Getting sucked into dog shows...

This weekend is a long weekend here in Melbourne, and the weather is too warm to take the dogs away racing, so I'm planning on catching up with friends while they're all over at the SHCV Specialty, aka, another dog show. Yeah, I'm getting a bit sucked in.

So, what's the point of a dog show? Well, in a weird way, they are both incredibly important and incredibly useless. Yep, I probably just offended a whole bunch of people on both sides of the fence with that remark, but I'm hoping everyone will hear me out before going bananas in the comments. Remember, this is just my opinion and I've never shown a dog in my life, so you are very welcome to ignore me as a complete ignoramus!

My last dog show, back in December last year.

Firstly, it took me a while to get my head around what a dog show is actually for. A dog show judges a dog on its conformation - that is, it doesn't matter in the ring if the dog is an agility or obedience champion, if its a talented service dog, if its a great racer (although that's related as I'll explain in a minute) or if its an untrained, harebrained goofball that would be an utter pain to live with. That's one reason why I say showing is useless. 

Some people of course believe that a dog should have titles "at both ends" - that it should have a confirmation title in front of its name, and working qualifications after. I like the idea, but when we're talking about sled racing, there's no official title most dogs can register to indicate their racing achievements. (That I know of, here in Australia.)

So, in a conformation show, dogs are judged on their confirmation, their structure. The idea is that each breed has a particular job or function (herding, retrieving game, rat catching, guarding etc) and that there is an ideal size, body shape, movement and coat for that job. These expectations are documented in the "breed standards" and they are long and complicated documents. The idea is to judge dogs against their peers and award prizes to the ones that best fit the standard in each category, starting with puppy, dog and bitch, and classes like Australian bred or Best neuter. The reason for this is to allow breeders who are sticking to the standard really well to be recognised, and this is why showing is incredibly important.

A breeder can now say to a puppy buyer that both parents were champions - ie, they won many conformation shows - so your puppy comes from excellent genetic stock. If the parents have championships, the buyer knows that they have a very high chance of their puppy growing up to be an easily recognisable, correctly built, efficiently moving example of the breed. For a buyer looking for a dog to do a particular job, like, say, oh I dunno, sled racing?, those championships will hopefully lead to a dog who will move efficiently, be able to work hard without hurting themselves and have a great coat that suits their job. For a breeder, this is an independent opinion that awards their hard work, and helps them select breeding stock for the next generation. When you live, sleep, eat and breathe dogs, its important to get an outside opinion.

That outside opinion is another area that took me a long time to get used to. To become a show judge, you have to have a lot of experience in breeding and showing dogs, and become accredited to judge firstly your own breed, and then others. Almost the entire thing is based on the judges' opinion and the judges' interpretation of that breed standard document I mentioned before. The judges rarely get out the measuring tape, and most of the features say things like "graceful in action", rather than things you can really measure. What one person finds "graceful", another person might find "showy". There's minimal requirement for judges' to come to an agreement, so a judge on one day might choose dogs that are sleek and light weight, and another might choose dogs that are sturdy and have strong bone structure. Its all in the interpretation.

Because there is a lack of agreement or even discussion between judges, it can be difficult to make sense of their decisions. This can make showing useless. If you breed light-weight dogs, how do you know if the judge's decision to award the prize to someone else are due to

  1. your dog is too far towards the greyhound end of the spectrum, or 
  2. the judge is used to looking at rottweilers, not huskies, or
  3. simply a matter of another dog meeting the standard better than yours.

Option 1 is really important - its telling the breeder to reexamine their decisions about breeding dogs. But if either of the other two are true, even in part, then the message becomes unclear. And if the dog is a good dog, but just not the best in its class, then the breeder needs to avoid becoming disheartened or upset. Some breeders are good at shrugging off a judgement that doesn't go their way, saying "its one person's decision", but if this isn't the right interpretation, then the whole exercise becomes useless. Equally a person who goes home in floods of tears, or who takes out their frustrations in an ugly blame game, when really their dog was just out-classed by exceptional dogs, must feel like the exercise is useless.

The good thing about this particular show this weekend, is that the judges are husky specialists. An Israeli and an Alaskan judge, who have many many years experience breeding, showing, and handling huskies, will be judging the Derby and the Championship. The Alaskan judge is the wife of an Iditarod competitor, as well as an accredited judge, which will hopefully ensure that the confirmation is going to meet the requirements of a racing sled dog, not just "fluffy show dogs". The Open show will be judged by a Victorian judge who is a breeder of Gordon Setters, and I will be fascinated to see how the different decisions show similarities and differences in their selections!!

Ok, I guess if I can find it this interesting, I have to admit that it can't be absolutely useless!