Wed, 11/27/2019 - 6:46am

Middle of the Road

In these times in which we live, every negative outcome requires a villain.

So when we ask ourselves why the sport of purebred dogs is declining, we take aim at some obvious – and not-so-obvious – culprits. It’s the American Kennel Club board. It’s the American Kennel Club delegates. It’s the American Kennel Club staff. It’s the animal-rights movement. And – my personal favorite – it’s those navel-gazing millennials.

I nominate a new object for our collective fury, since we require one.

Let’s blame the Great American Experiment.

Recently my friend Dan Sayers made the observation to me that purebred dogs are inextricably linked to the middle class. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made: When the middle class is burgeoning – consider Russia and China and a whole host of Eastern European countries whose bread lines have been obliterated by Starbucks and McDonald’s franchises – so is our sport.

And when it’s not … well, look around.

Statistics tell us quite clearly that the American middle class is shrinking: A recent Pew Research Center report found that middle-class Americans now represent less than half – specifically, 49.9 percent – of the nation’s population, compared to 61 percent in 1971.

Of course, before humans thought to categorize dogs into formal breeds, we knew them for what they did, not what they were, and those “jobs” spanned social classes. Royals and poachers, hunters and shepherds, tax collectors and mushers, laceworkers and prostitutes – all had dogs that assisted them in their daily lives, whether to bring down game, control livestock, deter assailants, divert fleas or (in the case of the aforementioned belles du nuit) serve as ice breakers with potential customers.

The concept of keeping a dog for pleasure alone remained mired in the upper classes. Animals whose primary appeal was their beauty belonged to the social elite, no different than a gilt-framed oil painting or a precious porcelain charger.

Attitudes in our modern institutions mirrored these class distinctions. Historically, urban welfare recipients in America were barred from keeping dogs, hiding their animals whenever a caseworker came by for “inspection.” The message was clear: Animals kept by the poor for the purpose of subsistence were one thing, but those lower-class Americans who kept dogs for the companionship and comfort they provided were not worthy of this “luxury.”

As their disappearance during wartime attests, dog shows are a leisure-time activity. Some of this is obviously attributable to disposable income: If you don’t have enough money to cover your bills and your credit cards are tapped out, spending the equivalent of a monthly mortgage payment on a purebred dog is hard to justify. As middle-class Americans increasingly struggle to keep their heads above water financially, they are experiencing similar deficits of time and space: Even if you can afford to enter a dog show, how will you take the time off to drive there the day before – to say nothing of the hotel bills – as the “local” show now takes place several hours away because your home-town venues were too expensive to rent – or no longer exist.

Like all creative enterprises, purebred dogs also require a sense of expansiveness. Consider the giddy optimism of late Victorian England, as the Industrial Revolution reordered the class structure, prompted renewed urbanization, and gave rise to a new class of merchants and capitalists.  It is no coincidence that so many of our breeds, especially Toys, were standardized and even created in that era: Dogs became a means of self-expression, as reflective of social aspirations as that fancy new bonnet.

Conversely, feeling under the gun and contemplating yet another dinner of Ramen Noodles doesn’t usually unleash your creative juices. (Unless, of course, you’re a penniless J.K. Rowling sitting in that Edinburgh coffee shop writing her tales of prepubescent wizards. But she is the exception that proves the rule.)

Today’s older fanciers lived through the dog game’s Baby Boom. The 1950s through the ’80s saw a huge expansion in participation in dog shows, just as a newly minted postwar middle class gobbled up Levitt houses, ignited suburban sprawl, and codified the myth that every new American generation could and should surpass the ones that came before it.

We know now that the latter, sadly, is not a foregone conclusion. Neither is a return to that golden-era of dog shows – you know, the one in which, as Lee Canalizo wrote recently, 94 Afghan Hounds were needed to make a five-point major. That was way back in 1974, but it might as well have been in 1874.

The vexing question of where American society is going – and where our personal fortunes will land within it – is a pressing question for all of us. If we are to be honest, it is what is fueling the contentiousness of our national scene. That same kind of uncertainty, and longing for the past, imbue our sport today.

Social trends are generations in the making, and while they cannot be stopped in their tracks, the first step is being able to see them. Just as a whole raft of 30-somethings have to come to terms with the reality of moving back into their parents’ homes in order to survive, so too do we need to admit that the heyday of purebred dogs in the middle part of the last century was never intended to be a constant.

And nobody’s to blame for that.



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