Dog shows rarely award prize money—here's why contestants still spend up to $250,000 a year to compete

A look inside the life of a show-dog owner — and why they spends thousands for little monetary reward

Flynn, a Bichon Frise, was crowned Best In Show, the most prestigious title awarded at the 142nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City on February 13. Flynn beat out six fellow group champions and more than 2,800 other canines for the title. To celebrate, he took home the Westminster Legend Trophy and a polished pewter gallery bowl, among other rewards.

Notably missing from the prize package: monetary compensation.

Winning the show isn't really lucrative. In fact, few dog shows offer monetary prizes. But many competitors still believe the events are worth it and that there's nothing that can beat the feeling of a win.

In dog showing, a successful night is "absolutely unforgettable and you have tears in your eyes," Glen VanDerHart, an owner who competed at Westminster with his Puli, Blu, tells CNBC Make It.

Best in Show winner Flynn, a Bichon Frise, poses for photos at the conclusion of the 142nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at The Piers on February 13, 2018 in New York City.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

While some best-in-show recipients can earn huge awards, such as the $50,000 offered by the AKC National Championship, dog-show competitors generally aren't focused on getting rich. But even competing is expensive.

"Depending on the number of shows you go to, it can go into the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands," VanDerHart says. Personally, he estimates that he spends a couple thousand dollars per year showing his dogs.

Sharon Fremer, the owner of a five-year-old Cardigan Welsh Corgi, Houston, says the same. She estimates that she invests around $7,000 per year on traveling, grooming and showing Houston.

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Costs can vary dramatically depending on how much owners are able, and willing, to spend. Leading up to a big competition like Westminster, top competitors typically "campaign" for a year to garner interest in their dog.

This can add up to more than $250,000 when you combine the costs of travel, entry fees and a professional handler, since handlers are common and range in price from $100 to $300 or more per show, depending on their experience level.

When Jeanine Dell'Orfano travels with her Bergamasco Sheepdog, Faggia, she works with professional handler Amanda Shea of Sheaman Kennels. Shea's fees vary, according to her website: For all-breed shows, she charges around $100 but, for Westminster and other elite national competitions, that price rises to $300 to $500.

Faggia, a Bergamasco Shepherd, is groomed at the 142nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018.
Bloomberg | Getty Images

Maintenance costs vary by breed as well. While Fremer describes her Corgi as "wash-and-wear" compared to other breeds, it takes VanDerHart a long time to clean and dry his Puli's cords. He grooms his dogs himself and says the most expensive part of taking care of the breed's dreadlock-like coat is conditioner, which runs around $25 per bottle. VanDerHart uses two bottles per dog per wash, as well as an arsenal of other products.

"If you're using high-quality products, you pay high-quality money," he says.

One of the largest costs associated with showing isn't specific to the dog at all: It's the price of traveling to out-of-town shows. Between transportation and hotel fees, travel expenses can add up quickly, especially for owners who frequently take to the road.

I have a connection with all my animals. For me, it's teamwork. It's getting to bond with him. It's succeeding at something.
Sharon Fremer
owner of Houston, a Corgi

Yet despite this deluge of expenses, many owners remain committed to showing, even without a clear path to recouping their investment. Why do they choose to go through the laborious steps of prepping, training and traveling with pets?

First and foremost, it's about passion. "I have loved dogs for as long as I can remember," Fremer says. "I used to steal people's cats and dogs and bring them home and hide them in my mother's laundry room as a child. I have a connection with all my animals. For me, it's teamwork. It's getting to bond with him. It's succeeding at something."

VanDerHart cherishes the quality time spent with Blu. He compares the experience of showing dogs to that of parents watching their kids succeed academically. "There's no prize money for the child doing well at school, but you take pride in the child doing well," he says.

A participant seen grooming her pet dog before the competitions starts. The 142nd Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show hosted in New York.
SOPA Images | Getty Images

The same feeling exists for VanDerHart when Blu succeeds: "You have that thrill and that excitement, that love that exists there."

Dog shows also offer a more practical purpose for dog enthusiasts: breed awareness. Dell'Orfano's Bergamascos have only been recognized by the American Kennel Club for three years. She helped advocate for the breed to become AKC-recognized and she shows her dogs as a way to continue to generate excitement about them.

"Because they're new to AKC, we really want to promote the breed and make the public aware that they exist, and also to uphold their breed standard," she tells CNBC Make It. "We show them so that judges become more familiar with the breed and get to know the breed, and get to know the standard so that they can compete on an even playing field with other breeds."

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In the past, the AKC has garnered criticism for not enforcing stricter rules on breeders and failing to punish puppy mills that breed dogs without properly taking care of them.

But, others argue, when breeders handle litters responsibly, providing high standards of care and finding good homes for their puppies, they help with the long-term preservation of historical breeds.

For Dell'Orfano, who dedicates hours per day to her six Bergamascos, all the work is "a labor of love ... something you want to invest in for the sake of your breed."

Indeed, many owners and handlers say they are doing what they love. "The dog show community is tight," Dell'Orfano says. "We literally just have fun."

At the end of the day, showing simply comes down to pure enthusiasm for dogs for many owners. Taking home a trophy — or a polished pewter bowl — isn't bad, either, but "it's never about the prize," VanDerHart says. "It's about the thrill of the win. It's about your dog going out there and doing well and succeeding."

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A look inside the life of a show-dog owner — and why they spends thousands for little monetary reward