Dog shows are a fascinating ecosystem by itself – with a lot of participants like owners, breeders, handlers, judges, trainers, backers, vets, psychics, merchants ….and dogs. Ancient lore has it that people started dog shows as a way to select the best dogs for breeding. If you walk into the world of dog shows today – you probably will hear that line from a mentor, but if you look around and form an independent opinion, you will be forgiven for being a skeptic.
To begin with – I personally don’t know an owner, backer or a breeder who makes any money out of show dogs. At best they get bragging rights. At worst they take a second mortgage on their houses. All the other parties like handlers, merchants etc make money off show dogs, but the percentage of people who make a good living off dogs is an extreme minority.
On the expense side – it costs a pretty penny to be competitive.
Take dog food for example. Pet food is an industry worth about $18Billion a year. It is virtually a recession proof industry too – people tend to feed animals even when they tighten their belts. In fact people spend more money on pet food than on baby food. Now – all that money doesn’t come from show dog owners – but a good portion does, and that I am guessing is the high margin part of that business. I am a part of some show dog communities online – and it is fascinating to see the discussions on what to feed the dog.
Or take showing expenses – handling expenses, advertising , health clearances, transportation etc . It takes about $5000 on the “I am lucky” end to about $20000 on the “I am one of the regular suckers” end to finish the championship titles on a dog. And if the dog is a “special” – this is just table stakes. It can cost anywhere up to a half million dollars to campaign a dog at 200 shows a year. That is my rough guess math – I have not done this myself. And those people who spend that kind of money – usually backers, who put their money behind a dog they and their handler feel can go all the way – are not exactly very visible in dog shows either. I know a few – all good people who come from money, but they can barely explain why they do it. Not one of them seems to be the type who needs to win a Top 20 competition to show off their wealth. But they all do it – year after year. They all love dogs and take excellent care of dogs and spare no expense – but very few keep the dogs after the year or two they are shown. The dogs retire elsewhere – either with handlers, or with original owners or placed with someone else.
To give you a personal example – the first thing I did after getting a job in USA is to buy a German Shepherd in Germany, send her to a friend in India to show and following along her progress from USA. I met the dog personally less than 10 times. Thankfully my friend took exceptional good care of her and I realized the folly of this exercise readily (but not before a few more such attempts were made – with other friends and other countries involved) 🙂
Money is not the only irrational part of this scenario. It is a subjective sport with its own idiosyncrasies. Take one of the smaller breeds like the smooth fox terrier. They are supposed to look like a cleverly made hunter. There are very very few owners or judges who hunt. How exactly are they supposed to know what a cleverly made hunter looks like ? Or take a larger breed like the ever popular Labrador retriever. If you look like a male lab in the specials ring, you will see a heavy dog – probably 120 lbs in weight ( looks like it – never physically lifted one myself to check) . Many of them finish their hunting titles too – except they look a lot leaner when they are in field training. Is it not odd that a lab who is in good shape for hunting cannot win a breed show in most cases without putting on extra weight? Labs are also supposed to be “short coupled” – as are goldens. Yet, it will be really hard to get a few breeders to agree on what exactly that means. Not to worry – generations that went before us argued about this just as fiercely as we do today.
Then there are the judges. Every time I feel bad about flying 100s of thousands of miles a year on work stuff, I remember there are dog show judges who fly as much or more than I do, and usually in less comfort. These ladies and gents are supposed to be 100% impartial . But if you look at the expenses I mentioned above – a big chunk is about advertising. Why would anyone advertise their show dog? Typically to attract the attention of the judges. So the deal is that the people writing checkbooks will go all out to influence a judge via advertisements in magazines, social media etc – yet the judge should be impartial. In the world of dog shows – this is totally normal stuff. If a judge likes a photo of a dog (or heaven forbid make a comment) on facebook – that is almost reason for a small riot. When I was a young boy, I had wanted to be a judge. You can’t make me one by holding a gun to my head now – no thank you 🙂
OK so back to the question of finding breeding stock as a reason for shows. Responsible breeders tend to check all kinds of health problems for their dogs and their ancestors before they are bred. Yet, if you check the top specials in the ring – you will find a good number do not have good clearances. It does not worry me at all – because I am not forced to buy a puppy from a dog I don’t like. I personally know of a dog and a bitch with “fair” ratings for their hips (the minimum passable score) being bred and resulting in many pups in the litter not passing their hip tests. It certainly did not stop the dog or the bitch from being bred again. This is not some super secret story that only I know of – its unfortunately pretty common place. As with everything else in today’s world – buyer beware ! Dog breeding is more art, and less science. You need a lot of luck to get a pup that pans out.
It is generally a losing battle to breed healthy dogs – simply because most breeds have been around for only a century or so. From that small a gene pool – its hard to not breed closely. However hard you try, you will inadvertently mess up. Yet – good breeders soldier on. This is mostly why I stay away from breeding completely. I would much rather pay a premium to buy a puppy from a good breeder than try my hand at breeding. If the pup turns out ok – I show him. If not – he stays home. And since I don’t handle any more myself – I don’t miss shows all that much. I am totally happy to spend some money on a good handler to show my dog.
So am I rational ? hell no – I am as irrational as everyone else in the game. I have spent way more on dogs than I should have – and even today if I see an unusually good dog, I get goosebumps and an urge to buy it and walk into a ring. And as long as I can afford it, why not ? there is always that option of taking a second mortgage, right ? Hobbies are irrational I guess – and I have enough rational stuff to worry about that I am kind of happy to let this side of my life be a tad(?) irrational 🙂