The Dog Glamour Ads That Win Westminster
Among the many things you probably didn’t know about top show dogs—the ones that contend in competitions like Westminster, which begins Feb. 13—is that they are heavily advertised. Just as movie studios and nominated celebrities place "For Your Consideration" ads during Oscar season to sway Academy voters, show-dog owners buy ads glorifying their dogs to influence contest judges. These show-dog vanity ads appear in a range of magazines (and increasingly websites) created to serve mostly as vehicles for them.
Tom Grabe is a former professional dog handler who publishes one such magazine, The Canine Chronicle, as well as its sister, The Equine Chronicle, with his wife, Amy, out of a modest office in Ocala, Fla. The Equine Chronicle is the largest show-horse magazine in the country, and The Canine Chronicle, Grabe thinks, has the same status among dog-show magazines, although, because none have audited circulations, it’s impossible to say for sure.
Today, The Canine Chronicle has three primary competitors: ShowSight, Dogs in Review, and its main rival, the oversized weekly Dog News, and none publishes its circulation, or really even cares to sell subscriptions or drive newsstand sales. They don’t need to; the target audience is easy to reach. The Chronicle prints 15,000 copies a month, most of which are distributed for free at shows, but the most important are the copies mailed directly to the more than 3,000 American Kennel Club–approved judges. As soon as a new judge is accredited, his or her name is added to the circulation rolls.
The Chronicle was founded in 1975 by Rick Rutledge, and not long after its launch the American Kennel Club’s board of directors called Rutledge to New York City to tell him that they didn’t like his magazine. “They felt that it served only to attempt to influence AKC judges,” the dog-show author/consultant/judge Pat Hastings told me. “To which Rick said, ‘Gentlemen, if your judges just judged dogs, I’d be out of business tomorrow.’” The implication: if buying ads didn’t really help sway judges, Rutledge would have no customers. The AKC promptly shut up.
Tom Grabe says that “most of the top dogs” advertise with the Chronicle, but not necessarily all of them. “Everyone has preferences,” he says. As of this writing, seven of the top 10 were clients, and the fact that some owners don’t choose to spend with him hardly matters to Grabe. He has no trouble selling ads, which cost from $450 for a single color page to $4,500 for the front cover. In fact, the so-called premium placements—anything in the first 125 pages—are practically fought over, and the best of those (the inside front cover and its facing page, especially) are essentially impossible to purchase if you are not a longtime client. Premium spots are typically booked at least a year in advance, and if you’re a new client, good luck buying a spot in the first 50 pages (the super-premiums). Those belong to a core group of advertisers who’ve been with the Grabes for years, and who are rotated around in that area to be fair to all.
When you consider that some owners campaign more than one dog a year, it’s not hard to see how a dog-show enthusiast can run up quite a tab. The maximum for a single dog in one year—factoring the inside front and facing cover every month, plus one cover—would be a bit under $40,000. The Chronicle’s average advertiser spends about $30,000 a year, but some clients have as many as five dogs advertised at a time. For last year’s Westminster issue—the largest at nearly 500 pages—there were two owners with seven different dogs. “You start adding that up, and you can easily spend a couple hundred thousand,” Grabe says.
The Chronicle’s fee includes design, and about 80 percent of clients take that service, but there are always outliers. Grabe’s gut reaction is to advise people against designing their own ads unless they’ve proved to be good at it, and he discourages high-concept ideas—dogs in top hats, say. That said, he recalls the case of a woman who ran a series of “very odd ads” of “dogs dressed up.” The woman was widely ridiculed, Grabe told me. “But I told people who said [the ads] were dumb that everybody was talking about them. So who’s the dummy?”
Considering that Grabe, and Matt Stander, his counterpart at Dog News, are basically taking orders—and have been for years—the practice must be effective; otherwise, there would be no magazines. “I tell people this all the time. When you’re showing dogs you cannot advertise a bad dog and make it win,” Grabe says. “You can’t. But you can take a good dog and, by advertising a lot, make it a much bigger winner than it would have been otherwise.”
Billy Wheeler, the man behind Dog Show Poop, the most influential blog in the game, agrees. “I can’t think of any top-10 dog in the last 10 years that didn’t do some advertising,” he says. Wheeler often compares dog shows to figure skating, in that “it’s hard to win big until you’ve been noticed. You have to get your face out there. And one of the ways to do that is through the advertising.” Wheeler says it’s common for judges to announce that the magazines go straight into the trash upon arrival in the mailbox, but says he knows it’s not true; judges like to see their pictures in magazines too. One recent episode, he says, is revealing. “A dog that had done a lot of winning got a Group 2”—meaning it was picked second in its group, and thus just missed the Best in Show ring—“and the judge grabbed the handler coming out and said, ‘Next time you’ll use my photo when you’re in Dog News.’”
Despite having the most powerful blog in the dog-show world, Wheeler has resisted taking ads himself for his blog; he takes his objectivity very seriously, and is popular and entertaining in part, I think, because he will chastise any dog, handler, or owner, should they raise his hackles. Still, he appreciates the power of dog vanity ads.
“I think advertising is overrated in the sense of you can’t advertise your dog to the top,” Wheeler said. “On the other hand, it may be true that you can’t get to the top without advertising.”