by Dr. Gerry G. Meisels
photo ©Lisa Croft-Elliott
Improving breeding stock was the innate reason for the creation of dog conformation shows, as well as many other domestic animal shows. Improving anything must have a goal, and for breeders that goal is clearly to get as close as possible to the “ideal” dog as described in the standard, a dog that is uniquely suited to the job this breed was created for. , whether it be pulling or retrieving birds, pulling carts, protecting property, going to the ground after vermin, running alongside a horse-drawn carriage, or sitting on the sleeve of a Chinese emperor. Breed standards are the specifications that tell us what specific characteristics will make a dog most successful at its job. Identification of dogs whose conformation is closest to the standard should provide valuable information for decisions in a carefully designed breeding program. It is a classic and romantic image that about 150 years ago dogs did their work during the week and attended a conformation dog show on the weekend. This model corresponded to a society in which half of the workforce was employed in primary agriculture and a third in domestic service for the remaining 17% of the elite. It was a time when many breeds were developed in large kennels owned by a privileged few.
Now let’s fast forward to the present. Few of these large kennels remain, and the vast majority of dogs in competition come from “small” breeders who have only a few dogs. They often live in communities that have ordinances that limit the number of dogs allowed in each home, and many current breeders hide that they have more dogs than allowed, but there is still a limit to what can be done. The shift is representative of what happened from the inception of dog shows to its peak in the mid-to-late 1990s, when the sport turned from elitist to populist. You may be wondering why I said mid 90’s instead of today, because I see the sport change very slowly again. I don’t know where it will “land”, but it seems to me that it may return to a more elitist or dual purpose approach. At least in part, that change is a result of conformation shows now being used for purposes other than the reason they were created for.
The work for which most breeds were developed has now faded, and the vast majority of purebred dogs in most breeds are now kept as companions. The dogs in the conformation ring do not leave the ring on Sunday to work in the fields on Monday. Breeding to a standard that optimizes traits for a job that no longer exists is increasingly reserved for the connoisseurs between breeders and owners. Many dog owners are now primarily interested in how well their dog can compete in performance events. The driving force behind their breeding programs is to produce dogs that do best in said competition, a competition that is unrelated to the purpose for which the breed was developed. The importance of standard and conformation shows diminishes since a dog is registered as her breed on the basis of her pedigree.
Today’s morph shows fill roles beyond their intended purpose, and I don’t mean to list them all. Of course, there is the inherent satisfaction of having bred or shown your winning dog. For others, it may be like gambling, except there is no monetary reward. I don’t know how to classify owners who hand over control of their entire program to a professional handler, including breeding, whelping, puppies, and showing their dogs. This is obviously reserved for those who are quite wealthy, and it harkens back to the bygone era when the laird turned the dogs over to his resident kennel manager in an outbuilding on his property. Some breeders use show records as a basis for choosing what or who to breed with. Such use mistakenly substitutes success in the ring for suitability for a breeding program, which must be based on careful analysis of the bitch’s and boar’s strengths and weaknesses (compared to standard), considering phenotype and genotype. as far as possible. be determined. Another use of conformation shows is for the committed fancier for whom exhibitors, vendors, etc. they become an extended family and a social outlet.
The most commonly recognized use of conformation shows is to provide “bragging rights” to the owner, breeder, and handler. For a novice exhibitor, that might be a blue ribbon. For the more experienced exhibitor, it could be the Winners or Best of Breed ribbon for her. For others, it’s the ranking compared to others in their breed, or even all breeds by the rating system that counts the number of dogs beaten in the breed and across breeds. For the breeder, it may be the success of the dogs he has bred, and the Award of Merit given in some breeds to a bitch or dog that has whelped or sired a number of champions. The place for bragging is not the same for everyone: it can be at shows, in all-breed kennel clubs, or at the annual meetings of the parent club. It’s not that common outside of dog show circles. My co-workers and non-dog friends have no idea what the difference is between a blue ribbon and a Best in Show rosette, and it becomes awkward explaining it to someone who basically doesn’t care. Personal wealth also plays an important role. To get anywhere near the top of the rankings, a dog must be in top condition and shown every weekend. It is very unusual for a high ranking dog to not be a very good dog of her breed. When you have ambitions to campaign your dog at the highest levels of the sport, because you truly believe your dog is exceptionally good, you must have enough money to pay your handler and essential advertising bills. The competition for the top dog is clearly a return to a sport for the elite. The increasingly popular Owner-Handler (NOHS) series provides an outlet for do-it-yourselfers and the less well-heeled, but still requires frequent display at shows where there is enough competition. In any case, the dogs are not shown to be judged, but to win. As one manager says: “winning is not everything, it is the only thing”. Professional handlers must win or lose their clients and eventually their livelihood.
These different uses of conformation shows have made our events less useful to most breeders and prospective breeders for breeding stock evaluation. This gap is being addressed by several breed parent clubs that have instituted non-competitive testing programs. Typically, these programs create panels of breed experts who are not necessarily AKC judges. These panels rate individual dogs against the standard and provide feedback and explanation of their opinion to the dog owner. The value of a non-competitive approach is that opinions come from breed experts who are thoroughly familiar with the breed standard, and that several good dogs in the same venue can receive passing grades and comments, while in conformation it shows that a good dog can be late. finishing the championship of another good and deserving dog. One drawback is that it is difficult to scale up this approach to all parts of the country.
Our conformation show situation today is very fluid. It is difficult to foresee 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 alternative measures of conformance to the breed standard, such as non-competitive testing, may fill a gap. much. necessary gap.
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