Between the Lines: Where Is the Next Generation?

Who will care enough about dog breeding, lineage and breed history to carry the world of purebred dogs into the future?

Who will care enough about dog breeding, lineage and breed history to carry the world of purebred dogs into the future?

It hit me just how long I must have been writing about dogs when a sweet, grandmotherly lady came up to me at a show a while ago, shook my hand and told me she was so pleased to meet me because, she said, “I have been reading your articles ever since I was a little girl.” Am I really that old? I guess I must be, but it says a lot about the graying of the dog sport in America that there are quite a few people who are even older than I am, some of them practically old enough to be my parents, yet they are still actively showing, judging and breeding dogs.

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So, Where Are the Young People?

Yes, there are some young people who are involved in dogs in America — or at least showing dogs. But do we have any young individuals who are seriously interested in all the other aspects of the dog world, not just in running around the ring and winning ribbons? Are any of them passionate about breeding dogs, learning pedigrees, working in dog clubs, becoming experts in the history of their breeds or knowing all about the glorious tradition of our sport? I sincerely hope so, but I don’t think there are many, at least not in America. Almost all the kids I know who take a serious interest in purebred dogs beyond handling are foreign. At the World Show in Italy, I met a couple of 20-somethings who, in spite of university studies, find the time to publish their own dog magazine — and they knew everything about Dogs in Review’s history! They were from Croatia (I think), not exactly a hub of the dog world but with obvious promise for the future. 

I also know a young man from Norway who is not yet 25 but has already bred a Westminster BOB winner, and another who lives in Canada, and at a young age has become a world expert on several rare breeds. Last month I got an invitation to judge in Germany that started, “Hello, my name is so-and-so. I am 18 years old, and we are organizing a show next year…” Earlier this year I met a girl from Hungary who knew more about American dogs than most of us do who live here. At another show I met a young Japanese woman who has already bred more Best in Show winners than most. Where are their American counterparts?

It’s interesting to note, by the way, that all these young, foreign dog people obviously still look to the United States as the promised land. They come to Westminster, to Morris & Essex, to national specialties, so obviously they find this country intensely appealing. But will this last? I worry about that; is there a next generation of American dog people that’s capable and willing to carry the torch and continue to maintain the great reputation of American dogs that older dog people have built up? Why is it that I see such a narrow interest in purebred dogs among young American dog fanciers?

Are We Blaming the Wrong Things?

It has become fashionable to blame the lack of enthusiasm for purebred dogs among American teenagers on social media. “All they want to do is play with their iPhones and post gossip via Twitter and Facebook…” I don’t think that’s true: Social media are at least as popular overseas as in the US and have not stopped young people there from being seriously involved in dogs. I have made attempts to find out if there’s the same perception in other, similar sports as in AKC events — that the young now just aren’t as involved as their elders used to be. So far I have not had any consistent response from the United Kennel Club (established in 1898 and described as “the largest all-breed performance-dog registry in the world”), the Cat Fanciers Association, The International Cat Association (TICA) or the US Equestrian Federation. There are big differences between showing dogs, cats and horses, of course, but the similarities are also striking. Is it just us, or is there a lack of interest across the board? 

There is at least one other sport that I know something about. My partner, Paul Lepiane, is heavily involved in competitive rowing, and the youth section’s membership in his local club has quadrupled its numbers over the past few years! And this is a sport that requires you to get up in the morning, to have self-discipline and involves really hard physical labor — very different to going to dog shows in some ways but also similar in others.

Sure, when I started in dogs — many, many years ago — the shows were my main focus at first. It didn’t take long before that fascination developed into an intense interest in other related activities, though. Planning breedings, studying history, learning pedigrees, visiting kennels near and far, getting involved in club work, eventually starting to judge — I don’t think any one aspect was more interesting than the others. I didn’t start serious, international judging until I was in my early 30s; that was not considered particularly early in those days, but that was a time when the people in charge actually encouraged young people to branch out and start judging early. (You need to be fairly mature to be a really good judge, but how many AKC all-rounders are under 70? Not many, if any.) Is that the problem, that AKC doesn’t encourage youngsters to take on serious responsibilities? If the young generation isn’t doing what we’re hoping they would do, how much is that the fault of our own, older generation?

Are You the Exception?

Complaining about the young is as old as the ancient Greeks: “I see no hope for the future for our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today,” wrote the poet Hesiod about 2,700 years ago, and later scribes have echoed his sentiment through the centuries. I beg to differ: Today’s youth seems to me so much smarter, more mature and fun to talk to than I’m sure most of us were a few decades ago. But when it comes to the sport of dogs I worry…

If you are in your 20s and disagree with the above, I would love to hear from you. (Heck, if you are a little over 30, you are still a babe in arms, comparatively speaking, so let’s hear from you, too.) If you even read this article, you have immediately proved me wrong in one respect. If you care enough to write, you have succeeded in showing I’m wrong twice over, and if you can also lay claim to some of the interests and achievements mentioned above, I would be delighted to admit that I’m totally wrong — at least in your case. You can write to me at bobengtson@impulse.net.

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