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From The CC Vault: What is the Purpose and Use of Conformation Shows?

by Dr. Gerry G. Meisels

photo ©Lisa Croft-Elliott

Improving breeding stock was the innate reason for the creation of canine conformation shows as well as shows of numerous other domesticated animals. Improving anything must have a goal, and for breeders that goal is clearly to come as close as possible to the “ideal” dog as described in the standard, a dog that is outstandingly prepared for the job for which this breed was created, be that to flush or retrieve birds, pull carts, guard an estate, go to ground after vermin, run beside a horse-drawn carriage, or sit in the sleeve of a Chinese Emperor. The breed standards are the specifications that tell us what specific characteristics will make a dog most successful in its job. Identifying the dogs whose conformation comes closest to the standard should provide valuable input into the decisions of a carefully designed breeding program. It is a classical, romantic image that 150 years ago or so dogs did their work during the week and went to a conformation dog show on the weekend. This model befitted a society in which half the labor force was employed in primary agriculture, and a third in domestic service to the remaining 17% of the elite. It was a time when many breeds were developed in large kennels owned by the privileged few.

Now let us fast-forward to the present. Few of these large kennels remain, and the large majority of dogs in competition come from “small-time” breeders that have just a few dogs. They often live in communities that have ordinances limiting the number of dogs allowed in each home, and so many current breeders hide that they have more than the allowed number of dogs, but there is still a limit of what can be done. The change is representative of what happened from the inception of dog shows to their apex in the mid- to late 1990s when the sport moved from being elitist to being populist. You may wonder why I said mid-’90s rather than today, because I see the sport as changing again very slowly. I do not know where it will “land”, but it seems to me that it may head back to a more elitist or a dual-purpose approach. At least in part, that change is a result of conformation shows now being used for purposes other than the reason for which they were created.

The work for which most breeds were developed has now faded into the background, and the overwhelming majority of purebred dogs in most breeds are now kept as companions. Dogs in the conformation ring do not leave the ring Sunday to work the fields on Monday. Breeding to meet a standard that optimizes traits for a job that no longer exists is increasingly reserved for the connoisseurs among breeders and owners. Many dog owners are now primarily interested in how well their dog can compete in performance events. The driving force of their breeding programs is to produce dogs that do better in such competition, a competition that is not related to the purpose for which the breed was developed. The importance of the standard and conformation shows wanes since a dog is registered as his breed on the basis of his pedigree.

Today’s conformation shows fulfill roles beyond their purpose, and I do not intend to list them all. There is of course the inherent satisfaction of having bred or shown your winning dog. For others, it may be like gambling except that there is no monetary reward. I do not know how to classify owners who turn over control of their entire program to a professional handler, including breeding, whelping, raising puppies and showing their dogs. Obviously this is reserved for those who are quite wealthy, and it approaches the bygone era when the laird turned the dogs over to his resident kennel manager in an outbuilding of his estate. Some breeders use show records as a basis of their choice of what or to whom to breed. Such a use mistakenly substitutes success in the ring with suitability for a breeding program, which should be based on a careful analysis of both strengths and weaknesses of bitch and stud (as compared to the standard), considering phenotype and genotype as far as it can be determined. Another use of conformation shows is that of the committed fancier for whom fellow exhibitors, vendors, etc. become an extended family and a social outlet.

The most commonly acknowledged use of conformation shows is to provide “bragging rights” for the owner, breeder, and handler. For a novice exhibitor, that might be a blue ribbon. For the more experienced exhibitor, it might be the Winners or Best of Breed ribbon. For others, it is the ranking compared to others in their breed, or even all breeds by the rating system that counts the number of dogs defeated in the breed and in all breeds. For the breeder, it can be the success of dogs they have bred, and the Award of Merit given in some breeds for a bitch or dog that has whelped or sired a certain number of champion get. The venue of the brag is not the same for everyone: it may be at the shows, in all-breed kennel clubs, or at annual parent club meetings. It is not all that common outside dog show circles. My co-workers and non-doggie friends don’t have any idea what the difference between a blue ribbon and a Best in Show rosette is, and it becomes awkward to explain it to someone who basically doesn’t really care. Personal wealth plays a big role as well. To get near the top of the ratings, a dog must be in prime condition and be shown every weekend. It is very unusual for a highly-ranked dog not to be a very good dog of its breed. When you have the ambition to campaign your dog at the highest levels of the sport, because you truly believe your dog is exceptionally good, you must be pretty well-heeled in order to pay your handler and the bills for the essential advertising. The competition for top dog is clearly a return to a sport for the elite. The increasingly popular Owner-Handler (NOHS) series provides an outlet for those who take pride in doing it themselves, and for the less well-heeled, but still requires frequent exhibition in shows where there is enough competition. In either case, dogs are not shown to be evaluated, but rather to win. As one handler keeps saying: ”winning is not everything, it is the only thing.” Professional handlers must win or they will lose their clients and eventually their livelihood.

These different uses of conformation shows have led to our events becoming less useful to the majority of breeders and prospective breeders for the evaluation of breeding stock. This void is being addressed by several breed parent clubs that have instituted non-competitive evaluation programs. Typically, these programs create panels of breed experts who are not necessarily AKC judges. These panels evaluate individual dogs with respect to the standard, and provide feedback and explanations of their opinion to the dog owner. The value of a non-competitive approach is that the opinions are from breed experts thoroughly familiar with the breed’s standard, and that several good dogs in the same location can all receive passing grades and feedback, while in the conformation shows one good dog can delay finishing the championship of another good, deserving dog. A drawback is that it is difficult to scale up such an approach and to bring it to all parts of the country.

Our conformation show situation today is very fluid. It is difficult to foresee just where it is going. It seems reasonably safe to speculate that conformation shows will continue their differentiation as they have already begun to do with the addition of the owner-handler series, and alternate measures of conforming to the breed standard such as non-competitive evaluation may fill a much-needed gap.

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Posted by on Jan 24 2023. Filed under Current Articles, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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