After 125 years, American Kennel Club opens competitions to mutts

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010; A01

Scene: the Mattaponi Kennel Club dog show in Manassas.

Enter the purebreds: the buttery yellow Labradors and the lusciously springy spaniels, and the sly border collies, whose owners plaster their cars with bumper stickers reading "My Border Collie is smarter than your honor student." Enter the sleek viszlas and the aloof Belgian Malinois, a whole team of them, with show names like Tri Sort's Closer to the Heart.

Enter Otis.

Otis is eating a cow hoof. When he is finished, he might beg his owner, with low gentle moans, for a piece of string cheese -- Otis will do anything for string cheese -- or he might lick his rear end. Otis is brown(ish) and fluffy(ish) and weighs about 65 pounds. Otis is the result of an illicit tryst between a purebred husky and a rakish Lab-chow neighbor dog.

Mutt lovers, rise. It is a historic spring for all of your shelter dogs, mixes, halfsies and whatsits.

For the first time in the 125-year history of the American Kennel Club -- the venerable organization whose mission is to "advance the study, breeding, exhibiting, running and maintenance of purebred dogs" -- mutts are being allowed to compete alongside the champion bloodlines.

Not in the "beauty contests," says Mattaponi Kennel Club show chair Katie Knepley, as she briskly walks around the grassy competition rings, partitioned off by white fences. In those "conformation" events, judges evaluate how precisely a dog conforms to its breed's standards, which mutts do not have.

But the skill-based contests -- Agility, Rally and Obedience -- were officially opened to mixed breeds last month. This weekend, Mattaponi held its first event in which mixed breeds, euphemistically referred to at the show as "All Americans," have been allowed. Otis is one of two competing today, in an event that includes around 40 entries.

"Where have you been hiding this beautiful boy?" a volunteer coos to Krista Hill, Otis's owner, as he waits for his Rally trial. "Who iz the beyoootiful boy?"

"He says, 'I've been at home!' " Hill explains, as Otis sniffs after a slender whippet. The whippet looks the tiniest bit horrified, but then again, they always do.

A huge consideration

The question of whether to allow the mixed breeds in competitions has been a huge consideration, dating back seven or eight years, according to an AKC spokesman. One proposal involved mixed breeds competing in separate categories rather than directly against the purebreds. Mutt owners cried foul, and the division was reconsidered.

"AKC has always been best known as an advocate for purebred dogs," says the AKC's Gina DiNardo, in discussing the change. "But [we're] concerned about the welfare of all dogs. . . . We want you to become part of our fold."

The AKC is not the only dog registry in the United States, but it is among the largest and oldest and perhaps the best known. The AKC has another program, the Purebred Alternative Listing, for alleged purebreds who cannot prove their eligibility.

"This is a strong indication that the AKC is trying to be more inclusive in the dog world," says Ernie Slone, editor in chief of Dog Fancy magazine. Knepley of Mattaponi says that she has noticed some enrollment decrease in Obedience and that opening up the pool to mixed breeds could re-energize the category.

Still, there are those purebred devotees who are dubious about the whole integration. One mutt owner reports that her purebred-loving friends were concerned that mutts had special mixed-trait advantages. Greyhound + border collie = superdog!

On message boards where dog fanciers gossip, some worried that their own dogs' status might be diminished. "You wouldn't enter your old beater in with a completely restored '69 fastback Mustang," writes one commenter on " . . . All dogs are not equal and it shows."

Well, sort of. Though dogs have long been bred to complete specific tasks -- retrieving birds, guarding sheep -- it wasn't until the Victorian era, at least in the Western Hemisphere, that people began intentionally breeding dogs for appearance as much as skill. Even the ever-popular golden retriever was once a dog of questionable history.

"There were no golden retrievers before Lord Tweedmouth, the lord of something-or-other [he lived near Loch Ness], came up with a golden-colored retriever" in the late 19th century when he crossed two of his other dogs, says Lorna Coppinger, who, along with her husband, Raymond, authored "Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution."

The other registered mix in the AKC event here today is a black Lab mix named Diesel, whose family got him from a shelter. "They asked, who are his parents? And I said, 'I had no idea,' " says Diesel's owner, Brenda Reese.

No longer home alone

Otis and Hill have been together for 9 1/2 years, since Hill spotted the "Free to a Good Home" ad placed by the disappointed husky owner. When she got him, she fantasized that they would do Agility, an obstacle course event based on dexterity and speed. Agility is a sport that several non-AKC organizations already allowed mutts to compete in. "But it became very clear," says Hill, a dental program coordinator who lives with her husband, Jeff, in Salisbury, Md., "that Otis did not care for Agility."

He would halfheartedly scale a few obstacles and then, as if bemused by the effort, stop.

What the faithful and obedient Otis would have excelled at, Hill thought, was Rally, based on the traditional sit-and-stay commands. But the only nearby Rally competitions were AKC-affiliated, and Otis wasn't allowed to join.

So Hill acquired a couple of Swedish Vallhunds, purebred cattle-herding dogs known for nimbleness, and trained them instead. They had tremendous success -- in 2008, one was ranked in the national top 10. For years, Otis would stay home while Hill left with those sprightly Swedish Vallhunds and her German shepherd mix, who also loves Agility. "He would have this look like 'Oh, I'm alone again,' " Hill says.

Since the AKC rule change, Hill has entered every Rally event she can find. Otis has already competed in two as a Novice; he had to score at least 70 points at Mattaponi to move up to Advanced.

A mighty fine debut

Otis behaves impeccably out of the starting gate on Saturday -- jumping and trotting and right-turning on command. He weaves in and out of cones with aplomb; he dutifully circles around Hill and then dutifully sits while she circles around him. His fur rustles in the breeze. But then, just as he and Hill are about to complete a sit-stay pattern, a bouncing Newfoundland on the sidelines begins frolicking with another dog. Otis looks over, and in that second, ignores one of Hill's cues.

His final score is 92, well above the 70 needed for the Advanced level, and only one point shy of first place in the Novice category. This is very impressive for a dog whose favorite games include eating peanut butter and playing catch with himself.

(Diesel, who pulled too much at his owner's leash throughout the run, does not qualify, but immediately after begins chewing on a plush bone and does not seem overly devastated.)

At the awards ceremony Saturday, Otis is presented with a red ribbon, which he sniffs. Then Hill takes him back to the car, where he receives a steady stream of cheese cubes, lolls his head against Hill's thigh and looks, for all intents and purposes, like the happiest dog in the world.

In Sunday's trial, Otis competes at the Advanced level on a more difficult course, and places third. Good dog.

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