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The American Kennel Club is a "unique and astonishin' institution," in the words of one admirer. It supervises the bloodlines of the nation's dogs and the behavior of their owners and handlers with an autocratic dedication to purity

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."

Historically, the American Kennel Club is a cultural byproduct of the explosive post-Civil War era that gave rise to the founding of the American Pediatrics Society, the invention of the zipper and the start of the Harvard-Yale football game. On September 17, 1884, Major James M. Taylor of Lexington, Ky. and Elliot Smith of New York met with representatives of a dozen independent dog clubs in Philadelphia to found the AKC. Dogdom was in danger of degeneracy. There were few standards and no single authoritative stud book to which the fancy could repair in genealogical confidence. Each independent club set its own rules, and the rules differed. As befitted an organization dedicated to bloodlines, the AKC had a social tone from the very first. One of its early presidents was August Belmont Jr., son of the great turfman who gave his name to New York's Belmont Park racetrack. Belmont was a gentleman of imposing mustaches who usually adjourned the AKC board meetings "to Delmonico's for lunch." He bankrolled the club out of his own pocket, and his rule was endowed with the divine right of kings. At one time some well-meaning but misguided dogmen nominated a proper Bostonian named Hollis Hunnewell to run against Belmont, but Hunnewell withdrew his name in horror. "I do not believe," he said, "that I or any-body who has the slightest interest in the American Kennel Club would ever allow his name to be placed in opposition to Mr. Belmont for the office of president."

Somehow the club survived Hunnewell's accidental nomination, as it did another cataclysm—the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. "It is interesting to note that while San Francisco was in ruins, the dog game was not forgotten," the club historian, Newton Day, wrote. "I remember Mr. Vredenburgh sent a letter to Mr. Norman asking if the American Kennel Club could do anything for the dog people on the Coast. Fortunately, the dog people were not seriously hurt, and soon things resumed the normal tenor of their ways insofar as the West was concerned."

The start of World War I found the club better prepared. "Although we had not yet entered the War, the Club was against Germany," Day noted, "and it showed its feeling by asking the German Shepherd Dog Club to change both its own name and the name of the breed that it was fostering. This was done by dropping the word 'German.'" The Dachshund Club also changed its name. It rechristened itself the Badger Dog Club of America.

Today, as in 1917, the principal concern and activity of the AKC lies in keeping dogdom's line of inheritance pure and unsullied. Since the purebred dog population is exploding at a fantastic rate, the chore of keeping up with it is fearsome. The bulk of the club's 327 regular employees, most of whom are women, work hard at this task, but they are simply not up to the job. Now a night shift of college students has been added to help cope. Each day, the club receives about 5,000 applications for registration, each enclosing $2. Every application must go through 27 separate hand processes. "If we get on to electronic data processing, it's going to be wonderful," says John A. Brownell, Vice-President Dick's busy assistant. But the chances of automation in the AKC seem slight, since the organization refused to put in a telephone until 1902. "That was possibly a bit old-fashioned," says one apologist, "but we felt that if anyone had business with the AKC he could write or come to our offices."

For the present, all incoming applications are divided into five piles, one for the terrier and sporting groups, one for the toy and nonsporting groups, a third for hounds and a fourth for the working group. The fifth pile is for poodles alone. For the last three years, one-fourth of all the dogs registered by the AKC have been poodles. No other dog has ever been in such demand. Last year the club registered 178,401 poodles as compared to only 63,163 German shepherds, the second most popular breed. The next eight most popular breeds, in order of registrations, are beagle, which used to be No. 1, dachshund, Chihuahua, Pekingese, collie, cocker spaniel, Pomeranian and basset hound. All told, the AKC recognizes 115 registerable breeds. For the last three years there have been no registrations at all for field spaniels, Sussex spaniels and English foxhounds. In 1959 the club dropped two breeds, the Eskimo and the Mexican hairless, from the stud book. "We hadn't registered any Mexican hairless for 25 years," Dick says, "so we know that there just couldn't be any registerable stock around." Currently the club has 13 other breeds that belong to what is known as the Miscellaneous Class. These maverick breeds, which include the border collie, the cavalier King Charles spaniel, the Chinese crested dog, the Shih Tzu and the Spinoni Italiani, are on a waiting list for admission to the stud book once it has been shown that they can breed true to type and are in the hands of a sufficient number of people around the country to warrant interest.

Every once in a while the club receives an application to register a pekeapool, an unsanctioned cross between a Pekingese and a poodle. Such applications are politely but firmly rejected, as are applications for the toy fox terrier and something known as the Catahoula leopard stock dog.

If the AKC keeps a sharp eye on its dogs, however, it keeps an even sharper one on the men and women who handle, show and breed them. As the AKC sees it, showing or breeding a pedigreed dog is not a right but a privilege to be earned with respect and good behavior. Anyone offending against either may lose the privilege for a period ranging from 30 days to life. There are, understandably, some who resent this, but it is the club's one certain way of keeping the good name of dogdom unbesmirched. "You can hate them, you can loathe them," says one breeder of the AKC, "but they have the stud book and you have nothing." Much of the fear of the club is doubtless caused by its deliberately Olympian attitude. "A lot of people are scared of the club," says Brownell, "but we have to stay aloof. We have to be completely impartial."

Rule violations fall into two categories: those involving offensive behavior, such as cursing out a judge at a show, and those involving integrity, such as substituting one dog for another. Downright dishonesty in the dog world often defeats itself. "The person who is deliberately crooked can rarely avoid talking about it," Brownell says, "and it soon reaches the ears of someone who is interested, and we have thousands of people who are interested." Not long ago the club gave an indefinite suspension to a handler for doctoring a monorchid dog so as to give him two testicles by inserting a plastic human eye into the dog's scrotum.

The length of any suspension depends, of course, on the violation. Say an exhibitor swears at a judge. After a charge is made, a group known as the bench committee at the show involved immediately calls a hearing at which testimony is taken. The miscreant is suspended then and there, but no time limit is set. The duration of the penalty that is later imposed may hinge upon whether or not the exhibitor denounced the judge off in a corner somewhere, with only a few onlookers, or in the middle of the ring before a crowd of spectators. In the latter case harm has been considered done to the sport, and no apology, no matter how fervent, can suffice to erase it. The Bench Show Committee sends a copy of the testimony to the AKC along with a note on the exhibitor's behavior at the hearing. Was he contrite? Did he apologize? Did he continue the abuse? The AKC gives the offender 30 days in which to appeal his sentence. If he does not appeal, the club will publish notice of the suspension. If the offender decides to appeal, he may then appear before one of seven trial boards set up across the country.

Many serious offenses involve falsification of registration papers. Ordinarily the investigations are conducted by one of the AKC field representatives or by Warren French, a former Connecticut state trooper who is in charge of registration review. "We get all kinds," Brownell says. "There was one dear old baby, a woman of about 75, really a tragic case. Her kennel was nothing more than a rabbit warren. She had fox terriers and beagles, and some were obviously crossbred. Of course, you couldn't always tell until a dog was 4 or 5 months old, and she had sold them as purebred dogs with AKC registration. There were holes in the wire of the kennel, and the dogs were simply running back and forth. She didn't know one from the other. It was just old age. She was a perfectly nice old person, but she just couldn't keep up with them. She was suspended indefinitely.

"Then there was another breeder who had an absolutely tremendous business. She could have been great if she hadn't been crooked. She supplied several hundred pet shops and, to make sure that she had a steady supply of puppies, she got the wives of farmers to breed dogs for her. The farmers' wives did their work so well that the supply was always far greater than the demand. The dog woman used this as an excuse to pay $10 or $15 less for each pup than she had promised, then she would dump all the litters into the same pen so nobody could tell which pup was which. The papers she had for any one pup might be right, but you could never know if it was the right pup. Our problem was to prove that the registration papers issued with her dogs were not the correct ones. We finally did this with half a dozen dogs. Then, toward the end of the investigation, she started leaving her name out of the chain-of-ownership papers and got others to falsify them. She was finally suspended indefinitely, but we still get descendants of those dogs to be registered, and we have a form letter on hand saying why the dog can't be registered."

One culprit, known around the AKC as Mr. X, is such a smooth operator that Brownell speaks of him in the fond tones that Sherlock Holmes reserved for Professor Moriarty. "Why he doesn't do it with insurance or real estate instead of dogs, I just don't know," Brownell exclaims. "He could make millions! We first got on to him a number of years ago when he got into some registration irregularities. There were all sorts of complaints. A great many of our problems here arise with breeders who are careless but well-meaning. But with Mr. X that doesn't apply. He's simply gypping the public. He knows very precisely what he's doing. He'll sell you a dog and have you sign a contract saying that all puppies born to the dog belong to him, which is against all the rules. Or he'll sell you a dog and lead you to believe the dog can be registered, which it can't be because Mr. X is not a recognized breeder. But he does write the most charming letters."

"One of the things that always bothers me is the gullibility of the public in buying a dog," says Alfred Dick. "Most of the specialty clubs in the AKC are geared to help the public in the buying of a registerable dog. They know who's breeding what, who's got puppies and where the public can get its money's worth."

As Philo Vance said, "It's an amazin' institution."