Every four years, the Winter Olympics and Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show occur in the same month as it did just recently, and the juxtaposition of these two events reveals a curious hypocrisy on display by critics of dog shows.
Vociferous in their disgust with competitions that reward beauty and soundness in purebred dogs, these same individuals apparently have no such problem with a sporting event that celebrates many of the same things, albeit in human achievement. For two weeks, they are awed (if not entertained) by the fastest, fittest, most accurate, most daring and most graceful of athletes from over 86 nations on earth. They pick favorites and root for the “home team,” and I don’t fault them.
A lot of us have a competitive nature that reveals itself even in mundane settings, from speeding up just a little when a car tries to pass us, to launching ourselves towards the shortest checkout line at the store. Few of us, however, have the talent, athleticism and determination to become the best in a given sport, and even critics of the dog fancy admire individuals in whom the gods have instilled the qualities of a champion.
But only if they’re human.
The disconnect in logic is complete when one considers the objections made by these critics.
- Dogmatic rescue zealots say that without dog shows, there would be greater demand for shelter dogs, and less of one for dogs that conform to breed standards. More to the taste of animal rights activists is if there’d be no market at all. Seeking perfection in dogs is admirable, but rarely achievable, as any dog fancier will tell you, and from the animal rights perspective, it’s to be vilified. Yet so many of these same critics admire a perfect score in gymnastics, bet on the over/under line in the Super Bowl, or tune in to American Idol;
- A favorite objection of critics is that breed standards by which show dogs are assessed give the impression that purebred dogs are more desirable than mixed-breed dogs, but as I see it, this is an “apples versus oranges” comparison. Purebred dogs are purpose-bred dogs, mixed breeds are not. Long before the earliest dog shows judged only Pointers and Setters, sportsmen were arguing the attributes of their favorite hunting dog over tankards of ale in the local tavern. Value was placed on the best working dog, and dog shows became organized assessments of breeding stock since sportsmen recognized from their knowledge of horses that breed predictability was inherited. Certainly, dog shows have morphed into a bit of pageantry since those early days, but each breed must still meet a standard. How is one to assess a dog that has no “blueprint” because it is no particular breed – and why would we? Averageness has never been rewarded in the real world. A dog’s unremarkable performance in the field was not going to be valued by a hunter, and “ordinary” doesn’t cut it at the Olympics. If it was, either I misplaced my invitation to compete in the ladies’ singles, or Team USA didn’t welcome my mediocrity in a pair of figure skates.
- Detractors have said that conformation shows lead to the breeding of dogs based solely upon appearance, but this is patently not true of ethical breeders dedicated to creating the next generation of dogs able to do the job their breed was intended to do. Some of these decriers have gone as far to say that dog shows promote eugenics.
Let’s think about this.
The concept of eugenics seeks to improve the human race by controlling which people become parents, an offensive concept at the very least. When applied to canines, however, the charge is preposterous. Dogs aren’t highly selective when it comes to breeding, whether it’s the wench next door, a wolf, or a dog born with three legs. Of course breeders are going to select breeding stock, it’s what ethical breeders do. They screen for health, select for type, study pedigrees, and weigh the “intangibles” that a dog can offer the next generation.
In a twisted variation of the eugenics concept, some countries select future Olympians when they’re scarcely out of preschool not because the child shows a passion for a sport, but because a child is built for it. Wait, isn’t that what dog breeders have been accused of? Rather than castigate the policies of these countries, however, some of our critics gush over the progress made by countries that couldn’t field a team just twenty years ago. How do our critics think these countries did it?
One multiple gold medalist from the 2012 Summer Olympics revealed that she was identified as a potential champion as a kindergartener. With her impossibly wide shoulders, huge round calves, long limbs and extremely large hands, the selection committee took one look at her and decided her future based on her appearance. She was a swimmer.
She was taken away from her parents and placed in a tough training camp where she was known by a number instead of her name. She swam for hours in a vacuum contraption, ate not what she wanted but what would build muscle, and skipped over a childhood most of us take for granted.
By comparison, most show dogs have a charmed life, and yet the absence of “a normal life” in pursuit of a show ribbon is another charge made by critics of dog shows. How many of these critics have traveled with an exhibitor or actually known a show dog? Dogs won’t “sparkle” unless they love what they’re doing, and mediocre dogs don’t win.
The Olympics, Super Bowl, March Madness and even American Idol are popular because I believe we inherently love excellence and determine it through competition. The dog world is no different, and those who vilify the process of how future parents of the next generation of a breed are evaluated would to well to examine their own hypocrisy.
This article first appeared in Dogs in Review February 2014