Coonhounds, Ego and the Dog Show Circuit
The Washington Post has a front page story this morning about a fellow and his daughter who raise, hunt and show coonhounds. The piece is part of a series on why folks compete in things, and the title of this one is: Ego
In my opinion, that single word does not entirely sum up why folks attend dog shows, but it's a pretty good one word try, nonetheless.
The reporter details the trophy room:
More than 500 trophies were displayed on the floor, forming a sea of oak and metal that covered all but a four-foot-wide sliver of speckled tile in the middle of the room. The trophies ranged in height from six inches to six feet, and they all bore the names of dog shows held in the last eight years. More than 300 ribbons, plaques and certificates decorated the walls. A year earlier, Amanda had hired a cleaning crew to dust and shine each award.
How did all these gleaming trophies and ribbons come into being? Well, it involved a wealthy father and a LOT of money. A whole lot of money.
To their credit, the Alexanders are not puppy peddlers, and do not breed a lot of dogs, and they take unbelievably good care of the dogs that they have.
Also to their credit, the Alexanders DO work their dogs, though it should be said that with 60 dogs in the kennels, no one dog may see much action in a year.
The Alexander's hounds sometimes chased down possum, deer, bobcats or bears. Other times, like tired athletes, Curt said the dogs gave up and barked at the base of a random tree, just so the hunt would end and they could go home. On the worst nights, the hounds injured themselves while tearing through the woods at 15 mph. A dog once ran out of the woods with a porcupine quill poking into the center of his eyeball -- a wound fixed, by veterinarian recommendation, with Krazy Glue. Another dog tripped and slipped a disk in his back, necessitating 12 trips to a specialist in Columbus, Ohio.
The Washington Post story is ostensibly about competition and what motives people to success in their respective sports. Whatever it is (and let's set aside whether showing dogs is a sport), it appears to be a powerful internal force.
Amanda, 27, spends all but two weekends each year driving to dog shows in places such as Brazil, Ind., and Saluda, N.C. Bob has spent more than $400,000 purchasing dogs and then lavishing them with accoutrements generally reserved for elite athletes: truckloads of performance-enhancing food; a heated indoor swimming pool for winter cross-training; personal drivers to shuttle dogs to distant appointments with nationally renowned veterinarians.
You can do the math: $400,000 for 60 dogs, 500 trophies and 300 ribbons. That works out to about $6,600 per dog, or about $800 per trophy. In fact, those numbers are not too far out of sync; some folks spend more than
In the dog show world, of course, one chooses both a breed and a registry, and young Amanda seems to have chosen the American Kennel Club. I have little doubt that the reason she saddled up with the AKC is that a young female "pay to play" show dog person found the new AKC coonhound cartel more socially promising than the older, more male, and more experienced coonhound club at the UKC. Apparently, it did not hurt a whit that the AKC encourages exhibitors to dress up in nice clothes and put makeup on their dogs.
In her grooming shop a few days earlier, Amanda spent 90 minutes readying the four Plott coonhounds. She trimmed and filed their nails, shaved surplus hair from their underbellies and rubbed the inside of their ears with Q-tips. But as she stepped out of her camper and looked around the infield, Amanda wondered if she'd prepared enough. All around her, groomers sprayed dogs with hair color, lined their eyes with mascara, whitened their toenails with chalk and smoothed their coats with flat irons.
Of course the UKC has had coonhounds forever, and the AKC only came to the show when they needed to bolster their sagging finances. So how do you explain abandoning the UKC for the AKC without it reflecting on the pure ego of a young campaigner who wants to be a big-and-rich fish in a smaller pond? Simple: you blame it on something defective with the UKC.
Until recently, Amanda had competed almost exclusively in the United Kennel Club, a less formal, less prestigious organization popular among coonhound owners. At UKC events, she said dog feces blanketed the ground and hound owners spat chewing tobacco in the show ring. At AKC events, including the renowned Westminster Kennel Club dog show, professional handlers wear three-piece suits in the show ring.
Dog feces blanketed the ground? That's not a description of any UKC event I have ever been to, and it's not one anyone else seems to recognize either. But never mind. What's truth got to do with it? The message here is that there's a "civilized" club for people who put party dresses on themselves and makeup on their dogs, and an "uncivilized" club for tobacco chewing, shit-flinging rednecks who drink corn whiskey from a mason jar. I get it.
On The Washington Post web site, a commentator on the article notes that:
"Coonhounds are uniquely American. Dr. Thomas Walker was one of the first breeders of coonhounds in this country. Hence the name, Treeing Walker Coonhound. Walker also introduced horse racing and was one of the first settlers of Kentucky to go through the Cumberland Gap."
Well yes, that is all true ... maybe.
Without a doubt Walker was one of the first breeders of fox hounds in America, but there's some question as to whether the Walker Coonhound is named after him or another Walker that came many years later.
For anyone interested in reading more about Dr. Thomas Walker and his discovery of the Cumberland Gap, I suggest "Gateway: Dr. Thomas Walker and the Opening of Kentucky," by my father, David M. Burns. It's not about dogs, but then (suprisingly) not everything is.