Lumiere Standard Poodles
Dog Show Culture: Standard Poodles
In 2004, my middle daughter Nicole, while attending university, informed me she had to write a paper for her Anthropology course and had decided to write about dog showing.  I was very confused, not having a clue what the dog show world would have to do with Anthropology, but once reading her paper it did indeed make a lot of sense, and I was very impressed.  I am extremely proud to report her teacher was equally impressed and graded her an A+!!

The topic of this analysis is the standard poodle dog show pastime in Canada.  This subculture includes specialized language, specific roles of teacher and apprentice, and a large network of ‘poodle people’.  I am analyzing the aspects of the poodle dog show subculture with respect to the interactions between judges and handlers, the benefits of owning and showing poodles, and the hardships involved in achieving champion rank for a standard poodle of colour.  I am focusing on the standard poodle breed because this is the only area for which I have been exposed to.  Without further study in the other one hundred plus breeds, I cannot draw any conclusions about the dog show subculture as a whole.

The reason I am studying this topic is to gain a further understanding of the poodle showing subculture of which Natalie (my mother) is a part.  My family had no dogs, largely due to my father’s hesitancy, until he reluctantly purchased a poodle for my mother’s birthday.  Since then, my father has turned into a baby talking sap, and we have turned my aunt into a dog show fiend. It seems that once people are introduced to the dog show subculture they immerse themselves in it.  Within the space of five years, Natalie has established her own kennel, Lumiere Standards, achieved championship rank for one red bitch (female dog), whelped thirty-two puppies from this bitch, and placed three of those puppies in show homes.  At this time 3 puppies have achieved their championship with another half-way to it’s championship.    When Natalie first entered into dog shows, she often said that there was a whole different culture with “those people”, a statement that would spark my interest to find out more.

My information mainly came from Natalie, but I also obtained much from other participants and spectators, and by observing interactions between people.  All of the people who I interviewed knew that I would be writing about the dog show subculture.  I participated as a spectator at many shows, and at one dog show interviewed some people involved.  Since I live with Natalie I was able to observe her interactions with other ‘poodle people’ and witness the preparation that goes into showing first hand.  Living with four poodles means that I do have to bathe the dogs once in a while, so in a way, I also participated in preparation before the shows.

Given my strong relationship with Natalie and other red poodle owners, I hold a bias towards this colour of poodle.  With respect to the judging of the breed, I hold a bias towards certain dogs over other dogs even though I have limited knowledge of what constitutes a good or bad dog.  Given my history of watching the judging of my own dogs, I hold a bias against some judges. 

Once I knew that I would be researching this topic, I started paying more attention to Natalie’s daily life.  Natalie has three daughters, a husband, one apricot, two red, and one black  poodle.  She also holds down a full time job as an accountant at a catering facility.  Virtually all of her free time, and some holiday time, is taken up by some aspect of the dog show subculture.  Natalie must respond daily to at least twenty emails regarding the sale of puppies, correspondence between ‘poodle people’, and the ordering of poodle supplies.  The dogs are fed twice daily, each getting their own special mixture of dry and wet dog food.  She must brush out the long coats of her dogs every two days, a chore that takes on average an hour and a half each, and grind down their toenails weekly.  Every two weeks, each dog must be ‘clipped’ (selectively shaven), bathed, blow dried, and ‘scissored’ (given a hair cut).  This process takes usually five hours for each dog and done with great precision as if the dog were being shown that afternoon.  The quality of the poodle’s coat must be maintained until the dog becomes a champion at which time the dog’s hair is shaved off much to the dog’s liking.  It took Natalie two and a half years to get her first bitch to become a champion, and a year and a half for her first male. 

In dog shows, there are professional people called handlers who show other people’s dogs.  This may entail the handler keeping the dog for long or short periods of time and taking the dog on tour.  The handler takes care of most maintenance of the dog, and shows the dog at exhibitions.  Chances of a dog winning at shows increase with the use of a handler.  This is because judges usually judge the same breed at different shows and grow to know the most common handlers.  If a judge sees that a prominent handler is in the ring with a dog they may form a bias towards that dog assuming that the dog must be good since the handler has agreed to show it.  This has become one of the main excuses for a dog losing in the ring, a claim that may or may not be true.  Hiring a handler is expensive, and gets more expensive with the notoriety of the handler.  Because the win rate is higher with handlers, many owners will go to great lengths to hire the best, some even re-mortgage their homes to pay for a good one.  Since the cost is too high for some owners, some good dogs go unnoticed, but if the dog is recognized by others as exceptional, they may sponsor them.  That said, not having a handler does not necessarily mean that it is impossible to win, as was proven by Natalie and two dogs.

Natalie started out showing her first bitch on her own and learned how to handle and groom her dog from other people who she met at exhibitions.  She developed a strong relationship with Gail, the woman who became her mentor.  Their relationship depended upon trust of each other since on many occasions their poodles were competing against one another.  Natalie attributes her success to Gail for giving her the strength to carry on in what seemed like a feat she would never achieve, and setting the foundation of her breeding principles.  Educating others is not just good sportsmanship, it is in the Canadian Kennel Club code of ethics.  ‘All members of The Canadian Kennel Club will undertake the task of educating and encouraging all newcomers to the world of purebred dogs no matter their interest: pet owner, exhibitor, [trainer] or breeder.’  Once she became friends with Gail and other ‘poodle people’, Natalie entered a world of generalized reciprocity and social networking between people all over North America.  She also discovered that showing a red standard poodle would be quite the undertaking.

Within the poodle world, colours other than black and white are known to be hard to ‘finish’ (acquire championship status).  Reds are especially difficult to finish due to their history of having poor qualities.  Correspondence with the woman who first began to breed with the intent to produce red standard poodles revealed that the first ‘reds’ were “hyper…small, unproportioned [and had] big heads and short legs”.  In the twenty two years since this ladys’ first endeavor, red standard poodles have come to reach championship rank, yet some people still see them as inferior to black and whites.  To combat this opinion, the Canadian Kennel Club invited Natalie to show her bitch to a panel of judges to demonstrate that reds are worthy of consideration in the ring. Despite the existence of red champions, coloured poodles remain stigmatized. One such example of this view is when Natalie was hung-up on after the woman that she was talking to discovered that Natalie’s bitch was red.  She also noticed that one judge at an exhibition did not even consider her bitch in the ring because of her colour.  This aspect of the poodle showing subculture reflects the racist aspect of our own culture, proving that colour still has an influence on those who measure our worth.

While watching Natalie participate in the dog show subculture, I saw that this was not an easy or fun pastime.  Showing red standard poodles involves emotional and physical dedication often leaving the participant frustrated and confused.  Breeding and selling poodle puppies, even if from champion parents is not profitable, as feeding and caring for the dogs is quite costly.  I struggled to understand why people do this.  Upon further consideration of the subculture I saw many benefits, one of which was that those who are involved become part of a community.  Members, who, previous to joining the subculture may not have belonged anywhere, feel welcome in an environment where generalized reciprocity, social capital, and group support help them succeed.  Also, participating in dog shows allows for somewhat friendly competition and the ability to set realistic goals.  The achievement of such a goal as winning a dog show brings feelings of superiority to the handler and the motivation to continue showing.  Another benefit is that the prospect of becoming well known in the dog show subculture may fulfill a person’s dream to be famous or immortal, their name forever in poodle history books and magazines.  But of the people I talked to, none of them mentioned these benefits.  The reasons they gave were that they enjoyed being acknowledged for their hard work in improving the pedigree of standard poodles.  Natalie took on the challenge of showing a red standard poodle because “it’s what no one else had done before.”  She succeeded and now has the first, female, red standard poodle champion in Canada, and the first red standard to become a top producer in their country, top producer meaning producing a certain number of championed get.  Indeed she and her bitch have obtained both fame and immortality, appearing on the inside cover of the magazine Poodle Review, and producing four litters of puppies.

My objective in researching the standard poodle subculture was to further my understanding of the poodle ‘world’; I feel that I have.  Previous to writing this paper, I did not understand why people would work so hard to earn so little, but now I see that it is not the monetary reward that people are after, but the emotional one.

Lumiere Standard Poodles