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.

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.

Cynics claim these are all money-making schemes by a cash-starved organization. If so, the schemes could be working. The AKC recently trumpeted that overall event entries were up a bit last year, and the new Grand Champion title alone led to 40,000 additional entries and $1.2 million in fee revenue. Even if money is a motive, it's hard to see how introducing kids to the wonderful rainbow of dog-dom is entirely evil. And programs such as the AKC's Canine Good Citizen, which requires dog-handler teams to pass a 10-step test of good manners and grooming, have clearly made the world a better place. (Disclosure: My memoir about training my Marley-esque purebred dog for her CGC award will be published in April.)

Of all the group's new initiatives, however, none has been as controversial as its decision to allow mixed-breed dogs to compete alongside purebreds for some AKC titles. Starting in 2007, club members received a survey sounding them out on such subjects as launching a non-purebred listing service and allowing non-purebred dogs to compete in obedience, agility, and tracking events. The results of the survey were, well, mixed. While three out of four members agreed with the statement "mixed breed competition would not negatively impact public opinion of purebred vs. mixed breed dogs," about half thought it might "lead to animal rights activists joining clubs and influencing policy making." The AKC is nothing if not paranoid. And respondents were split evenly on whether mixed breeds should earn the same or different titles—that is, whether competitions should be integrated or "separate but equal."

In the end, to its credit, the AKC decided to integrate. In April of last year, it allowed clubs to open AKC-sanctioned obedience, rally, and agility trials to mixed breeds as part of its Canine Partners program. During opening weekend, a dog named Cheyenne became the first mutt-tastic winner with a commanding performance through the weave poles at the Somerset Hills Kennel Club Agility Trial in Freehold, N.J. Last year, about 2,000 titles were earned by mixed-breed dogs, which the AKC euphemistically calls "All-American."

What does this all mean for the health of the AKC? There is continual pressure for the club to be more aggressive in shutting down high-volume breeders, called "puppy mills," and to revise breed standards that may exacerbate health problems. In 2009, the British Kennel Club did just that, in part in response to a scathing BBC documentary called Pedigree Dogs Exposed, which claimed bulldogs often had trouble breathing and German shepherd dogs struggled to walk because of exaggerated, breed-standard skin folds and low-slung backs.

It's clear the AKC should—and probably will—do more to safeguard the health of purebred dogs. But all it takes is a few hours with a responsible breeder to realize there is no group of people on the planet more dedicated to the well-being of dogs. Canines are their life. Heritable diseases are studied and invested against; animals with eye or hip problems are not bred. Breeding bitches and studs are treated much better than the average family pet.

Yet purebreds themselves face a constitutional crisis. Each dog breed was developed to do a particular task: Dachshunds hunted badgers; rat terriers hunted rats; retrievers went after fowl in the water or on land; Akitas guarded Japanese houses; and malamutes pulled Alaskan sleds. Today, police and service dogs are the rare animals that do actual work. The typical purebred pet is like a racecar that only gets wheeled out of the garage to take the kids to school.

As breeds get further away from their original intent, the need for elaborate registries and regulations begins to evanesce. Meanwhile, those of us with fondness for a certain breed, with all its faults and potential health problems—as I have for the beautiful Bernese mountain dog—know that our breed, at least, deserves to survive.

"One of the best things about purebred dogs is their relative predictability," says the AKC's Lisa Peterson. "You are more likely to know what you're getting."

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