The AKC National Championship in the Rearview Mirror

by Susi on February 5, 2017

in AKC, AKC national championship, dog fancy, dog show, dog shows, Eukanuba, Eukanuba Dog Food, Eukanuba National Championship, Eukanuba National Dog Show, Royal Canin

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As I write, Super Bowl hoopla is in full swing, the Patriots and the Falcons facing off in a matter of hours. My team, the Denver Broncos, won the Big Game last year, and I confess that when I’m not invested in either team playing in the Super Bowl, I don’t look forward to much beyond the vaunted Super Bowl commercials. I suppose this makes me a hopeless “homer” because real football purists love the game no matter who the contestants are.  This is how I know that I’m a dog geek. If I’m at a dog show not as an exhibitor, but as a spectator or someone working behind the scenes, I don’t care who the competitors are, I just love the dogs, the drama, and the traditions, especially at an important dog show.

This last part – the traditions part – isn’t a huge component of a show, but tradition begets respect, and without either, a show is lackluster. When Royal Canin became the new sponsor of the 2016 AKC National Championship after so many years of the show being presented by Eukanuba, I wondered what, if any, changes would occur in this gem in the triple crown of dog shows. As someone who has worked behind the scenes of a few important dogs shows, it’s been my experience that a sponsor’s attitudes towards purebred dogs and our sport permeates the event. Sometimes, the attitude is overt: A plethora of TV commercials, one after the other, promoting rescue dogs with little support given to heritage breeders, has the subtly of a ball peen hammer to the forehead – but it happened at a huge dog show (not Eukanuba) a few years ago.  Sometimes, however, the message is more nuanced, but it still seeps through tweets, posts, and pictures appearing on social media.

I had high hopes for Royal Canin. The brand isn’t as well known in the United States as some other foods, but it’s highly respected in Europe not just as a food, but as the food most breeders use in their breeding programs. As an aside, a lovely Puli bitch I imported from the UK a few years ago arrived eating Royal Canin, and that her respected breeders thought well enough of the food to put their puppies on it was good enough for me. Still, there’s a difference between manufacturing dog food and sponsoring the largest dog show in North America.  I kept my optimism in check.

No pun intended, but most exhibitors got off on the wrong foot when they arrived to find that the show had moved to the west building. This significantly increased the amount of time they spent on their feet, but the relocation had nothing to do with Royal Canin, or even the AKC. The preferred space from last year had been reserved by another occupant who wouldn’t give it up. The good news is that anyone wearing a Fitbit or who was counting steps easily managed 10,000 of them in a day. The better news is that the National Championship returns to the North/South building next year and will stay there for the foreseeable future.

Once breaths were caught and feet were rubbed, show veterans immediately noticed the new logo and change in venue colors. Gone was ubiquitous Rhodamine Pink (though it remained in the performance arenas because Eukanuba still supports those disciplines). Replacing it was Royal Canin’s signature red carpeting for breed rings, and a silver-grey carpeting for the group rings. That Royal Canin was sensitive to the concerns of exhibitors conscious of what they wear in the ring was indicated when advanced word was made of the color change. What wasn’t anticipated, I suspect, was the shade of red described to me by one photographer as, “Cream of Tomato soup made with milk.”  The color was a difficult backdrop for some breeds, and it had a few photographers struggling to adjust their settings. Carpeting in the group ring was equally challenging for the handlers of white, silver, and cream colored breeds, but next year, everyone will know what to expect.

By the time I arrived in Orlando, there had already been a week full of specialties, local breed club shows, and the attendant meetings that can accompany them. I mention this because when the championship show kicked off Friday night with the ”Regalia” party hosted by Royal Canin, conversation over hors d’oeuvres and cocktails with old friends and new revealed a disheartening theme having nothing to do with the show sponsor, and everything to do with the fact that despite the sport being in trouble, we continue to “eat our own.” As someone there to observe and report, it was impossible for me not to note two common complaints that emerged over the course of the evening: Newbies continue to feel that their ideas are dismissed out of hand by entrenched club veterans unwilling to relinquish control, while seasoned fanciers bemoan newcomers unwilling to learn their breed, roll up their sleeves to help put on a show, and learn the ropes of both over time.  Exploring these gripes is fodder for another post entirely, but sadly, I feel the fancy continues to have its work cut out for it. Wouldn’t it be something if this topic were addressed head on at a national level?

At long last, Saturday came, and it didn’t take long to feel in my bones that I was at the AKC National Championship. Yes, there were different colors, a different logo, and a few new faces associated with new sponsorship, but the event still valued purebred dogs, their heritage breeders, and the people who do so much with them in a ring. The best news of all was that despite the show looking a bit different, it wasn’t different. The AKC National Championship remains a show that puts on display the panoply of dog-centric activities from dock diving and agility, to conformation and obedience with a light shone on junior aged competitors. Owners of mixed breeds could cheer on loveable mutts in performance evens, but at its heart, the AKC National Championship underscores the versatility of purebred dogs by illustrating, in the words of National Purebred Dog Day, that “they’re not just for show.” Furthermore, I can think of precious few other events that invites spectators to mingle with the athletes at a qualifying event. Put another way, being a spectator at the AKC National Championship is like hanging around swimmers at the Olympics an hour before they jump in the pool for the finals of the individual medley.

I’m an unabashed fan of Meet the Breed events and only wish there were more of these held during the year by clubs throughout the country. Our breeds are our best “PR,” but not enough of the public, particularly people living in the middle of the country, sees them. The AKC National Championship this year had over 150 breeds on hand at booths attended by owners eager to explained their breed’s history and characteristics. Most booths were elaborately decorated to depict a breed’s heritage, and many included a historical or pop-culture reference for which the breed is known (Elvis was not only in the building, but helping out with the Basset Hounds!). Meet the Breeds booths compete for “Best Booth in Show,” and this year, it was won by the Rhodesian Ridgeback people.

There was so much to see! Though I continue to miss the pageantry of the World Challenge, “Best in Miscellaneous Group” brought together breeds not yet recognized by the AKC.  The National Owner-Handled series pointed a spotlight on the dedication of owner-handled dogs, hardly a small segment of the fancy since over 80% of show dogs are handled by their owners. Even actor, Jerry O’Connell (from the movie, “Jerry Maguire”) was on hand to videotape segments on purebred dogs, breed standards, and behind-the-scenes happenings. I’d been slated to sit with Jerry for an interview that didn’t happen on schedule because this was one busy man! He went from a conformation ring to grooming a dog to running a agility course with a talented Border Collie to jumping in a dock diving pool – and more. By the time we sat down together, it was late, but he was gracious and clearly tickled by being surrounded by dogs whom he really loves. You can see a a little of what he did below:

Jerry’s spots aired during a broadcast of the show on the Hallmark Channel back on January 23, 2017.

Earlier in this post, I wrote that the true attitudes of a sponsor are often revealed (sometimes unwittingly) through posts, tweets, photographs and commercials. Sometimes the message is overt, and sometimes it’s more nuanced, but at the 2016 AKC National Championship, I saw something that was both. The message was a series of words that appeared on a banner large enough to cover the broadside of a barn. The public most likely never saw it, however, since the banner was hung on a wall in the grooming area – intentionally, I think. It struck me as a wink and a nod to breeders and exhibitors. It’s possible that a few of them didn’t know what they were seeing, but people with multiple breeds certainly did. See if you “get it:”

The Champions

A great dog is elusive. A quest. Yet we settle for nothing less.

Because The Greats possess a definite style, unbound by time or trend.

Some are perfect demons, proudly wearing their honorable scars;

Others, unflappable – impressive by their dignity.

They stand over more ground than is usual,

Distinctive members of an ancient family.

The Greats embody power and determination,

And exhibit the devotion of a true friend of man.

They are steadfast; the Diehards.

The Greats are lithe and agile, each in his way;

Exuding an air of distinction peculiar to themselves.

Filled with fire, on the tiptoe of expectation,

They indelibly impress by their strength and spirit.

Canny, graceful makers of history;

The Greats are difficult to define, but unmistakable when present…

The Greats are among us.

This is the National Championship.

Inspiring words, these. But did you recognize that each line borrowed a phrase from the breed standard of every dog that has won Best in Show at Eukanuba, now Royal Canin?

Soon, there will a new line added that will come from the breed standard of the Puli. It only took 81 years after AKC recognition for my breed to win Best in Show at a National Championship, and a Puli named “Preston” did it by beating 5,000 dogs at the largest dog show in North America. As you can imagine, I will have plenty to say about this in an upcoming post, but you can watch Best in Show judging here.

The show is now a memory, but future memories await for the person who wins Royal Canin’s “My Best in Show Sweepstakes” ending February 28, 2017 at 11:59 p.m. Central Time. The grand prize winner gets a year’s supply of pet food, a $250 Petsmart gift card, a Banfield Optimum Wellness Plan, and a $800 travel voucher to attend the 2017 American Kennel Club National Championship Show in Orlando, Florida.

Click here to enter the Sweepstakes

Click here to see the Official Sweepstakes Rules

Click here to see the Sweepstakes’ Home Page

Enter now, and maybe I’ll see you this December!



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