The Life of Show Dogs
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Whether it's the pomp and circumstance, the colorful array of characters, or the beautiful dogs that waltz through the rings in a bid for Best in Show, fascinated fans make a dog show a must-watch event.
But what is the life of a show dog really like?
Meet Susan, Libby and Echo
Susan McCoy, the president of the Glen Falls Kennel Club in New York, owns two former show dogs. Her Gordon setters are Libby, eleven, and Echo, five.
Susan first became interested in showing dogs as a child after watching "Big Red," a 1962 Disney® movie about a stern dog showman and a carefree orphan boy rescuing an Irish setter that had been lost in the wilderness. It was Susan's love of that movie that inspired her to get an Irish setter as her first dog, Bridget.
"Bridget wasn't really a show dog, but she was a great dog," Susan said. "I took classes with her and showed her in obedience, which led me to join the Kennel Club."
Bridget, like many dogs that thrive being surrounded by other dogs and people, enjoyed participating in shows. The process of learning to compete strengthened their bond, Susan said.
"You spend a lot of time with your dog," she said. "And the dog has to be engaged with you in the ring. They have to focus on you. For dogs who enjoy it, it's a type of playtime. They love the positive feedback and praise they get."
While most show dogs are incredibly well-trained, Susan said it's not a necessity. "I wouldn't say it's intensive," she said. "You have to train them to move well on a leash, move at the proper gait, to be examined and touched by a stranger and they have to be generally well-mannered."
What do show pups not have to learn? Those who have gone through puppy school will be surprised to know it's the basics.
"They don't have to sit," she said. "They don't have to stay."
Not All Dogs Can Be Show Dogs
Libby, who was a champion show dog, is long retired from the ring. But she still "works," now as a therapy dog. She regularly accompanies Susan to schools and senior homes.
"She helps the kids 'read,'" said Susan. "And she offers comfort."
Echo, meanwhile, was supposed to be a show dog, Susan said.
But after just a few shows, Susan discovered that Echo didn't have the temperament for show dog competition.
"Echo is a very handsome dog and my intent was to show him, but it was too much like a sensory overload for him," she said. "He just wasn't comfortable. There was too much going on: too many dogs, and people, and noise. It just wasn't right to subject him to that just because I wanted to do it."
Susan still enjoys competitions, which she attends frequently in her role as president of the Glen Falls Kennel Club. She especially enjoys watching young people learning to compete.
"I think it teaches kids a lot about being a responsible dog owner, and teaches them confidence and poise," she said. "And it's fun for the child and good for their relationship and their bond with their dog as well."
The American Kennel Club (AKC) encourages children as young as 5 to show dogs with a "Pee Wee" class.
"The Judge MUST like children, be patient, kind, and have a sense of humor!" the AKC website notes on its guidelines for the Pee Wee mentoring sessions.
The Downsides of Show Life
There are downsides to dog shows as well, Susan said. Shows require multi-day travel and the cost of entering competitions is getting higher, which turns potential competitors away, she said.
In fact, it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to win at Westminster. One handler, who won best in show at Westminster in 2006, told The New York Times that the three-year run-up to the victory cost around $700,000.
While Susan enjoys the camaraderie of the events, there are some people, like those who show at Westminster, who take shows to a much higher level of competition. Many of the owners of the top show dogs hire professional handlers to show their dogs rather than doing it themselves, for instance. Some hire personal groomers to achieve the perfect pompadour.
Meanwhile, researchers and animal health advocates have long been concerned about health problems in purebred dogs that meet AKC standards.
"To foster the desired appearance, breeders often turn to line breeding—a type of inbreeding that mates direct relatives, such as grandmother and grandson. When a male dog wins numerous championships, for instance, he is often bred widely—a practice known as popular sire syndrome —and his genes, healthy or not, then are spread like wildfire throughout the breed. As a result, purebred dogs not only have increased incidences of inherited diseases but also heightened health issues," Claire Maldarelli wrote for Scientific American.
Some competitors have been known to take their quest for a win way too far. Vanity Fair detailed the 2015 death of a champion show dog whose owners believe was poisoned at the most prestigious dog show in England, though it couldn't be proved.
'It's a Fun Sport'
For laid-back owners, like Susan, who simply love dogs, shows are a way to spend quality time with their dog, meet like-minded people, see interesting dogs, and learn about the animals.
For fans, it's fun to watch owners fuss over their pup's coifs, discover new breeds (have you seen the American hairless terrier yet?), and perhaps bet on a winner.
"It's a fun sport," Susan said. "No matter what type of breed you have, it's a way to spend time with your dog, to be together."
If you're interested in showing your dog, be sure to search for competitions near you. Not all shows are as competitive as the more prestigious ones, and they offer you a chance to show off your pampered pooch in a friendlier environment. Even if you are not interested in showing your own dog, going to shows can be a fun family activity as you get to learn about different dogs in your area — plus, there's the whole thing about spending a day with a bunch of dogs, which is hard to beat!
Kara Murphy is a freelance writer and pet parent who lives in Erie, Pa. She has a goldendoodle named Maddie.