The Rise and Fall of Dog Shows

Historical Companion DogHistorical Companion Dog

For millennia, dogs and man have been inseparable. But over the last two centuries, dogs gradually became more specialized. This specialization was the basis for the different breeds displayed at dog shows. But today, are these dog shows contributing to the demise 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

But remembering this was 1864 before there were Kennel Clubs, Stud Books or Breed Standards, it is purely speculation on what basis these early Shows were judged! Over the next 100 years or so this was all put in place.

But by the 1990's showing pedigreed 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

Pointer (English) 1790Pointer (English) 1790

Since the 1990's things have 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.

The Role of Controlling Bodies

What Breed is This?What Breed is This?

Additionally, Controlling bodies are often less than welcoming when first approached. They 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 situation is coupled with the lack of Controlling Bodies' ability to market pedigree dogs and 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, Herding, 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. So with correct marketing this could be a way forward for our dog world. These events attract the general public. Maybe they could be encouraged to compete. This could then be an activity that could challenge other modern activities enjoyed by the younger generation. Is this part of the answer?

But whether it is or not, without major changes at the present rate of decline, we are unlikely to see our beautiful pedigree dogs that have been developed over the past two centuries, survive to be enjoyed by our grandchildren.

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, Friday 8th April 1864, Page 6