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When Bill Clinton was president and in the throes of his “Monica Difficulties,” I happened to hear a radio interview of someone whose name I never did catch.  I could picture the man shrug as he opined that no one should be shocked by Clinton’s behavior around women because that’s just who he was. In his view, the public’s response to the whole sorry business was more revealing of us than it was of Bill Clinton who could always be relied upon to be, well, Bill Clinton.

It reminded me of the scorpion and frog fable: A scorpion asks a frog to carry him across a river, but the frog refuses out of fear of being stung. The scorpion argues that if it stings the frog, they’ll both die. The frog agrees and begins to carry the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog dooming them both. Just before they sink to their watery graves, the frog gasps, “Why?” to which the scorpion replies, “It’s my nature.”

I’ve come to have a laissez faire view of the nature of the AKC (which isn’t to suggest that the organization is one big scorpion) because I may have finally put my finger on something that’s been niggling at me even before AKC Vice President, Gina DiNardo, appeared on Fox and Friends to discuss the use of “e Collars” (also known as electronic or shock collars). Heretofore, I’ve resisted writing about the AKC because I’m not an authority on the organization, but the subsequent fuss from DiNardo’s interview puts me in a mind to wonder out loud if some folks aren’t disappointed with the Club because they have 20th century expectations of it.

Most of us in the dog fancy watched NBC’s Today Show “Rossen Reports” segment in which the AKC was accused of registering breeders said to be raising dogs in horrible, inhumane conditions. The general feeling among the fanciers I knew was that piece was a debacle for our sport.  Television is all about editing an interview to fit a narrative, and as I saw it, the AKC’s Director of Communications, Lisa Peterson, was not the person to face an ambush she didn’t see coming; manipulative editing only made things worse by making her appear unsympathetic and out of touch. I didn’t write about the interview, however, because I wasn’t an authority on the AKC.

Then last April, most of us in the fancy watched HBO’s “Real Sports” in which Soledad O’Brien presented a story about competitive dog shows. Instead of videotaping and editing the topic in the way it was proposed to the AKC (examining the sport, its evolution, and the role that health plays in competition and breed standards), the program was an indictment of the AKC and presented as fact breed standards that allegedly lead to unhealthy purebred dogs, some of whom die prematurely. Predictably, the reaction to this impugning depiction of the AKC was delight from animal rights groups, and outrage from fanciers who threw up their arms in frustration at what they saw as yet another AKC misstep. After having been “burnt” before, they asked, how could the AKC agree to participate in anything produced by today’s media?

Soledad O’Brien

Soledad O’Brien

The AKC was ready for this. They had independently videotaped the interview in its entirety and posted it on their website to show that O’Brien and her crew had edited out parts that didn’t fit the shock value of the storyline they wanted to present which was to trash the AKC and put purebred dogs and their owners and breeders in a bad light. In today’s rescue-dog oriented climate, this was bankable ratings.

Many in the fancy thought the “rebuttal” video was, while smart,  “too little too late.”  Critics felt it was unlikely that the average HBO viewer would bother visiting the AKC website to seek out an opposing viewpoint. They were angry that like Charlie Brown consistently falling for Lucy’s promise to hold the football, the AKC once again fell for a promise of fairness from the media. “Their mistake,” one breeder complained, “was at our expense.”  I heard from one non-dog friend say that by virtue of her scathing interview tone, Soledad O’Brien came to be regarded as a dog expert by uninformed people who saw her as strong, and the AKC as weak.

I didn’t write about this because I still wasn’t an expert on the Club. I’d never worked there, nor was I chummy with anyone who did, and I sure wasn’t privy to “insider” information.

Following DiNardo’s appearance on Fox and Friends, it finally occurred to me that maybe someone like me is just the person to share my point of view about the AKC – someone who isn’t invested in the organization beyond paying registration fees and attending dog shows.

The world has changed, purebred dog ownership has changed, and perceptions about breeding them has changed a lot.  I’m not privy to AKC in-house memos, but I can only guess that there might be some within the hallowed halls arguing for the case that if the AKC doesn’t become more ecumenical, it stands to lose credibility among all dog owners, not just the ones who own purebreds.  I’m not so naive as to think money doesn’t enter into it because it probably does in a big way, but frankly, what doesn’t money impact?  But is this ship being driven by money alone?  I don’t know, and I’d like to think not – but from where I sit,  the AKC seems to be trying to be all things to all people while trying to stay afloat:

  • The same organization that voted to allow mixed breeds to compete in performance events also holds one of the premier dog shows in the country every year;
  • While the AKC once tried to provide registration forms in pets shops (an idea quickly nipped in the bud after an outcry from the fancy) some of the best material to fight anti-dog legislation is free and found on the AKC website; the AKC’s legislation department is accessible, and in my experience, always quick to return phone calls;
  • Not long after DiNardo’s interview about shock collars, a statement was issued from AKC Executive Secretary, James Crowley, clarifying and “fine tuning” (my words) what Di Nardo had said. He wrote, in part, “when placed in the informed hands of professionals, e-collars are an appropriate and effective tool for training dogs that are not only well-behaved in the home but also competitive in the field;”
  • Following the HBO piece, the AKC posted its own video of the interview along with a statement: “We were promised a ‘fair and balanced’ story and we unfortunately believed HBO Sports had the best of intentions. We were disappointed to learn that HBO Real Sports hid their real agenda and did not disclose their goal of telling a story filled with misinformation and fabrication intended to mislead their audience – Important facts and responses about the AKC’s deep commitment and passion for healthy and thriving dogs were left on the cutting room floor.”

Abraham Lincoln was famously misquoted as having said that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, something that must resonate with the AKC. After the Fox and Friends interview, the Pet Professional Guild, which holds the official position that electrical stimulation can play no part of effective and ethical animal training, wrote of its delight that Gina Dinardo said, “…Shock collars can cause stress, distress, sometimes pain. Used inappropriately they can prevent dogs from even being receptive to other training methods in the future.”

Conversely, the author of the blog, Time for Dogs, wrote, ” Yes, AKC has the right to ban muzzles, e-collars and prong collars from their shows, but what people do away from the show grounds is none of their business. The AKC does NOT have the right to get on national television and denigrate a very useful, humane and responsible tool for training. Trainers should have the option to choose which training methods work best for them, without the nannies of the world butting in.”  This was written on the basis of the AKC Board Policy Manual regarding Training Collars (July 2001 Board meeting): Special training devices that are used to control and train dogs… may not be used on dogs at AKC events…The American Kennel Club recognizes that special training collars may be an effective and useful management device, when properly used, for controlling dogs that might be extremely active, difficult to control on a neck collar, or dog aggressive. These collars are also recognized as possibly useful for gaining control at the start of basic obedience training, essential education that dogs deserve and need.”

For each of these viewpoints, there were at least a dozen more supporting each.

The AKC’s mission statement objective is clear: Advance the study, breeding, exhibiting, running and maintenance of purebred dogs,” and in 1978 when I got into dogs, the AKC was highly regarded as the bastion of protection for purebred dogs and their ownership. Over the last twenty years, however, I hear the voices of a growing number of fanciers who feel that the AKC is trying to ride two horses with one rear end.  These people have grown cynical and feel betrayed that the organization entrusted to promote and protect their purebred dogs is now trying to juggle chainsaws by appeasing mixed breed owners (many of whom are rescue zealots) and shelter proponents while meeting the expectations of the dog fancy.

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That dog fancy stands on the shoulders of the people (and dogs) who came before us. We have always honored tradition, heritage and history, and personally, I always will.  But realistically, times have changed and I think the AKC felt it had to change with them. Our expectations of the Club are what they were in our parents day, but my guess is that it’s not what the AKC’s expectations are for itself as it redefines itself in the 21st century and navigates through waters far murkier than they were in our parents’ day. To borrow from an Oldsmobile commercial, this isn’t our father’s AKC.

First and foremost, the AKC was, and is, a registry for purebred dogs. It has the high profile, and thanks to our registration fees, the funding, to be an effective mouthpiece, but it’s unhelpful and unrealistic to expect the Club to fight the battle laid at our feet exactly as we wish it would when it’s trying to deal with so many agendas.  The AKC has seemingly chosen not to draw a line in the sand, but rather, to appear inclusive and be the champion of all dogs, not just purebred dogs. Who knows, maybe they have it right and this is a fight for the right to own a dog – any dog.  I’m not quite there yet. I’ve adapted my rhetoric on the National Purebred Dog Day on Facebook to stress the words, “choice,” “predictability,” “diversity” and “heritage” not only because I mean them, but because they are persuasive words in the conversation about purebred dog ownership and ethical breeding.  The AKC can offer us tools and support, but if we want something done exactly the way we would do it ourselves, we actually have to do it ourselves.

We are the people we’ve been waiting for to fix this.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Meador October 10, 2014 at 9:43 am

I am not so sure that “we” (the dog people) can fix the AKC because it is an organization that we use but cannot join. Until the AKC lives up to it’s mission statement instead of trying to be all things to all causes it will continue to do turn a blind eye to the needs of the breeders and exhibitors who are in reality their backbone.

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Susi October 10, 2014 at 9:52 am

An excellent point, Mary, and it reminds me of some interesting ideas I’ve heard people “float,” including the formation of individual memberships (at the moment, the AKC is a club of clubs) along with a body of delegates made up of those individuals. I seem to recall reading that way back in that day, there were individual memberships….not sure what happened to dissolve it unless I have my facts wrong to begin with. I’m persuaded that nothing will change for us (the breeders, exhibitors and dog fanciers) until we change things ourselves. We are, in my view, not proactive enough outside the sport, and too complacent within it.

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