"THE MARK OF A CHAMPION"
by Ron Hevener
Everybody seems to be in a rush today and the world of dog sports is no different. "How fast can I get a winner?" new owners ask. But "How soon for a return on my investment?" is what they'd really like to know.
Competitive dog sports are undergoing many changes. As more and more people coming from professional backgrounds and high paying jobs are coming into dog sports, the ruling bodies of the game are responding to their demands.
The American Kennel Club, for example, now permits multiple ownership of dogs (Borrowed from other industries of valuable pedigreed animals). This is called "syndication" in which shares are sold in an animal of great promise, generally as a way to finance that animal's career. For dogs, this was a giant step that responded to the growing business savvy of purebred dog owners planning to take them "to the top."
There are many levels of participation within the pedigreed dog world. There is the pet level for those who just want a dog of a particular breed and these make up the majority of owners. Many breeders supply this demand and launch people in a love for the breed that can last a lifetime. On the opposite extreme, however, we have competitive players that are far beyond that level of interest - and whom very few of us ever have the chance to meet.
Let's talk about those high powered players.
At a recent Westminster show at The Garden, a likable, energetic woman introduced herself and asked what I had in my kennel. I liked her well enough and we talked about a litter of pups I had that were line bred on a particular champion she admired. They were only two weeks old. "You'll be hearing from me," she said, and off she went. Not more than a half-hour later, a gentleman from Mexico introduced himself and gave me his card. He was a handler, he explained, buying dogs for his clients. He was looking for twenty champions or dogs that were champion material.
I left that show with business cards from handlers in four countries and what did they have in common? Every one of them was referred to me by the woman who introduced herself at the beginning of the show. That's what I call a real "power broker." What did she get out of matching up buyers with top quality dogs, you ask? She charged a percentage of the sale price, plus whatever else she could negotiate.
You may be wondering what kind of clients handlers such as those I met at the show represent. I can tell you their clients are very discriminating. They are serious-minded people who want the best of the best of the best and they're willing to pay for it. They expect to campaign their dog from one end of the country to the other and all over the world. They will employ the best handlers, pay them well, and blast pictures in all the right magazines. Few movie stars are ever campaigned better than a champion that belongs to an owner playing the game on this level. For the right dog, they will make deals with breeders and handlers that would astound you. But, they expect results. And they want those results now. And that's where we, as stewards of the Breed, should examine things closer, because something in "this" picture is missing.
In the not so long ago "old days" people waited until a dog was in its prime before presenting it to the world. Like a painting that isn't finished until the very last stroke of the artist's brush, a prized dog was unveiled only when the breeder was ready. Today? Things are far different in that respect today. Today, it's all about winning as soon as you can. And when we are dealing with high profile winners that go on to have a real impact on the breed, this is where an unspoken problem hides.
Dogs, like the people who own them, mature at different rates. Remember the handsome football player from high school and the cute cheerleader he dated? They were knockouts at eighteen. But, think back to your class reunion. Were they still so gorgeous? Now take another look and remember the homely ones and the wall flowers nobody would ask to dance. Even without being at that reunion of yours, I'll bet some of them were real stunners.
The same is true for dogs. Let others rush to breed to the champion of the moment who makes his mark early but grows coarse with time. As we become wiser with each passing year and our favorite dogs grow silver around their smiling faces, we know the responsibility of protecting our Breed is bigger than you or me. Time will show us grand-puppies, great-grandpuppies and great-great-grandpuppies to prove who is right and who is wrong. But it's up to us what people will say about our dogs when that day comes. It's up to us what the mark of a champion will be.
QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
Q: I can understand how what you're saying might be true for show dogs -
RH: (Amused) You can? That's good, because not everybody does.
Q: Well, you're saying a dog can finish as a puppy and become a hot sire before anybody knows how he's going to turn out. Right?
RH: Which means?
Q: Which means ... the dog can pass on something to the Breed that nobody could see when it was out there in the show ring.
RH: That's right. In the show ring, a judge is supposed to give the points to the dog that best fits the standard for its breed at that particular moment. It's only one moment in time. So, if you have a ten month old puppy, for example, and it's an excellent specimen of the standard, that pup can take the class. But - and here's the problem - a year later, when that puppy is more mature, did it hold together? Think about it. Breed standards are written for adult, fully mature dogs. Where do you see any standards for a puppy as it's growing up? Which means, unless the judge has some real experience in the breed or a great imagination to project how that gangly puppy at the end of the row, for example, might turn out at maturity, the Breed might not be getting the best of the deal.
Q: How does this relate to performance sports like Agility?
RH: Exactly the same way, don't you think so? Your early-maturing athlete is a wonderful thing to behold. But will that same dog hold up in the long term? One more question, then I must leave …
Q: What do you think breeders can do to turn things around?
RH: Set their own policies and set an example. Look at themselves as protectors of the Breed, designing dogs for a public we must answer to. Respect the public for loving our dogs and give them the very best dogs we can, but only when we are one hundred percent sure those dogs will hold up physically over time. Hey, I may think I'd love to join the Cirque du Soleil and swing through the air in tights. But as my hair gets more and more silver, I know how much it means just to be able to ride a horse or go dancing or work outside all day without getting tired and breaking down. Don't our dogs deserve to be active and have fun as long as they live, too? Thanks for the chance to talk with you. It's been great, but I've got a whole kennel back home to feed, a litter of champions on the way, cross my fingers, and a long drive ahead. Gotta run!