Conformation: if You Don't Play, You Don't Get a Say

This is a topic I wrestle with constantly when showing conformation and never more than the show over New Year's weekend (2021).

I know a lot of breeders who don't show in conformation. These often are sports mix breeders or working dog breeders. There are also breeders I know, or know of, that don't exhibit their dogs because they don't appreciate the direction breeders who show are taking a breed. All of those are valid reasons.

I've discussed my reasons for showing before, but I want to dive further into why I think it's so important. Breeds are maintained by breeders. Breeders maintain their breed by remembering their breed's history, understanding their breed's purpose and what structurally and tempermentally is needed to perform that function, and understanding the standard for their breed. Now, again, not every dog or even breed has a standard. Not every standard is perfect. At a seminar, I distinctly remember discussing how in Chihuahuas, it is not the conformation champion 3-4 pound bitches who are more likely to finish their CH who are bred, it's the 6+ pound bitches who can't finish who are bred because they whelp better and carry more puppies. And the consensus that was reached is this is a good time to look at standard revision rather than simply judge's education, particularly since that issue concerns the safety of the breed as a whole.

I recently came from a show weekend where a NGA racing Greyhound got put up almost every single show. I've seen AKC judges put up working line Malinois. Is it common? No. Often working and performance dogs don't have the crisp and specific look that a conformation judge is looking for, but if you don't play, you don't get to influence what gets put up.

There are times when what is physically described in the standard does not reflect the most functional structure that breed could and should have. It's not ideal, but it certainly happens because our understanding of functional structure is ever evolving.

This article is one of my absolute favorites of all time because it discusses specific traits within Salukis that often aren't rewarded in the ring, but are perfectly functional on the coursing field.

The main thing that I want to tell you about Saluki structure, based on my experience in the coursing field, is that visible, palpable aspects of conformation don’t mean as much as most people think they do. You can have apparently malformed, unsound looking dogs that you would swear couldn’t run perform brilliantly. We once had a noted all-rounder dog show judge, in his critique of Cirrus, say ‘this dog could never run.’ Someone came out with two Salukis with paper feet (feet that are absolutely flat on the ground, the toes are splayed with no arch and the nails don’t even touch the ground), which is a severe fault. But, those dogs were quite competitive and never hurt their feet where we were running. I never would have guessed that, but that’s the way it goes. Theoretically, one would assume that a large Saluki would be faster than a small one, but of the Salukis we observed coursing in England, the fastest appeared to be a bitch which I guess stood about 23 inches. - Dan Belkin, PhD

The takeaway is that just because a trait should be functional in theory, doesn't mean that is borne out in reality. Sometimes a dog might look a complete mess, but be a truly lovely working dog that somehow manages to stay sound their entire life. Is it common? No, but it happens.

So then, wouldn't it be best to eschew the show ring entirely and focus on breeding the most functional individuals you can? I know a number of breeders for whom I have respect that have followed just this route. And often they have lovely, functional dogs. And in some cases, they are also not even recognizable as their breed. Does that matter? To the working enthusiast, perhaps not. But I have found in the working dog world that is easy to fall back on: my dog does the work, which must mean they're healthy. Often I see health testing in breeds with known and notable testable health issues (eye issues, hip or elbow dysplasia, etc) that are not tested because they're excellent workers and that's all you need. But no matter how high drive the parents, there is always a possibility of producing a lower energy pet or a sensitive (but mentally sound) dog that can't take the pressure of the work or a dog that loves people and just wants to spend their time around them instead of working all day. Even working dog breeders will produce dogs for pet homes and it's not fair to place potentially unhealthy dogs in an unsuspecting home. And in my experience, for all that working and performance dog breeders claim that they have no health issues in their likes 1) if they're not testing they can't be sure of that and 2) I have personal experience in a number of cases where the dogs do in fact have health issues, people just haven't seen fit to disclose the information. And that's not even touching the idea that more drive is not always better. If a dog has more drive than they can possibly channel or use, that's not conducive to actually living with that dog.

Aside from potential of taking the ability to work as law and trumping all other aspects of a dog, focusing only on the work a dog can have other consequences. I know several performance Greyhound breeders. They are incredible people, devoted to their breed out there doing fantastic things on the coursing and racing fields. And working toward (and in multiple cases meeting with) successes in the show ring as well. The AKC Greyhound is vastly different in structure and style than a racing or performance bred Greyhound. In many cases, I know people who know nothing of dog structure that can visually tell the difference.

I have heard so many people worry about the end of professional Greyhound racing. Everyone knows it's likely coming, maybe even soon. Everyone is worried that those lines will die out eventually. To me, at first, it seemed like such an odd worry because I know some incredible people working to preserve those lines. But to the general public who only knows that show Greyhounds are rare and to them, ex-racers encompass the entire breed of Greyhounds, they don't realize that. But online and in the show ring, I'm starting to see breeders and fanciers flip the script. I'm starting to see performance bred Greyhound get put up and it's because of those people's dedication to their breed and the functional, proven runners. It's a case of breeders using the conformation venue (and online presence) to influence and steer the future of their breed that I admire endlessly. There is a long way to go still, but I love seeing the progress they're making.

During the shows over UKC New Year's Eve weekend, I struggled with frustration again and again as Amidi wasn't put up for Group placements. She was showing beautifully. I tweaked our presentation, and yet it seemed to make no difference. The quality in the group was notable, but I had friends and competitors turn to me again and again confused why she just didn't seem to be catching the judge's eye. By the end of the weekend, several friends of mine reached the conclusion that the judges just didn't understand correct breed movement and presentation (for instance Azawakh stack underneath themselves naturally and in the conformation ring because of their very open rear angulation and vertical format).

L to R - Azawakh, Greyhound, Borzoi, Silken Windhound

Pardon the low quality, this is a screenshot of a video, but look at the overall impression of the dogs in this ring. On the right you have three breeds that are very notably longer than they are tall. They have more angulation than Azawakh and have they feet pulled out substantially further as a result. Then look at the left where I am standing with Amidi. She looks very out of place in many ways. And looking out of place can very easily translate in a person's head to being incorrect.

Every breed has different conformation requirements. My Azawakh would never be able to go perform the original, frigid duties of the Labrador Retriever. A Labrador Retriever isn't going to bring home jack rabbits for the table without assistance of a human. A breed standard describes a dog that should be able to fulfill their original purpose. As mentioned above, that doesn't mean they will be able to fulfill that purpose. That's why it is so very important to test your dogs in every way possible.