The Rise and Fall of Dog Shows

Poodle (Standard)Poodle (Standard)

For millennia, dogs and man have been inseparable. But over the last two centuries, man has carefully bred and selected dogs suitable to perform particular, specialized roles. Within each role, there was physical descriptions or Breed Standards written. Then the names and parentage of individual dogs so depicted was recorded in Stud Books and hence they were called pedigreed dogs. When assembled in the same place, the interest, competition and spectacle created was promoted as a dog show. But today, with the expertise in breeding and interest in showing dogs declining, it is time to examine not only the reasons causing this decline, but also the future of pure breed dogs.

The First Dog Shows

The first recognized dog show was held at Newcastle in England in 1859. Just 3 years later, Australia's first 'real bona fide Dog Show' was held on Thursday 13th November 1862 at Moore's Horse Bazaar in Hobart 'for the improvement of pure breed dogs and attempt to check the multiplication of mongrels'.

1864 Dog Show Melbourne1864 Dog Show Melbourne

On 7th April 1864 at the Exhibition Buildings, Melbourne, a supposed replica of one of the great English dog shows was held with spectators covering the expense. It was reported that dog-owners rushed to enter their favourites for competition, culminating in 381 dog entries and nearly 1,500 spectators paying 2s, 6d. each[1]. The same newspaper reported:

Many exhibitors, accustomed to amiable, but worthless mongrels said they did not care for pure breeds, or did not know one when they saw one! Others had been so accustomed to bragging about the purity of their breeds, that when subjected to enlightened criticism, they were utterly astonished to find that they got nowhere in a general competition!

Dog Shows Hit their Peak

Remembering the above quote was 1864 before there were Kennel Clubs, Stud Books or Breed Standards, it is purely speculation on what basis these early dog shows were judged! But over the next 100 years or so this was all put in place. How the popularity of dog shows grew can be seen in the footage from the 1969 Royal Melbourne Show - to view please click on the adjacent U-tube icon.

By the 1990's showing pedigree dogs peaked, the Royal Melbourne Show 1991 cataloguing 7,050 entries in conformation classes alone. At that time England's Crufts saw around 20,000 from within UK.  But sadly, since then there has been a slow but steady decline, almost universally. For example, the 2017 Royal Melbourne Show was struggling to attract an entry of 3,000 dogs in conformation classes. So let's examine the reasons for this decline in this part of the world.

Reasons for the Decline

Dog Show Czechoslovakia 1987Dog Show Czechoslovakia 1987

Around 1990 things changed, particularly technology and general lifestyle. Many dog breeds dogs have outlived the purpose for which they were originally bred. In many cases, this purpose has also become redundant. For example, with food so readily available at supermarkets, hunting is no longer a basic food source. Instead in many places in Australia shooting game is illegal and not even allowed as recreation. So Setters, Pointers, Spaniels and Retrievers no longer took place in hunts, serving the purpose for which they were bred. Yet they are supposed to be judged in the show ring according to their ability to serve the purpose which many modern show judges have never witnessed!

Terrriers at workTerrriers at work

This applies even more so to Terriers. To understand these it is imperative that Terrier judges understand the now redundant jobs the various types of terriers were bred to perform. Terriers that were bred to catch and kill a mice and rats are constructed quite differently from those bred to enter badger dens and draw badgers. Of different build again are those Terriers which are still required to be spanned in today's show ring to demonstrate they are capable of entering fox holes to bolt a fox. But some Terriers have to keep pace with horses and hounds in a fox hunt and others are carried to the fox hole.

Working Border CollieWorking Border Collie

If the ability to move with stealth when herding sheep and cattle was borne in mind by more Working Dog judges, dogs would not be expected to run around a show ring with their heads strung up in the air!

But in reality, even owners of many pure breed dogs go to Shows without understanding their own breeds! Many have no idea of the specialized function their dog was bred to perform. Many, especially those with coated breeds, are so intent on winning they regard the public as a nuisance. This does not proudly display our pure breeds to any interested public who could potentially become exhibitors.

Marketing Pure Breed Dogs

What Breed is This?What Breed is This?

In Australia, the official bodies that market pure breed dogs also deal with their compulsory membership and the Stud Books. Often, their staff are less than welcoming when first approached. The separate administrators who run dog shows also expect newcomers to know procedure, rules, regulations and how dog shows are run. So unless the newcomer is taken under the wing of some kind old-timer, their first dog show becomes their last!

What Breed is This?What Breed is This?

This lack of marketing includes the lack of ability to explain exactly what pedigree or pure breed dogs are, let alone their advantages. Sadly, the general public believe various crosses of Poodle like Sp-doodle, Maltese-Shih Tzu, Beagl-ier etc are pure breeds. These often come with an impressive 'Pedigree' carefully produced on some home computer to emulate our ANKC authentic pedigree.  'Crossed-breed' puppies from these 'puppy farmers' are often cute, fluffy and friendly, produced purely for profit. So without sufficient marketing by our pure breed controlling bodies, how are the public supposed to know the advantage of 'pure breed' puppies over 'crossed-breeds'?

Public Protest by Dog OwnersPublic Protest by Dog Owners

Meanwhile many of us are struggling with ridiculous local laws restricting dog ownership. Where we live we have problems even being allowed to keep our dogs entire. So how can we breed the occasional litter to produce a pup to show, let alone have a choice between puppies of different litters? Additionally many of our controlling bodies are now struggling financially.

The Way Ahead?

Griffon doing AgilityGriffon doing Agility

Across Australia and New Zealand, these Controlling bodies purchased properties during the 'boom' years and developed them specifically to cater for pure breed dog activities. Here enthusiasts can enjoy their hobby of dog showing plus the associated sports of Obedience, Agility, Flyball, Lure Racing, Dancing with Dogs and so on.

Border Collie JumpingBorder Collie Jumping

The National Agility Trial held on April 11 - 15, 2018 attracted some 6,000 entries from all over Australia and New Zealand as well as the interest of the mainstream press. So with correct marketing these more active events could be a way forward for our dog world. This type of event has already been proven to attract the interest of general public as well as the younger generation.


As active recreations involving dogs grows, maybe these could be a way forward to challenge the myriad of other activities enjoyed by the younger generation. But without major changes, dog shows in their present form and their consequent impact on the promotion of our carefully bred and selected pedigree dogs, will disappear altogether. What a great shame that would be!

References and Further Reading

Published as 2018 - Jane Harvey - 'The Rise and Fall of Pure Breed Dogs' in Dog News Australia (Top Dog Media Pty Ltd Austral NSW) Issue 2 March 2018 Page 10

[1] The State Library of Victoria, 'The Argus' Melbourne, then owned and published by Mr Edward Wilson, Friday 8th April 1864, Page 6