Nowhere in sport is there a ruling body with a firmer bite than the American Kennel Club, even though its bark is almost inaudible outside the fancy. Any dog, whether as an individual or as a breed, that doesn't make the grade with the AKC might just as well start practicing to be a cat, and any human being concerned with a dog had better please the AKC or go live in his doghouse. In the "sport of dogs" the American Kennel Club is Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Vatican, the FBI and Sing Sing prison all rolled into one. Each year the AKC approves 900 dog shows, including the flossy Westminster, which opens in New York's Madison Square Garden this week. It oversees 600 obedience trials, 750 field trials and the registration of some 600,000 purebred dogs annually. The AKC, moreover, is absolute arbiter over the behavior of a vast army of exhibitors, breeders, handlers, judges and show superintendents, any one of whom it can suspend for life for a violation of the rules.
The sport of dogs covers a wide gamut of human and canine society. It includes people of all classes and temperaments who, for various reasons, project their egos into all manner of dogs, be it from sheer admiration for fine animals or merely from psychotic wish fulfillment. To put it more simply: "Most of us," says one breeder, "are a little nuts." There is a strong partisan tendency among the human element to identify with the canine. "We're very artistic, creative, enthusiastic, and some of us are very gay, if you know what I mean," say the poodle people. On the other hand, the rougher-cut bulldog crowd, after years of showing their rolling-gaited beasts ("Yckkk!" say the poodle people), often start to waddle like bulldogs themselves. Even within the individual breeds there are divisive animosities. Recently, for instance, the Old English Sheepdog Club of America was rent by a vicious feud between some entrenched oldtimers and more successful newcomers to the breed. It resulted in the resignation of the club secretary, the attempted impeachment of another club officer and the withholding of trophies from a sheepdog named Ch. Fezziwig Ceiling Zero, a top champion known as Ceilie to his proud but embattled owners, Mr. and Mrs. Hendrik Van Rensselaer of the Fezziwig Kennels in Basking Ridge, N.J. At one point, the sheep-doggers indignantly expunged Mrs. Van Rensselaer's pen-and-ink drawing of a dog from their club letterhead. Later on they had a change of heart and elected Mr. Van Rensselaer their president.
"In the dog business," says another doughty dog lady, "it is the humans who can be vicious, not the dogs." She spoke in pained memory of the time when her two champion poodles kept defeating one another in shows. To ease the situation she gave one of the dogs to a male friend out on the West Coast. "I was accused of giving the dog away because I was having a romance with the gentleman," says the lady, "which was, of course, perfectly ridiculous."
That particular dog lover has since renounced poodles for racehorses, but not with complete contentment. "A horse that gets his nose over the wire first wins," she says. "It doesn't depend on anyone's opinion. But I just can't get personally involved with horses. Somebody else trains them, and you just see them race for two minutes. With dogs you have to be personally involved. They are part of you. They are part of your whole personality, and when they step into the ring it's you out there being judged, too. I didn't know until I got away what a crazy game it was."
The organization that attempts to bring some sanity to this crazy game is not a club in the ordinary sense. There are no individual members. Like the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, a group it somewhat resembles, the American Kennel Club is a club of clubs, a nonprofit association of about 370 separate dog clubs, including some specialty clubs devoted to a particular breed (like the Sheepdog Club), some devoted to giving shows (like Westminster), some obedience clubs, some field trial clubs. Each of these clubs sends a delegate (no women, please) to the AKC, and once every three months all these delegates meet with the 12 officers of the big club to settle the problems of dogdom. At a typical meeting last December the delegates elected one new member club, the American Bullmastiff Association, voted to change the wording of a few technical rules and authorized the running of basset-hound field trials under beagle procedures. President William E. Buckley reported that the club overall was in a very healthy condition, wished the delegates a happy and peaceful holiday season and then invited a motion to adjourn, which was made, seconded and adopted.
As president of the AKC, New York Lawyer Buckley serves dogdom without salary and in a somewhat lofty vein. The man responsible for the day-to-day working of this complex organization is Executive Vice-President Alfred M. Dick, a plump and outwardly placid ringmaster who was appointed to his job last June on the retirement of the autocratic John C. Neff. Since AKC officers are expected to retire at 65 and Dick is already 63, his term of office may not be long.
A onetime bond salesman in Philadelphia, Dick became involved with dogs when he started breeding and showing dachshunds in the early 1930s. "From the standpoint of finishing champions, I didn't do very well," Dick says. "But that didn't interfere with my enjoyment. There's a terrific enthusiasm and drive that the sport generates." During the war, Dick served as a volunteer for Dogs for Defense, and in 1947 he joined the AKC as a field representative.
Dick's present headquarters occupy two and a half floors of a downtown Manhattan office building. The office walls are lined with oil portraits of running deerhounds and reclining Pekingese, and much of the space is taken up with swollen storage cabinets and card catalogs jammed with files and records that date back to the club's beginnings.
The finest tribute to the completeness of these records and the thoroughness with which they are kept up was paid to the AKC back in 1933 by Detective Philo Vance, the suave sleuth of S. S. Van Dine's The Kennel Murder Case. Van Dine in real life was a Scottie fancier named Willard Huntington Wright, and his canine whodunit was dedicated to the Scottish Terrier Club of America. Van Dine's sleuth, whose capacity for expertise in almost any subject was equaled only by Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, turned out, naturally enough, to be a considerable Scottie expert himself. "His kennels were in New Jersey," wrote Van Dine, "an hour's ride from New York, and he spent much of his time there studying pedigrees and breeding for certain characteristics which he believed essential to the ideal terrier." The principal clue in the mystery was an out-of-place upper incisor in the mouth of a 6-month-old Scottie bitch, ownership unknown, and, to track her down, Philo hastened to the AKC. He was so overwhelmed at the wealth of evidence in its swelling files that he could not believe his luck. Mr. Perry B. Rice, the "genial and accommodating secretary," reassured him. "Dog people," said Perry, "don't realize the enormous amount of detail which goes on in the AKC in order to keep the hundreds of thousands of records correct and to insure everyone in the dog game an almost absolute protection."
"It's amazin'," mused Vance on his way to the D.A.'s office with the vital information. "An entire institution based on the ideal of accuracy. It has no commodity to sell. It's purely managerial in essence. It sells only accuracy and protection to the many thousands of sportsmen and dog lovers throughout the country. A unique and astonishin' institution."