Understanding Conformation Dog Shows

Get the history of dog shows, a breakdown of how they work and how dogs earn championships, and see how you can get started in the sport.

What is the point of conformation dog shows? How do they work? How can I find a show-quality dog, find financial backers and get involved in conformation competition? If you want to know the answers to any of these questions, or if you just want an overview of the sport of dog shows, read on! Conformation competitions may seem daunting at first, but once you learn the basics, it’s easy to enjoy watching or getting involved in the sport.


The History of Conformation Dog Shows

Dog shows began long ago when man started mating certain dogs together to create dogs better suited to perform a job. Dogs have worked for man for thousands of years as hunters to help bring home food, as shepherds of flocks, or as guardians of the home and property. The selective breeding process allowed dogs to evolve into different dog breeds, which were used for different jobs.

After many informal gatherings to see which dogs could perform best at field trials or coursing, people began more formal get-togethers. The first dog show to compare and evaluate dog breeding stock was held in 1859 in England. Later on the Kennel Club was formed to register dogs, record data and create guidelines. Fanciers in the United States quickly followed and created the American Kennel Club in 1884.

In each kennel club, breed standards were written to describe the different breeds, their physical characteristics, movement and their temperaments, which allowed them to perform their jobs to the fullest. These standards would be used to evaluate future breeding stock. Winners at shows would be the best specimens of the breed used for breeding future working dogs.

Our dogs today generally do not work – they are simply our companions, but their breed histories still influence the breed standards. At today’s dog shows, each dog is compared with its breed standard in order to see if that dog could perform its intended job if needed. The breed standard is written by the breed club and often contains information about the dog’s general appearance, head, neck, forequarters, body, hindquarters, feet, coat, color (if applicable), size, gait and any serious faults or disqualifications. Although they may be revised, the breed standards of today must still be based on the breed history and purpose, and dogs should still be bred so that they can perform the tasks their ancestors were bred to do. Dogs of the same breed may have different types, which are perfectly suitable for competition.

In the conformation ring, dog show judges must decide which dog is the best of the best, and they see how each dog lives up to its written breed standard; they compare the dog to the ideal dog depicted in the breed standard – they don’t compare the dogs against each other. The dog that is awarded Best in Show is the dog with the most of the best qualities – it is the dog that most closely resembles its breed standard.

Some shows, called specialty shows, only admit a single breed, group shows admit dogs of one of the seven groups, and other shows are all-breed shows. The American Kennel Club divides the more than 170 dog breeds into seven groups: Working, Sporting, Herding, Hound, Terrier, Non-Sporting and Toy. More in-depth descriptions of the groups follow.

Working. Working dogs have been breed to perform a variety of roles from pulling to guarding and more.

Sporting. Included in the Sporting Group are breeds bred to hunt and retrieve.

Herding. Herding dog breeds were bred to help to herd livestock, and they are athletic and intelligent.

Hound. Dogs in the Hound Group were bred to find and catch prey by sight or scent.

Terrier. Terriers were developed to hunt vermin, guard their families’ homes and serve as companions.

Non-Sporting. The Non-Sporting Group includes dog breeds that don’t quite fit in to the other groups.

Toy. Dog breeds in the Toy Group were bred to be human companions.


How Conformation Dog Shows Work

Dog shows have rules and may seem confusing at first, but it’s simple if you know what’s going on. There are a few types of judging that you may see at a conformation dog show, including Breed Judging, Group Judging, Best in Show, Junior Handler, Veteran Class, Puppy Class, etc.

The dogs will enter the ring along with their handler (the person with a number on their arm who leads them around the ring). Handlers can be the owner of the dog or a professional handler who is hired to campaign a dog until it becomes a Champion or Grand Champion. The judge will have all of the dogs trot around the ring, then the judge will evaluate each dog individually. The dogs will “stack,” meaning it stands in a pose that shows off the breed’s posture. You may see some handlers placing the dog’s feet into position. Different breeds have different poses. At the end of the evaluation and maybe another trot around the ring, the judge will select several dogs that are the best of the group so they can be evaluated once more. The judge will then point to the first, second, third and sometimes fourth place winners.

There are several levels of competition before Best in Show. First there is Breed Judging, where dogs much compete against other dogs in their own breed. The different breeds may be judged at the same time in different rings, so if you’re at a show, make sure you see your favorite breeds. Once Breed Judging is over, the winners move on to Group Judging. One dog from each breed competes against others in their group. The seven dogs that win their groups move on to compete for Best in Show. The dogs that you see in the Best in Show ring are all winners – they are each the best of their breed and their group. The judge decides which of the seven dogs is the closest to its written breed standard, and the winner will receive the coveted red, white and blue Best in Show ribbon.

A few dogs in each show will also walk away with ribbons awarded from the judges. The color of the ribbon indicates what the dog has won:

Blue. First place in any regular class. A blue rosette ribbon is for the winner of the each group.

Red. Second place in each class. A red rosette ribbon is for the second place dog in each group competition.

Yellow. Third place in each class. A yellow rosette ribbon is for the third place dog in each group.

White. Fourth place in each class. A white rosette ribbon is for the fourth place dog of each group competition.

Purple. Winners of the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch classes.

Purple and White. Reserve Winners of the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch classes.

Blue and White. Best of Winners (the better of the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch winners).

Purple and Gold. Best of Breed winner.

Red and White. Best of Opposite Sex (best dog of the breed that is the opposite sex of the Best of Breed winner).

Red, White and Blue. Best in Show winner (only one red, white and blue ribbon is given out per show).

To become a champion, a dog must earn 15 points with two major wins (a win worth three points or more). These two wins must occur under different judges, and at least one other judge must award some of the remaining points. In the show catalog, you will see a schedule of points for your breed (remember that point schedules vary by show location; they’re not always the same). Count the dogs competing in the regular classes (not Veterans or other non-regular class dogs), then compare that number to the point schedule in the catalog. Only count dogs that are judged – disqualified or dismissed dogs don’t count. If a dog goes on to win Best in Show, it can earn more points toward its championship, although no dog can earn more than 5 championship points in one show.

To become a Grand Champion, a dog must earn 100 points, including 25 Grand Championship points, three majors won under three different judges, at least one point under a fourth judge, and the dog must defeat at least one other champion at three shows.


Getting Started in Conformation

If you want to participate in conformation shows, prepare to go up against professional handlers. Some show dog owners (there are often show dog co-owners) spend a great deal of money to hire professional handlers to train their dogs and travel all around the country (and even abroad) to get Best in Show at a prestigious show, get points for a Grand Championship or compete for Top Dog (see all Top Dogs from 1925 to the present). While owner-handlers may just show their pets on weekends, professional handlers dedicate their lives to showing champion dogs and may even be a part of a professional handler organization. They must love dogs and know how to train them, have great presentation skills, good people skills (to deal with clients and other show dog people) and good business skills. Professional handlers need a home with a kennel, a motor home or van for transporting themselves and dogs to shows and all of the necessary equipment for preparing dogs for shows.

If you have a high-quality dog that loves to show (some dogs hate competition), you will be better able to compete with professional handlers. If you are just beginning, first decide what breed you want to show, and then obtain a high-quality dog. First make sure you know and understand the breed standard (read books, go to the breed club’s website, go to national specialty dog shows and attend seminars). Then learn about champion dogs in your breed to learn about the best dog breeders out there. Once you find a kennel or two that has dogs you believe represent the ideal dog described in the breed standard, begin contacting kennels for show dog puppies. Visit the kennels (see how breeders choose a kennel name) and choose a show-quality puppy (ideally between 5 and 6 months of age so you can better assess its conformation, coat, teeth and temperament). Do not spay or neuter this puppy – because the whole point of dog shows is to evaluate breeding stock, spayed and neutered puppies are disqualified from the competitions. Register your dog with the AKC and choose a name for your future champion.

For the best chances of success, find a mentor who has been involved in the sport for decades. You may find a list of mentors on the breed club’s website. Take handling classes with your dog so you can train it how to behave around a lot of other people and dogs, walk properly on a lead, to not sit down when you stop moving and to stack correctly to show off to judges. The dogs must get used to being touched and examined, and smaller dogs need to learn how to be examined on a table.

The next step for success is to keep a healthy show dog that is in top physical condition with the right diet and exercise. Grooming is also quite important in dog shows. All dogs that enter the ring should be bathed, brushed and have trimmed nails and clean teeth. Then, depending on the breed, the dog may need to be groomed to present the correct coat for its breed standard. Short-coated breeds generally don’t need anything other than a bath, but coated breeds (especially Poodles) need a lot of work before entering the ring. Read more about grooming and how it’s changed over the years in the:
Herding Group>>
Working Group>>


Tips for New Exhibitors

On the Dogs in Review Facebook page, Dogs in Review magazine asked this question to experienced exhibitors: If you could give one piece of advice to a newbie in conformation, what would it be? Here are some of their responses:

Bob Banks: I would tell a very new person to study the owners and professionals that are winning in your given breed first. Also you have to watch other breeds and handlers, too. When you watch the people that are doing the most winning, there is a reason. Study where they place their hands, how they stack each breed, what speed they move their dogs, etc. Try to copy the way the best in the sport show your breed. I also would like to see the new people coming into the sport not worry about who is in the ring with you, but keep working and watching your own charge. At first your wins will be few, but as you get better, the wins will come more often. Before you know it, you’ll be able to compete against anyone at any time.  Good luck! This is a wonderful sport, but no one starts at the top — it takes time and hard work.

Debi Decker: Learn your breed standard from beginning to end. Observe your breed in the ring, and see if you can pick out the points that the standard outlines and apply it to your own dog. We all start with our first dog, and without educating ourselves, we generally start with a poor one. But if you love showing, you will learn what is correct for your breed and what you find appealing about your breed, and you will find a good breeder who produces dogs that meet the standard. Good luck out there!

Carol Donnelly: Be patient! You almost never win right out of the gate, but every time you compete or observe is an amazing learning experience.

Danita Slatton: My advice is to have fun! Too many exhibitors, handlers and judges have taken the fun out of a really fun sport! Smile, relax and have a great time!



Read more about conformation dog shows:

Show Dog Owner Resource Center
If you already own a show dog or want to get into the sport of dog conformation, use this resource center to learn all you need to know. Read More>>

Show Dog Health Resource Center
Health is one of the many important aspects of showing purebred dogs. Read More>>

Show Dog Expert Advice
Get advice from show dog expert Allan Reznik. Read More>>

Junior Showmanship
AKC Junior Showmanship allows for young adults from ages 9 to 18 to develop dog handling skills, to learn about good sportsmanship and to learn about purebred dogs and conformation dog shows. Read More>>

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