William is the author of The Human Society, a canine novel about a show dog that tries to become human.
Dog Clubs Versus Dog Shows
The relationship of dog clubs to dog shows is something of a chicken and egg scenario. Which came first? From today's perspective it is difficult to imagine a successful dog show without a sponsor in the form of a dog club. Early purebred dog shows lacked a standard organizational structure, but despite this early chaos today's shows are highly structured.
To better understand the purpose of dog shows and dog clubs we will examine the origins of both, review modern examples, and learn which came first, the club or the show.
The First Dog Show
Modern dog shows can trace their roots to the town hall in Newcastle, England in 1859. That summer Setters and Pointers competed in a minor event as part of an agricultural show, and though it was a humble beginning, it was a precursor to a movement that would grow significantly. More shows followed in England, and by 1874 the movement included the United States. In that year the Illinois State Sportsmen’s Association sponsored a dog show in Chicago, and three years later the Westminster Kennel Club held a more formal show in New York, now one of the longest continuously held sporting events in the United States.
Why dog shows? The unique relationship between man and dog and the opportunity to witness the results of purebred dog breeding has resulted in the exponential growth in dog shows. Fascination with the display of the results, and the competition that follows, made such shows ever more popular. At the same time, issues arose surrounding rules, standards, health issues, and judging. There was a need for organization and control.
The First Dog Club
The first dog club is often credited to the Brits, who established the Bulldog Club in 1864, which didn't last very long. Perhaps it lacked the tenacity of its namesake. The more permanent Kennel Club was founded on April 4th, 1873 by S.E. Shirley and associates, for the purpose of governing dog shows and related activities. It took a bit longer in the States, as the first American effort was sponsored by the Westminster Kennel Club in 1877. On both continents the motivation was to bring a semblance of control and organization to the burgeoning activity of purebred dog breeding and showing, an endeavor that was clearly desired by the public.
Dog shows of varying sizes, quality, and reputation became more frequent in both England and the United States, but for those desiring a higher plateau of dog show legitimacy the absence of standards and professionalism was an issue. Need is the mother of invention, and in this case the club was the answer to this need.
From the beginning, dog clubs have evolved to help maintain standards, both for dog health and for purposes of competition. That competition centers around maintaining the best form for each breed of dog. This adherence to a standard is known as conformation.
As dog clubs have evolved, so too have the rules governing dog shows. There are strict rules of dog appearance and bearing—called the breed standard—that dictate the end goal, and inform the training regimen required to be successful. For the beginner as well as the expert a dog club provides training space, offers information about relevant rules and regulations, and facilitates camaraderie among purebred dog enthusiasts.
Conformation is the degree to which a purebred dog meets the ideal for its breed. A conformation event is a contest to determine which dog most closely approaches this ideal. Thus, such dog shows are not a competition of dogs against each other, but a measure of each dog relative to its breed's ideal form, using well defined standards. Modern dog clubs play an important role in preparing for such events, and are a reflection of the evolution of the dog show-dog club dynamic.
Modern Dog Clubs
There are now thousands of dog clubs in America. Many of these, often called kennel clubs, are not simply gathering places for dog play. Rather, they are gathering places for enthusiasts interested in preserving the quality of purebred dogs. Like politics, most dog clubs are local, and some specialize in specific breeds, competitions, or other aspects of dog engagement. Most help with dog training and dog show preparation, and some sponsor dog shows. Nearly all follow the same set of rules concerning the ideal configuration for each dog breed. This ideal is called conformation, and the organization in the United States that oversees this set of rules, and maintains a registry of purebred dogs, is the American Kennel Club, or AKC. Today in the United States there are over 5000 clubs associated with the American Kennel Club, which helps provide organization and legitimacy to dog shows.
About the American Kennel Club
The American Kennel Club was founded in 1884. According to its website their objective is to "advance the study, breeding, exhibiting, running and maintenance of purebred dogs."
The AKC is the largest kennel club in the United States, and it maintains a registry of purebred dogs. While association with the AKC is voluntary, it provides a standardized set of rules and regulations and gives legitimacy to conformation or other events or specialty shows. Many local dog clubs are associated with the AKC, both to participate in the standardization, and because of the shared goals and objectives regarding purebred dog breeding and showing. Ideally such member clubs will share the core values of the AKC, which according to their website are as follows:
- We love purebred dogs
- We are committed to advancing the sport of the purebred dog.
- We are dedicated to maintaining the integrity of our Registry.
- We protect the health and well-being of all dogs.
- We cherish dogs as companions.
- We are committed to the interests of dog owners.
- We uphold high standards for the administration and operation of the AKC.
- We recognize the critical importance of our clubs and volunteers.
The Erie Kennel Club
The Erie Kennel Club in Erie, Pa. is an example of a robust dog club with an early origin. It is the tenth oldest all-breed member club of the AKC and the oldest in Pennsylvania. Incorporated in 1906, the club is very active, and sponsors an annual dog show, the Erie Kennel Club All-Breed Dog Show. In January of 2020 I attended this show, and many of the photos in this article are from that show.
According to its website the objectives of the club are as follows:
To further the advancement of purebred dogs.
To encourage sportsmanlike competition.
To conduct sanctioned matches, conformation shows, companion and performance events under the rules of the American Kennel Club.
This closely mirrors the intent of early dog club founders, and the Erie Kennel Club is a prime example of the evolution of dog clubs. Their annual dog show is a testament to organization and good will among dog owners and spectators alike, while their modern facilities support those interested in purebred dog breeding, agility, and related activities.
An affinity for the breeding of purebred dogs gave rise to the dog show, which in the beginning was limited and chaotic. As the dog show movement grew, so too did the need for an overarching organizational control. This need was filled by the creation of dog clubs, which initially served to standardize rules and to encourage fairness in judging at shows, as well as to promote the wellness of dogs.
Dog shows and dog clubs have grown side by side, and now exist in a symbiotic relationship. Dog clubs sponsor dog shows, and train participants in navigating their rules and regulations, which can be confusing. The premier dog club in the United States is the American Kennel Club, and local dog clubs tend to affiliate with the standard it represents. Although not all dog club members participate in dog shows, and not all dog show participants are members of a dog club, there is a link that bonds them, which is the love of dogs.
From what I have seen it is alive and well.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 William R Vitanyi