The cost of instant gratification by Sheila Atter
Are you an exhibitor or a breeder? Or do you regard yourself as both?
A few years ago, the question would have been superfluous, as most of those who exhibited dogs on a regular basis were, as a matter of course, also breeders. Over a period of time, however, there has been a subtle change in the ownership of show dogs. We haven’t yet gone very far down the American route whereby breeders often stay at home rearing the next generation of hopefuls, while promising youngsters are campaigned by a professional handler with a consortium of owners all chipping-in to pay the bills, but there is an increasing tendency for those that enjoy the thrill of competition but don’t want to be tied down by the needs of a litter of puppies at home, to buy in a likely looking specimen and either show it themselves or engage the services of a handler.
There have always been some that regarded themselves as ‘fanciers’ rather than breeders or exhibitors. In the past they were often those with money who could indulge their hobby either by seeking out a young hopeful for themselves or maybe engaging the services of someone who over a period of time had proved that they had an eye for quality and good contacts within a breed in order to hear when a litter might be worth a visit.
The world of pedigree dogs owes these people a great debt of gratitude. Showing dogs on anything more than a very casual basis is an expensive undertaking, and by patronising breeders, often from a more humble background, fanciers enabled dogs of quality to be seen in the show ring.
As the social structure changed so there were fewer fanciers, and it was the breeders who by and large exhibited their own stock. Time has seen a change here, too, and nowadays there are many who have no real ambitions to become breeders of renown, their interest is purely in the show ring and the successes that can be gained through the dogs that they own. But there is a difference between these modern exhibitors and the fanciers of old. Today it is more about winning for winning’s sake, rather than the pleasure of seeking out a well-bred puppy and, after achieving show ring success, breeding on for the future.
Indeed, this is another subtle change that has affected pedigree dogs in this country. The original purpose of exhibiting dogs – or indeed any other livestock – was to find animals of quality that would be beneficial to the breed as a whole and were worthy of staking their place as contributors to the development of the breed. A dog that did not win in the show ring was not normally regarded as having much to contribute to the overall gene pool and would not take its place in the tapestry of names that wrote the history of that breed. Today, a dog that does not have a glittering show record is rarely discarded from the breeding programme. Instead the attitude is more likely to be that they will ‘breed something good’.
As in most things, moderation is the best course. Discarding some specimens for minor imperfections can lead to just as rapid and dramatic a decline in genetic diversity as does the overuse of one particularly outstanding and prolific sire. At the same time, perpetuating faults generation after generation in the forlorn hope that these will somehow miraculously disappear – well they might, but they will inevitably reappear in the future – is equally damaging for the breed.
This is where the old time fanciers were of such benefit to dogdom. Blessed with a good eye for a dog, or the money to employ someone who knew what they were looking for, the mediocre were passed over in favour of those who had quality and good breeding, no matter who had bred them. These folk knew that mediocrity reproduces itself, and that the purchase of a puppy of quality would repay the buyer many times over.
Nowadays it sometimes seems that there is a well-trodden path followed by those who seek success in the world of pedigree dogs. No longer does the breeder/exhibitor serve their apprenticeship over a number of years, content to wait, listen and learn; achieving a modicum of success with their initial exhibit, making mistakes in handling and presentation before maybe then buying in a dog of better quality and beginning to make a mark in the show ring.
In an era of instant gratification today’s exhibitor doesn’t have the time or patience to take things so slowly. Instead the first puppy is scarcely into adulthood before it is either cast aside in favour of a better specimen or consigned to the nursery to ‘breed something better’. Those judges who have the temerity to point out obvious failings are regarded as either ignorant or facey, and it isn’t too long before the novice exhibitor is a newby no longer, but has their first judging appointment and is looking forward to the day when they can pay back a few scores.
While we don’t want to go down the route whereby virtually every dog shown becomes a champion, it is an acknowledged fact that there are many dogs in the ring that are perhaps not even of show quality. There are those who argue that some exhibitors go simply for a good day out, and that if they want to spend their money exhibiting their pet dog with its bad mouth and don’t mind that the best they can hope for is a lowly place card, then we should accept their entry gratefully. But in an age when the whole ethic of dog showing is under question is that what we should be encouraging? It could be argued that the only justification for exhibition is to assess type, construction and health with reference to a future breeding programme.
The recent huge jump in fuel prices and the lack of readily available and affordable paid help has, at the same time, meant that many of those whose knowledge and skill has enabled them to build up a line of quality dogs often find it more and more difficult to attend all the shows. Maybe we will see the American pattern becoming the norm in the UK in the future. Either showing will become purely a rich man’s sport or there will have to be an increase in the number of dogs who have not merely one co-owner, but a whole team of supporters all chipping-in to fund a successful campaign. If that means that the very best dogs can be seen in our rings is that a bad thing? What it does mean is that those with a real interest in quality dogs can perhaps have the pleasure of being a part of a successful team, a pleasure that would otherwise be denied to them through financial constraints.
Maybe there will be a revival of the era of the fancier, and those whose talent lies in the spotting of raw promise, rather than merely supporting the finished article will find themselves a niche in the dog world once again.
Spotty Muldoon, 24/08/2012
And don't forget us even more lowly specimens - who care for a dog from cradle to grave, with a few years of showing thrown in. Speaking personallly, I do not wish to breed, which doesn't mean I don't recognise or care for quality stock. Neither do I wish to employ a handler or go into any kind of co-ownership deal. Nor will I rehome a dog that does not fulfil early promise. Geriatric, retiree and young pretender are all doing well, thank you very much.