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What is a Conformation Dog Show?

By Linda Cole

If you want to see a good representation of purebred dogs looking their best, a dog show is the best place to go. A conformation dog show is considered to be a beauty contest, but there's a lot more to it than that. The dogs are well trained, and each one is an ambassador representing their breed.

The recent showing of the National Dog Show on Thanksgiving and Westminster Dog Show are good examples of conformation shows. These are benched shows, which means people attending are allowed to mingle with the dogs backstage and talk to dog experts who can answer their questions. Both shows are nationally televised, but conformation dog shows take place across the country all year.

Most conformation dog shows in the United States are sponsored by the American Kennel Club. Any show outside the U.S. may be run according to the standard set forth in the country where the show is held, or it can be run according to the standard provided by the FCI (Federation Cynologique Internationale, an international federation of kennel clubs established in 1911.) The FCI sanctions the World Dog Show which is shown every year in a different host country.

What we see when watching a conformation dog show are well groomed dogs on their best behavior, but what a judge sees are dogs exemplifying the best in each of their breed standard. The dog shows we watch on TV feature top dogs who have earned the right to represent their breed by winning competitions throughout the year. Each dog is a champion who has met AKC requirements confirming them as a dog who is one of the best examples of their breed.

There are two types of conformation dog shows: all breed and specialty. Specialty shows have only one breed or one group of dogs (sporting, working, non-working, toy, hound, terrier or herding groups). All breed is just what it says; you will see dogs from each of the AKC registered breeds.

The American Kennel Club was established in 1884. Its main goal was recording and publishing a comprehensive book describing the breed standard for each breed registered with the AKC. This is also when dogs being shown were first required to be registered prior to showing. The purpose of “The Complete Dog Book” was to give judges guidelines for determining the best dog according to how well they met the standard for that breed. This book is still the guide used by a dog show judge to base their decisions according to how they interpret what the standards are for the breed they are judging.

Dog show judges look at the dog's appearance, body structure, shape of the head and eyes, proper bite, how the dog moves (his gait) and if the dog is able to perform the task he/she was bred to do. When the judge views each dog from the side, they are looking at how the dog stacks (a dog's stance that shows off particular attributes of the breed). The familiar stance we see from a German Shepherd in the ring is the expected stack for that breed. When a dog meets conformation, this means they conform to the ideal breed standard. A judge's decision is based on what the perfect dog looks like according to the breed standard.

A conformation dog show may be thought of as a beauty contest, but its purpose is to show off breeding stock. Dedicated breeders are passionate about and take great pride in the purebred dogs they raise. Because of the work responsible breeders do, dogs produce healthy litters that will carry on the best of their breed standard for years to come. Since conformation shows are meant to show off breeding stock, altered dogs are disqualified from competition.

Competing in dog shows is an expensive hobby, but it's not just for the wealthy. Dog lovers from all income levels participate. You won't get rich winning Best in Show, but you will spend quality time with your dog, make new friends along the way and know your dog is as close to perfect as they can be. At a dog show, you’ll be surrounded by a family of dog lovers who are happy to help you along the way and are passionate about their chosen breed.

Every February, I watch the Westminster Dog Show. I look at my dogs sleeping beside me on the couch or at my feet and think how great they are. I've had the honor of sharing my home with purebred and mixed breed dogs and as far as I'm concerned, all of them are “Best in Show” in my house.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, be sure to check out Ruthie Bently's article, What Happens at a Dog Show.

Photo by Ed Schipul

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