Stories of over-the-top dog trainers, extreme pre-competition grooming rituals and regimes, and nefarious dog breeders have given many people a negative impression of participating in or even just watching dog shows. Many people say they are just not ‘dog show people’. Most of us have dogs who sometimes choose not to listen, who barely stand still for a quick brushing every week, and who suddenly get shy or barky for no apparent reason, and we think there’s no way we could show our dogs.
However, the numbers say that there are quite a lot of people who are involved in showing their dogs, and millions more are at least interested in watching other dogs perform. The two biggest dog shows of the year are the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and the National Dog Show. This past May, Westminster hosted more than 2,500 dogs of 210 different breeds who came from 49 states and 13 countries to compete in New York. The National Dog Show is broadcast from Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day and has been watched by more than 20 million people each year since it began airing in 2002. These millions of dog lovers tune in to watch beautiful animals compete. The American Kennel Club estimates that Americans spend upwards of $330 million each year preparing for, traveling to, and competing in dog shows.
Dog shows can bring up strong emotions on both sides of the issue, and there are compelling arguments that can be made in support of or against them.
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It is widely recognized that the first dog show was held in Newcastle, England, in 1859. It was planned to be a side attraction to the famous Newcastle Poultry Show, with a prize of two custom made double-barreled shot guns. The purpose was to identify the best breeding lines for each dog breed. The first show was only open to pointers and setters, but it was such a success that the next year another show was planned, which included retrievers, cocker spaniels, and clumber spaniels. There is evidence, however, that as early as the 1830s, members of the Toy Dog Club had been meeting to exhibit their toy and exotic foreign breeds. These events marked a turn as toy and exotic dogs had previously only been available to the upper class and now ‘regular’ people were interested in showing their companion dogs with a focus on competition rather than identifying the best bloodlines for breeding.
After the end of the Civil War, Americans were ready to start dog shows of their own. In 1874, the Illinois State Sportsmen’s Association announced the first show in Chicago, IL. This show was also open only to setters and pointers. There were no set rules and no governing body.
In 1884, the American Kennel Club was formed to be the umbrella organization over the many individual kennel clubs in the U.S. At the first meeting, they established the club by-laws and dog show rules.
While there are several different types of dog shows that include agility and field tests, where dogs must perform and show their skill, what most of us think of when we imagine a dog show is a ‘conformation’ event, where dogs are judged on the quality of their appearance and how closely they support the ideal standard for their breed. These shows are only open to purebred dogs who are recognized by the American Kennel Club. Each breed’s national club establishes the breed standard based on the best possible physical appearance and temperament for which the dog is bred with the idea that they would produce the best puppies.
Every year, the AKC recognizes 2,000 specialty shows that are limited to one breed and 1,500 all-breed events.
Dogs first compete against others of their breed to determine the Best of Breed. The winners then compete in their Group. The groups refer to the function the dog was initially bred to perform. The seven groups are hound, working, sporting, toy, terrier, herding, and non-sporting (companion). The group champion then competes against the champions of the other groups and the winner is named the Best in Show.
Benefits of showing your dog
We might be familiar with Labrador retrievers and beagles, but who had heard of a barbet or mudi before seeing them in the ring on Thanksgiving Day? There are 200 dog breeds recognized by the AKC and the big dog shows are often the best way to introduce a breed to the general public.
Dogs like it:
Dog breeder and multiple championship winner Bill Lambert pointed out that a miserable or frightened dog will not succeed at conformation. Dogs need to be enthusiastic and lively in order to do well in competition. The dogs that rise to the top also have a certain ‘stage presence’ and love to perform in front of people. Dogs are happiest when they have a purpose and are with their favorite people, and for many dogs, conformation offers exactly that.
Dog shows also require hours of careful training to ensure the dog will be well socialized and not become distracted or upset by the many other dogs and people in the ring. The hours spent in training lead to the very tight bond they form with their handlers.
Problems with dog shows
Unethical breeding practices:
Because dogs are judged by their appearance rather than their health, some unethical breeders might make choices that are harmful to the dog. If a breeder discovers that German Shepherd dogs with a certain slope to their back are more successful in the ring, they might breed for that appearance disregarding the back problems it can cause. There is a danger that dogs with desirable features will be inbred to try to keep achieving that standard. That can raise the chances of a genetic disorder being passed along the bloodline.
Not a natural environment:
Many show dogs are far removed from their original purpose. There are not many show dogs in the working group, for example, who are engaged in the work of guarding or pulling carts. Often breeders will make a distinction between dogs that are bred for conformation and those that are bred to be hunters as they have different looks and personalities.
Stressful situation for dogs:
Trainers want to present their dogs in the best possible light, and possibly disguise minor flaws, which might entail hours of grooming before a show. Dogs will need to be trimmed, bathed, brushed, blow dried, and trimmed again. Nails must be trimmed and buffed, ears cleaned, and teeth brushed.
Dog shows entail a lot of waiting backstage between events where dogs might be crated; there are a lot of new dogs nearby and many people bustling about, along with the ever-present hum of the blow dryers. Dogs who don’t have the right temperament or who haven’t been well socialized might be overwhelmed by the chaotic scene.
Pure breeds only:
The AKC mandates that only dogs with a purebred pedigree can compete in conformation because there are no established standards for new or mixed breed dogs (although they can compete in sports and events such as Agility and Obedience). The emphasis on purebred dogs has been cited as a factor in raising the demand for certain breeds, which can lead to unethical puppy mills who only care about producing mass quantities of puppies and drives people away from adopting needy pets from shelters.
Because conformation shows are all about evaluating breeding stock for future litters, dogs must not be spayed or neutered in order to compete. Veterinarians recommend spaying/neutering your pets in order to limit unwanted pregnancies and the number of stray or surrendered dogs. It has also been shown that ‘fixed’ pets live longer, healthier lives and display fewer behavioral problems.
The bottom line
Dog conformation shows are extremely popular for viewers and participants. They offer a chance to work closely with your pet on socialization and training and allow you an opportunity to see how well your best friend stacks up against the perfect template for their breed.
They can also be seen as unnecessary and outdated forms of entertainment that privilege pure breed dogs possibly at a risk to their health and well-being.
While animal rights activists stand firmly against this type of entertainment, people who show their dogs commit thousands of hours and dollars to the experience and say it is worth every moment and cent. The conversation will surely continue, but as we can all agree, the wellbeing and happiness of the dogs involved should be the bottom line.