housewife or using styling product on my dogs. 

There’s a lot of talk about how to attract new people to the sport and I agree that this is important, but I also suspect that I’m not the only long time exhibitor who feels pretty alienated by the current system. I became involved with dog shows as a junior in the 1980s. I worked for professional handlers for a long time, have taken on big volunteer roles for clubs, and quite honestly have more than “paid my dues.” That said, I not only have no expectation of winning at shows, but I generally don’t expect to be treated with even basic courtesy.  Anyone entering a show should be able to have their dog correctly examined (including the bite) by a judge who is well educated about the breed standard, should be able to have the judge actually watch the dog move instead of carrying on a conversation, and should be able to pick up an armband without having their head bitten off by the steward. Even if it’s hot out, even it’s a low entry breed, even if the person is a nobody. 

I’m not sure what the answer is. I think shows as they currently exist are in trouble for a lot of reasons but also recognize that any major overhaul would have a big impact on a lot of businesses and people I consider friends. Less common (i.e. the dreaded term “low entry” or worse yet “off”) breeds need to have a way to bring people together to share breeding stock and preserve our breeds, I just wish there was a way that felt more authentic.  I completely support my friends who enjoy showing, but feel that there are a lot of people who could make really great breeders if the sport was different.