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   The Truth About Conformation

June 7, 2004


Each year, two dog events make the interest in the Super Bowl pale. In February, the dog-loving population hunkers down in front of the television for six hours of the Westminster dog show telecast from Madison Square Garden in New York. This event falls somewhere between the flash of the Academy Awards and the glitter of the Miss Universe contest.

Conformation is an original piece of work
by Canadian cartoonist Ron Leishman .

Order a Conformation t-shirt or tote bag here!

Following quickly on Westminster's heels, Crufts, the tweedier British equivalent, draws 22,000 doggie competitors. The next day, these shows are the talk of their nations. References to the winner of Best in Show sound strangely familiar, "Did you see Mick win last night?" For a few days, a Kerry Blue Terrier or Afghan or Maltese is a national hero.

Showing dogs is the oldest organized dog sport. It has been around since the mid-nineteenth century, when aristocracy in England began competing to determine which dog was better than which dog. Dog shows are now a major international pastime. In the U.S., more than two million dogs compete against each other every year. In 1997, there were 11,000 dog shows in the United States alone.

This picture sounds rosy. However, a recent article in a national dog show magazine stated that entries in dog shows are actually shrinking ( Dogs in Review, 2003). There is an explanation for this. At a first glance, dog shows appear to be completely benign events. On the surface, pleasant-looking people in polyester with nicely groomed dogs stride around rings under the perceptive eye of a judge with the knowledge and authority to select the one that most closely approximates a written breed standard. However, up close, the secret subculture of dog shows has more in common with the Donner Party than civilized society.

For many decades, there were few alternative activities for dog lovers. Thus, people participated despite the danger of feeling unhappy after the show. However, in recent years, a new set of adrenaline-rush sports have entered the dog scene and people are flinging off their nylons to enter the supportive, (mostly) non-political worlds of agility, fly ball, freestyle, hunting trials, tracking, and even competitive rat digging.

In order to survive as a viable dog sport, the unwritten norms of dog show culture need to be changed. Let's take a look at the current situation and explore changes that might be made.


The New Etiquette

The following pieces are excerpted from Laughing Dog's upcoming book, The New Etiquette of Dog Shows — From Cannibalism to Congeniality. Coming March, 2004, this book features four hundred pages of guidelines for creating a safe and supportive environment at dog shows. The book is filled with real-life handler stories that will shock and amaze.

Dealing with Losing

Stating the obvious, dog shows are competitive. That is, someone wins and someone loses. In fact, percentages suggest that the average participant will lose lots more than they win, particularly if they are not one of the professional handlers who compete against the amateurs. Human nature left unchecked leads people to want to "save face" after losing.

This plays out as an ugly tendency to strike back at the judge, other competitors, or both when one loses. Polite culture vanishes. Phrases such as "…crazy old loon" are common.

Proposed Change: This behavior is deeply embedded in the dog show culture. Thus, there will be a phase-out plan rather than going cold turkey. During the first year of the new etiquette only one derogatory adjective will be allowed. Thus one may say, "…crazy loon" or "old loon" but not both. In the second year, all rude adjectives will be considered unseemly.

Dealing with Winning

Handlers are not much better at responding to the wonder of actually winning. Many winning handlers feel compelled to respond to a compliment in a way that slices and dices the messenger. Recently, I was eavesdropping on an exchange between the winning handler and another handler as they exited their breed ring. The losing handler said, "Congratulations. Nice win." The winning handler shot back, "What other choice did the judge have?" I was amazed at the restraint of the first handler who resisted the urge to cry, "Uh, hello! MY dog."

Proposed Change: In the new culture, it will be required that winners remember that others in the class had dogs entered too. Compliments may be received with either a simple thank you or a pleasant comment such as, "It must have been a tough choice for the judge." During the initial year of the new culture, handlers will receive a list of pleasant things that they might say when they check in at the show. In order to prove that they have reviewed the list, handlers will be required to say one thing from the list to the ring steward as they enter the ring. A bystander might hear the following as handlers check into the ring:

"Your dog has a nice head, too."
"Your outfit really compliments your dog."
"Your grooming job is superb."

If a handler is unable to say something nice, they will be sent to the end of the line to try again. A handler will not be penalized if they do not sound genuine since this is new. Just saying the words are a big first step. Year two will require both words and feeling.


Welcoming Novices

In her book Show Me!, D. Caroline Coile presents a remarkably honest portrait of the light and dark sides of Conformation. In regard to folks who are new participants in the sport, she wrote, "Lowest on the food chain is the novice, a word far too often and unjustly uttered with such contempt that it rivals any four letter word in the English Language."

Although everyone was once a beginner, the newcomer is often snubbed. If dog shows really were the Donner Party, the novice would be the first roast on the spit for dinner.

Proposed Change: Every experienced handler will adopt a newcomer. They will teach the novices the (positive) tricks of the trade, answer questions, and generally mentor them as they learn the sport. Most importantly, the mentor will be required to teach the novice the new culture rather than the old culture.

Casual Conversation

Many participants in conformation are obsessed with their dogs and breeding program. In fact, many have lost touch with the rest of the world.

When asked a casual question or when told that their dog is pretty, these folks launch into an endless monologue about every generation of the dog and a detailed analysis of each ancestor's strengths and weaknesses. If there is any recognition that the listener's eyes have glazed over, there is no acknowledgment.

Proposed Change: No one will be allowed to discuss more than one previous generation and then only if asked. If handlers backslide into a monologue that rolls on and on, listeners will be encouraged to use that zipping motion across the lips that was popular in the second grade as a sign to stop talking, gently reminding the speaker that they have violated the new etiquette.


Judges come from the rank of competitors. Many are knowledgeable and confident. However, the system of judging is fraught with politics and intrigue.

Many handlers are friends with favors to be repaid. Some judges push their limits and end up judging breeds with which they have little experience. Some judges want to work again and know that overturning a powerful handler's dog is a ticket to the unemployment line.

While some judges work hard to pick the dog closest to the standard, another group is, "knowledgeable and hardworking, but not honest." (Coile strikes again.) You go, girl.

Proposed Changes: In the new culture of dog shows, judges will not pick dogs based on past or future favors, large sums of money changing hands, or some weird oblique interpretation of the breed standard. In the U.S., judges will explain their placements out loud as they do in Europe since few would announce, "I selected this dog based on the head although the movement was not great. But, hey, let's face the reality. None of the dogs in this class could do a day's work in the field."


Enforcing the New Etiquette

What will happen if dog show competitors violate the new etiquette? Without teeth to enforce the new interactions, little will change. It is natural that enforcement falls to the American Kennel Club (AKC).

At present, the Board of the AKC cites and punishes dog owners for violating breeding rules or treating dogs poorly. These offenses and consequences are published at the back of each AKC Gazette magazine. This process will now be expanded to include notations such as the following:

The AKC's Management Disciplinary Committee has suspended Susie X from all AKC privileges for a period of 6 months, effective October, 2003 and imposed a $300 fine for flaunting rules by using an entire can of hair spray on a Standard Poodle and poisoning every other dog and handler in a sixty foot radius (to say nothing of the poor Poodle).

The AKC's Management Disciplinary Committee has suspended John X from all AKC privileges for a period of 9 months, effective October, 2003 and imposed a $400 fine for breaking three majors (i.e., withdrawing one's dog from a show to prevent others from a big win based on a certain number of entered dogs). John is a really big putz and doesn't deserve to be in shows anymore.

The AKC's Management Disciplinary Committee has suspended Mary X from all AKC privileges for a period of one year, effective October, 2003 and imposed a $500 fine for resenting the good fortune of those who won.

The AKC's Management Disciplinary Committee has suspended Lenore X from all AKC privileges for a period of one year, effective October, 2003 and imposed a $600 fine for incredible snobbery based on owning a couple of big winners.

The AKC's Management Disciplinary Committee has suspended Mark X from all AKC privileges for life, effective, Sept. 22, 2003, and fined $700 for incredible boorishness and trying to use her dog to say, "I'm better than you are."

The AKC's Management Disciplinary Committee has suspended Linda X from all AKC privileges for life, effective September 22, 2003, and fined $1000 for saying the phrase, "Form follows function" repeatedly and then showing herding dogs who don't recognize one end of a sheep from the other and if they did, would not have enough speed to herd one.


In Conclusion

A few years ago, a terrific movie, Best in Show, nailed the crazy world of conformation by highlighting the trip to Westminster by several couples — the ambition and cluelessness, the joy and heartbreak, the wealthy folks and the stretched-to-the-brink-of-disaster folks.

If you are part of this world of people whose weekends are filled with "camping" around the perimeter of lawn at a fairground in quest of a blue ribbon, if you think nothing of four hours of grooming each day, if you never travel without brushes, combs, hair dryers, hair nets, shower caps, scrunchies, and rubber bands, if you comb, clip, braid, power, dye (yes, Laughing Dog knows you are out there) and perfume canines, then the etiquette changes proposed in this article are for you. While the new ways of interacting may threaten those who are successful in the current model of dog shows, it will create a healthier culture over the long haul. And hey, it might just make the sport more fun for you and your dog.


D. Caroline Coile's excellent book Show Me! served as the primary reference for this article. I also recommend for background about conformation classes and other general information.












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