by Hilarie Erb
What is Conformation?
It is how dogs conform to the written standard for their breed. To a novice, a conformation class may look like a beauty contest, but the dogs are being judged against that standard, not each other. The standard is a written description of a breed’s characteristics, describing everything from size and structure to color and temperament – and more. Breed clubs go to great lengths to establish these standards and to maintain their breed’s integrity. The purpose of showing in conformation is to give fanciers (the word for dog show people) the chance to have breeding stock evaluated, to prove their worthiness to pass on the traits that make the breed suitable for its intended job. It is also why conformation dogs must be intact – not neutered or spayed.
If you want to compete in the conformation ring, you should start by going to some shows. Find them at AKC Event Search & Results. Most owners and handlers are happy to talk to you about their dogs, but keep in mind that they are competing and don’t try to strike up a long conversation just as they are about to enter the ring!
Most of the exhibitors at the shows belong to at least one AKC club, and you should visit the website of the AKC national parent club for your breed (every AKC breed has one) to find local fanciers who will be happy to talk to you about their sport. This way you can talk to people in a more relaxed setting and even get invited to meet their dogs and to attend a club meeting. Most of the more popular breeds have regional specialty clubs which provide a great opportunity for you to meet like-minded dog lovers, and there are all-breed clubs all over the country. To find the right club, go to AKC’s Club Search and Directory.
Is Your Dog Show Material?
To you, she’s the most beautiful dog in the world, but unless you got her from a breeder who competes in the breed ring (show-speak for conformation competition) and breeds dogs to conform to the AKC standard, she may not be what is considered “show quality.” Many of today’s biggest winners got their start with less than ideal representatives of their breeds but found mentors who helped them learn the ropes. Find a mentor who can help you evaluate your dog and, in the future, maybe even add another to your family. Until you have a show quality dog, there are countless things you can do as a dog club member that will help you learn more about the sport while you have fun.
AKC Breeder of Merit Lisa Gaertner, of Pinebluff Cocker Spaniels, remembered her start in the show ring: “I bought a lovely little bitch and decided I wanted to show her. Truthfully, I didn’t even know what that meant, other than to run her around the ring and show her off. Madison was in a ‘pet cut’ right from the town groomer. I thought she looked beautiful. The judge, however, did not and dismissed us from the ring, withholding the ribbon, and mumbling something about her coat. It was a moment that changed everything. So many people stepped up to help, people who are still my friends today. Through a lot of hard work and the mentoring of dear show and breeder friends, I continued my quest to learn and grow from that experience. Two years after that infamous dismissal, I returned to the very same show with Madison’s daughter Lexi. She won the Variety over nine specials with me on the other end of the lead! I will always remember that day with great fondness and deep appreciation and gratitude for my friends and family who have supported me along the way.”
How Does a Dog Become an AKC Champion?
To a beginner, it’s very confusing to watch breed competition. Did that dog win? No? But he got a ribbon! Why are they still standing in the ring? Why did that one go back in? Read A Beginner's Guide to Dog Shows for an explanation of how conformation dog shows work and how points towards conformation titles are earned. If you stick with it, you will do some winning, but this is not an instant-gratification hobby. There are far more losers than winners at every dog show, but friends in the sport make it rewarding in so many ways that have nothing to do with ribbons.
Hilarie Erb is a dog trainer and a member of the AKC GoodDog! Helpline team. The Helpline offers seven-day-a-week dog telephone training support by a team of professional dog trainers who practice positive reinforcement methods. For more information: https://www.akc.org/products-services/akc-gooddog-helpline/