More than five thousand dogs from 21 countries are appearing in the American Kennel Club New Year’s Day 2020 dog show. Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet touts it as the largest in the country. But it’s just another trivial show on Animal Planet. Unrelated to the big environmental or economic issues of our time. Not worth a moment of our attention.
Or maybe it is. Maybe this spectacle sends us an important message about how we behave with every element of the natural world.
“We dog fanciers know that there is nothing quite as wonderful and fulfilling as our Sport,” AKC judge Ronald Menaker said last year, excitedly talking up the potential of streaming video to widen the audience. “The I am a Breeder series shines a loving light on our fanciers and our sport.”
The “sport” that defines the AKC is selective breeding, and the best people-pleasers win. Judging is the ritual that validates selection, ranking, and rejection.
The British Barnum
The BBC’s History Extra magazine traces dog show history to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. In 1859, promoters added a dog show to the summer cattle show. Two kinds of hunting dogs—setters and pointers—were judged, and the winning owners received guns.
In 1862, a dog show took place at London’s Royal Agricultural Hall. The following year, a week-long show drew a crowd of 100,000, including the Prince of Wales.
Charles Cruft was a manager at the Spratt’s Patent feed factory, who sold dog biscuits to the fox hunting set. Cruft saw the dog fanciers, sensed a business opportunity, and was soon designing rail cars to transport show dogs to Europe. Cruft acquired a nickname: the British Barnum.
By the time of the first Cruft’s Dog Show in 1891, the BBC reports, “there were show classes for all tastes and pockets.” Pekinese lapdogs were imported, and new dog types were manufactured—such as the Doberman Pinscher breed, introduced in 1890.
A point system arose, so judges could follow standard criteria: a desirable height, a certain head shape, the stance of the front and hind legs. The BBC says the spectacles brought pet ownership into fashion across all social classes, even while their insistence on pedigrees mirrored Victorian social hierarchies.
The Westminster Kennel Club held the first dog show in the United States in 1877, six years after the first Ringling Bros. circus.
We revel in artifice, and sabotage what we can’t sell. To society’s way of thinking, the further we breed dogs away from their ancestral reality—from wolves—the better we’ve made them. We insist, to this day, on having dogs “for all tastes and pockets”—and now, we must add, for therapy and emotional support.
We may genuinely love an individual dog, but the making of pets is just as manipulative as farm animal husbandry, and it goes against everything nature stands for. By making pets, we detach ourselves from nature, we control it, and we endlessly commodify it.
Nature-loving hikers send their dogs to run free through the trees, as habitats vanish under our insistence that the Earth is a great dog park. And on it goes. The AKC’s event page is an advertising platform for puppy sellers and all manner of packaged and generally Earth-unfriendly stuff for sale.
This marketplace is psychologically fraught. If we find nothing urgently wrong with turning a nation of once-free beings into our retrievers, guards, and cuddly toys, we can’t explain why the business of dog shows doesn’t belong in a conscientious society. But we should explain. Because of the indignity imposed on each animal subjected to these shows. And because of what it says about who we are, and how we keep treating the rest of this planet’s life.