Tuesday, July 03, 2007

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 $10,000 $100,000 a year campaigning a single dog.

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 (surprisingly) not everything is.


Gina said...

"...some folks spend more than $10,000 a year campaigning a single dog."

Try adding a zero to the back of that, my friend, and you'll be closer to the truth.

When I was living on the Florida Panhandle, I heard coonhounds working in the night and met a lot of the hunters. Enjoyed talking to them all. I have a great picture somewhere of a wonderful old guy with his bluetick hound.

PBurns said...

You are right, of course. Some incredible sums have been spent on campaigning dogs, and the very top dogs in the AKC sections (hounds, terriers, working dogs, etc.) represent a dizzying investment. It's not for nothing that Bill Cosby's terriers are so often at the top at Westminster -- he has the money to get them there.
The late Jane Firestone, the owner of a German Shepherd by the name of Altana's Mystique, is reported to have paid $750,000 to get her dog to the top of the AKC hierarchy, and she hired James Moses on an exclusive basis to handle this one dog (i.e. he worked with no ohter dog but this one). When Mrs. Firestone died, Moses was given the dog who was then about age 7. This was back in the mid-1990s or so. The 10,000 figure might actually be an average cost for campaigning a dog to a championship.


Gina said...

You can ball-park it at $1,000 per championship point for an OWNER-handled dog. Hire a handler and ... well, I try not to think about it.

Instead, I want to get my puppers finished and get back to our field training.

Which can be even more expensive than showing, in retrievers.

Firestone on the show circuit .... in field trials, the "names" have always included people like August Belmont.

Big bucks, indeed. :)

Aaron said...

I just don't know what to think about all this. I do hope that the AKC folks don't screw up the coonhounds, though. My two favorite dogs are a beagle x black-and-tan cross, and a treeing walker that is laying around my house now. I'd hate to discover that my next dog will cost a fortune, have health problems, and lack that certain quality of mind that a good hound has.

BorderWars said...

The cost seems entirely breed specific and is very different depending on your area of the country. If you have a very rare breed or a very popular breed you are simply facing too much competition to "earn" a championship on the cheap.

The problem is that only 2 dogs per breed earn any points at all during a show, no matter how large the competitive pool is. And when politics is involved, the odds are even worse, since "it" dogs seem to have winning streaks that are unfathomable given all mathematical probability.

For instance, the same English Sheepdog won Best in Show at three small (1500-2000 dog) shows that I was at a few months back. You'd have a very hard time telling me that under different judges and the several wins it takes to get to the final ring (best in age class, best in sex, best in breed, best in group, best in show)... that one dog could be so dominant if it wasn't "fixed."

There are, however, plenty of breeds where owners can show and earn points and get championships without resorting to campaigning, and I'd say that the majority of people I've met at shows fit that definition. After all, the entry fee is only $20/day/show and it's not unheard of that some novice and their dog win 3 days in a row at one show and finish a championship.

Then again, getting a championship is not what any novice would know as the dog show world. No TV cameras, much less glam. All those shows you see on TV are invite only dogs that already have their championship. That is a whole different game, with a whole different budget!

The similarity between kiddie beauty pageants and the dog show world is evident, and in my view, the single most destructive aspect of it all is that there is no feedback. NONE. Judges are unaccountable for their decisions and competitors never know the score.

That, in my view, is the reason that gross fads occur... the same psychological factors that lead people to worship and fear poorly understood abnormalities in nature like eclipses and floods and such. Without a grasp of cause and effect, mythology and superstition take over science and logic.

Some dog might have had a characteristic that was incidental to it's winning streak that wannabes thought was, in fact, a key feature. They breed for such, and then the entire field has this quirk, until judges and competitors have no memory of what the breed was like before.

Roach-backed crippled American German Shepherd dogs probably started their decline with a nice dog owned by a rich lady who had a slightly lower rear stance. That turned into people seeking to emphasize that stance thinking it was important, then crucial, until overbreeding and bottleknecking the gene pool ruined the breed.

If you want to see polite mature women turn into fire breathing riotous beasts, have a judge tell them that no dogs in the ring are going to earn ribbons or points because they are all insufficient specimens of the breed!

I've seen it happen and boy did the temperature in that hall go up.

Any way, eschew subjectivity, enjoy the 4th.

Anonymous said...

Don't misunderestimate the role of the UKC in the "show-dogging" of the coonhound breeds.

Indeed, the UKC pageant ring has been serving as a major pipeline to unwanted AKC recognition and subsequent destruction of working breeds and "rare breeds" for some time. This predates the death of Fred Miller and sale of the "just a registry" to former AKC VP and Madison Avenue adman Wayne Cavanaugh. But under Wayne's form of management, expect to see the process accelerate. There is a man mightily at home in a penguin suit amongst eyeliner-wearing dogs on strings. The damage to dog breeds that accrues due to his profit motive in the business is not tempered by his devotion to the silver trophy set.

A UKC employee, explaining patiently to me and my colleagues in the (then) UKC-affiliated breed club why "Daddy Wayne knows best" about our breed, which Fred had always agreed to keep out of the show ring, told us how much coonhounds had "improved" since UKC started offering pageant classes for them. The contempt she had for the tobacco-spit houndsman set and their inferior dogs was as palpable as that she displayed to us -- people she clearly considered dumb hick farmers.

Expect to see the UCK pageant ring begin to resemble the rhinestone glitter of the big ACK venues more and more, whilst still providing "special olympics" championships and "grand championships" to all comers in certain breeds where the breed community has been less "accommodating," and it's necessary to attract newcomers who yearn to have a champion in a weekend in order to get any entries.

Sadly, my fine working bitch now comes (ex post facto) from a "Grand Champion" sire. His title now appears in red on an internet puppymiller's ad copy pedigree. It does not appear on the pedigree I provided for the buyers of her pups.

Anonymous said...

The Walker strain of American foxhound still exists. My grandpa has six of them. Most show American foxhounds are Walker strain.

I would say that they are very similar to the Treeing Walker, except that they are much more lightly built.

I do know that before the breeds became separated that the old-timers called the Treeing Walker "one of them foxhounds that trees 'coons." In fact, it's not unusual to see ads in the paper that ask for that very dog. From what I understand, the Treeing Walkers are more like trailing foxhounds than the other breeds of coonhound.

The Treeing Walker strain is believed to have derived from crossing an unknown, stolen hound named "Tennessee Lead" with Walker-strain American foxhounds.

The best way to think of these two dogs is that in Britain there are foxhounds and "trail hounds," which are both derived from the same stock. However, trail hounds have been bred for more speed and endurance, because they are actually raced.


Also, the Plott hound is called the "Plott" by the AKC. It is the only American hound that doesn't primarily descend from British dogs. It is very similar to the Hanoverian Schweisshund, although more lightly built. The family who founded the breed was originally named Platz. They were German immigrants who brought this type of hound to the mountains of North Carolina in the eighteenth century.

There is actually lots of speculation about their ancestry. They do look like Hanoverian Schweisshunds, but some think that they share an ancestry with the Weimaraner, which started out as a big game hound and then became an HPR.