Westminster, American Kennel Club: Can the AKC survive in the 21st century?

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Feb. 14 2011 1:28 PM

Dog Fight

Can the American Kennel Club survive PETA protesters and uninterested pet owners?

Also in Slate, John Swansburg dives into the bizarre, wonderful world of American Kennel Club breed standards.

Dog show. Click image to expand.
Bloodhounds at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show 

The poor, poor American Kennel Club. Beset by animal-rights activists who challenge its morality, lawmakers who want to regulate breeding, and a long-term decline in registrations, the venerable institution is facing some of the biggest trials in its 126-year history. Indeed, for the first time ever, this dog may be fighting for its life.

And as the two- and four-legged crowds gather at Madison Square Garden this week for the 135th Westminster Kennel Club dog show, co-sponsored by the AKC, controversy may well start to bark. Last year, two well-dressed women walked into the ring and held up PETA signs, one of which said "Breeders Kill Shelter Dogs' Chances."

"I don't believe there's a basis in fact for that statement," says AKC spokesperson Lisa Peterson. "Our position is, there are a lot of different ways people can choose to add a companion to their household. Going to a shelter is one way, and going to a breeder is another. This is America—people are free to make their own choices."

Founded in the late 19th century to organize dog breeding and, later, sports such as competitive agility and obedience, the AKC is the largest purebred registry in the world. Comprising 5,000 member clubs, the organization also sanctions dog shows, qualifies judges, issues titles, and acts as a nonprofit regulatory body for dog fanciers. Other outfits such as the United Kennel Club do much the same thing, but the AKC is the big biscuit in the basket.

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And it's feeling, um, hounded. After trotting more or less steadily upward since the 1930s, the number of purebred dogs registered to the organization started to fall in the early 1990s. AKC figures show that after peaking at 1.5 million in 1992, new annual registrations declined to about 720,000 a decade and a half later. Owners pay a fee ranging from $20 to $85 to add their dogs to the AKC's database, either for bragging rights, to enter AKC-sanctioned shows, or to become more viable breeders, since legitimate kennels generally will have nothing to do with a stud dog or bitch of unknown origin. Since registration fees make up about 40 percent of the AKC's $70 million annual operating income, the steady downward trend has led some gleeful critics to project that the organization will be defunct by 2025.

Perhaps. But the historic canine-governing body is not going down without a fight. Faced with a decline in obedience-event entries—which had fallen by almost 18,000 in five years—the Madison Avenue-headquartered AKC released a PowerPoint presentation in 2009 with detailed talking points for local clubs. "Do we need a sterile, golf course environment—void of distractions and challenges?" the document asks. "Or do we work to establish a fun, friendly and nurturing environment that is meant to be enjoyed by all?" (Although obedience represents less than 10 percent of the 3 million annual entries at AKC events, it is thought to be a good way to get pet owners to consider dog sports. And it is often run as a companion event to agility, which is about five times more popular.)

In part to broaden its base and beef up entries, the AKC has added a flurry of new breeds, titles, and programs. In the past year alone, the club started fee-charging registries for six new breeds, including the adorable Entlebucher Mountain Dog, stalwart Norwegian Lundehund, and the rare Xoloitzcuintli (mercifully shortened to "Xolo"). It unleashed a total of 10 new titles in recent years, including Beginner Novice (on-leash obedience), Preferred Agility Champion, Grand Champion (a kind of super-dog title), and so on.

The club has also made an unprecedented push to engage directly with casual dog owners—people who are not the devotees who dominate show rings. Since 2000, the AKC has sanctioned the surprisingly entertaining obedience sport of Rally, wherein handlers lead dogs around a sign-posted obstacle course; launched the S.T.A.R. good-manners award for puppies; and unveiled large-scale PR plays such as national Responsible Dog Ownership Day and Meet the Breeds at the Jacob Javits Center in New York, where 160 dog breeds were forced to co-exist with 41 breeds of their dreaded mortal enemy, represented by the Cat Fanciers' Association.

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