What’s turning people off open shows?

By: Sheila Atter


What’s turning people off open shows?

I was recently asked if I would send my ideas on ways in which the open show experience could be enhanced for exhibitors, and how new people could be attracted to these shows to the Dog Show Promotion Working Party. It’s very easy to point out what is wrong – but suggesting how things could be improved is a whole different matter.

  I asked three different people what they thought about open shows – and the answers were depressingly similar. In fact all three prefaced their comments with the same remark, “Open shows? Don’t go to them.” These were three exhibitors of very different levels of experience. One has been breeding and showing for many years, with great success over several breeds; one is a breed club secretary who has made up several champions and gives CCs in her own breed but has little experience across other breeds and groups, and the third is a second generation exhibitor with a background in junior handling.


Meaningless wins

I pressed them further, and these were some of the points that were made. “They are irrelevant, wins at open shows are meaningless unless you are chasing JW or ShCM points, and a JW is virtually unobtainable in my breed.” “They are boring, badly organised and the judges often don’t know anything about the breeds they are judging.” One person made the point that there were hardly ever classes scheduled for their breed, and when entered in varieties they were usually overlooked in favour of more glamorous breeds. “Often the venues are far too crowded and parking can be difficult.” “Does a win really mean anything if you are the only one there in your breed?” “Judges have to start somewhere, but I don’t want heavy-handed novices ruining my good dogs.” 

  These are all points that have been made time and again. Venues are increasingly difficult to find, and to keep. I have often wondered why canine societies have never followed the lead of other organisations and bought their own venues. Something similar in size to that owned by many a rugby club, for example, would provide space for outdoor shows, as well as a building suitable for single breed shows, seminars and training classes all year round. Yes, such a venue would be expensive to buy, but could easily pay for itself with careful management.

  It’s hard to get timings right. I know myself the boredom that sets in when one group, usually the terriers, is done and dusted by 11am and the poor unfortunate winner has to hang around until late in the afternoon for BIS. It is worse still if you win the puppy group and wait for hours for your big moment in the main ring, only to find that the top award has gone to a puppy that will automatically be BPIS as well.

  Many open shows seem to suffer from the problem of the judge that is very thorough – a polite way of saying indecisive – and is still ploughing through their relatively small entry when every other class was done and dusted hours before. Maybe there is a case for a show manager being able to reallocate breeds to another judge when it becomes obvious that the original appointee is falling well behind time? Alternatively, should we be encouraging our judges to stick to a timetable? I was once told, very politely, by a Finnish ring steward that we were a couple of minutes behind schedule, and asked if I could speed up just a fraction, so that it didn’t become a problem. When I judged in the US I had an email from the show superintendent before the show asking me how long I proposed to take per dog. AKC shows are run to a strict timetable. If it says that breed judging will start at 11.28 that is exactly what it means, and I have heard of judges being written to after the event for an explanation as to why they took so long to judge their entry. Perhaps more comprehensive judges’ training should emphasise the importance of being consistent when going over dogs, and therefore not wasting time.


Choosing judges

Finding judges can be a problem for any open show secretary. There are now several places on the internet where lists of judges can be found, usually giving an indication of their experience and the breeds for which they are qualified, while many breed clubs publish their judging lists online, so there really isn’t any excuse for secretaries to put pressure on willing volunteers to accept appointments for breeds in which they are not interested, have little knowledge of, or judged only a few weeks before. However I suspect that some just find it easier to ask the same people time and again. Perhaps we should follow the lead of other canine organisations and bring in a system of licensing judges? Then it would be possible for secretaries to find new judges more easily – and for exhibitors to check on the credentials of judges whose names are unknown to them.

  Over the years the number of open show societies has declined quite markedly. My local venue is the Newark showground. Fifteen years ago there would be a well-supported open show virtually every weekend throughout the winter, and a good many in the summer months as well. Now a lot of those have disappeared, either to new, cheaper venues, or the societies have folded. Did this happen because there weren’t enough exhibitors to support so many, or did the exhibitors fade away because the shows weren’t offering what they wanted? Either way, there are now fewer shows, but it always seems that when there is a show at Newark, there are at least two or three others within a reasonable travelling distance as well. Why is this allowed to happen? Maybe someone could buy the KC show department a good map of the UK? Either encourage societies to share the venue, or insist that the shows are held on different days. It isn’t rocket science! There are only a limited number of exhibitors, and any opportunity to encourage them to support as many shows as possible, by cutting costs is surely a good thing?

  The suggestion of sharing venues isn’t a new one, but many clubs seem resistant to the idea. I do appreciate that if we are talking about a club show going in with an all breed show there can be a loss of identity and atmosphere. But that can be worked upon – and surely the benefits in terms of cost saving and exposure to a wider audience, especially for minority breeds far outweigh the disadvantages.

  Is it heretical to suggest that, with a falling number of exhibitors, we actually have too many open shows? Is it not better to have fewer shows that are well run, offer good judges and are well supported, than have people drop out because their open show experience is not pleasurable? Perhaps there should be a restricted number of large open shows, and the introduction of a new level of show, akin to the limit show, more informal, and giving lots of help and encouragement to newcomers? More on that next week…