About the Complex World of Dog Shows and Dog Breeding
Last July, something life-changing happened to me: my sister got a schnauzer. You’d think it wouldn’t affect me that much, since it’s not my dog, but no; I’d been waiting for that schnauzer quite as much as she had. You see, our family had a schnauzer, Bruno, when we were kids. He was simply put the best dog ever; he is a star in not just our memories, but also in the memories of many extended family members and family friends. I even remember an aunt who isn’t that much of a dog person saying that if every dog was like Bruno, she could consider getting one.
Bruno died at the grand old age of 14 years and 9 months when I was 8 ½ years old. After that, for almost 17 years me and my sister dreamt of a schnauzer; our parents never got another one, our mother particularly feeling Bruno’s death was too hard, and also not wanting to tie our everyday lives to another dog.
Last spring we noticed that Bruno’s breeder was planning a new litter of puppies, and since my sister had decided she’d like to take a schnauzer the summer next year, she sent them a message asking if we could come and talk with them and see the puppies after they were born. The breeder called back next day, saying they were going to retire – at the ages of 83 and 84 after 50 years of schnauzer breeding (!) – and that this was going to be the last litter. They had a person to continue the breeding work, but that was going to be on the other side of the country, and they were probably not going to have litters of standard schnauzers (miniature schnauzer being their other breed) for quite some time yet. If my sister would want to get a schnauzer from the original place and from the original breeders, it would have to be now.
Fast forward to May and the puppies, 8 boys and 3 girls, were born. I already knew that I was going to be in the puppy’s life prominently and promptly named myself the “special fairy godmother”. We visited the puppies many times during their first 8 weeks and talked with the breeders. We discussed so many things, but one thing that is relevant to this article, is that the breeders asked and encouraged us to show the dog. Both of the parents had had success in the show ring, and continuing that tradition of successful show dogs and champions clearly was a matter of pride to the breeders. Bruno had been a Finnish champion and we had nothing against showing the new puppy.
In July we took the puppy, a bottlebrush bearded boy named Ukko, home. He was the cutest and dearest little thing, and very rambunctious too – he’s a schnauzer after all! I looked after him during the days of the first weeks since my sister was working and I wasn’t. My sister and I loved, laughed and also cried tears of exhaustion and frustration. He grew and learned things. At some point we started to practice show standing and trotting with him. I went deep into the dog show corner of the internet and learned all there is to learn about shows. Ukko was signed up for his first unofficial puppy show – puppy shows are always unofficial – in October. My sister and I took turns handling him in the ring, and turns out that my sister didn’t enjoy being in the ring at all. So I became Ukko’s show handler. In his first puppy show, he was the best male and BOS (best of opposite sex) in the schnauzer ring. In his second puppy show in January he was BOB (best of breed).
Now, chances are that you, as the reader of this article, are not very well versed in the dog show world. You probably think dog shows are just dog beauty pageants that encourage ridiculous looks in dogs. If you’re a dog person who knows a thing or two about the world of dog ownership and hobbies, there’s a good chance you are anti-show and think dog shows promote the breeding of exaggerated features that make the dog susceptible to various health problems. Why would you want to go to dog shows, you ask me.
Well, first of all, yes, when it comes to clearly ill dog breeds such as brachycephalic breeds (the English and French bulldogs, pugs, Boston terriers, etc.), dog shows do not really do much favor to the breed. However, what I want to stress is that the core problem does not lie in the shows, but rather in the breed standards. The breed standard is what each dog in the show ring is compared to. It specifies the structure, type, general looks and temperament a certain dog breed should have. If the breed standard names, or hints toward, features (such as a short muzzle), which clearly cause the dog health issues, the show ring won’t help much towards a healthier breed, as dog shows always strive to reward the dogs that most closely embody the breed standard. This certainly is problematic, and I personally don’t condone such breed standards. Whenever a dog with a clearly questionable structure gets a big win in a show, I feel really bad. If I were some sort of an almighty figure in the world of dogs and dog breeding, I would drastically change the breed standards of the breeds with major health issues. However, I am not.
The standard schnauzer, fortunately, is a breed that has a good basic health, and a balanced, natural and non-exaggerated structure. With this breed, dog shows really do serve their original purpose of being of help to the breeding; the shows are supposed to give assessments of structure, overall type and temperament of individual dogs and help breeders in making breeding decisions that promote the health and good breed type of the dog. This being the case with schnauzers, I don’t see why we should not show our dog just because the unhealthy breed standards some other breeds unfortunately have.
Aside from the original purpose of being of use to breeding, dog shows have long since become a hobby for the owners and their dogs. Some might say it’s just something humans do to assert their – and their dogs’ – superiority, and I’m sure that that competitive side is a part of it for many. However, for the dog, going to a show is a nice change to the everyday and a chance to spend the day with their humans, doing something together. Ukko, for instance, really seems to enjoy being in the ring and “performing”. (As a sidenote, there are obviously dogs that don’t like being in the show ring. Personally I don’t think those dogs should be shown much because the most important thing about shows should always be to have fun with the dog – the best thing to see is when a dog wags its tail while shown.) For the humans, dog shows are nice social events where you can meet up with other dog people, people with the same breed and those who have dogs from the same breeder – who are from the same “team”.
Unlike what many people might think, dog shows actually do require training just like many other dog hobbies do. I have spent countless exercising moments with Ukko, working on his position and ability to stand still for a while, trot steadily on my side without galloping or pacing, and letting the judge feel his coat and structure and check his teeth and testicles; in other words, to show his best structure and movements and to do it as smoothly and easily as possible. To become better and better at working together and reading each other in the ring is a part of the hobby.
And so, while there are many problematic points in the dog show world regarding the health of some breeds, there are also many good sides to the hobby when you have a generally healthy breed. At the publication of this article, Ukko has turned 9 months old and is eligible for official shows, and will take part in his first “big boy” show at the Lahti International Dog Show on March 25th. We’ll see what comes out of it, but at least we are going to have fun!