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).
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.
I show in conformation to get an outside view on overall structure. I do agility and rally and other focus based dog sports which gives me an idea of my dogs' trainability and ability to work with me as a team.I do lure coursing and racing with my dogs. And while that is a test of drive and speed, it ultimately is artificial. So I also do open field coursing with my dogs, which is a much truer test of actual hunting ability and stamina. All of that gives me a well-rounded picture as to what my dogs are capable of, where they are lacking. And it's all connected. Ami has looser skin and connective tissue than either Anu or Alu- something that can be determined in the conformation ring. The loose connective tissue could be a potential problem on the coursing field. So far, she hasn't had a single injury despite extensive running (4 weekends in a row at one point). But I wouldn't know that without testing it. On the other hand, it seems likely that her looser skin slows her down a bit on the race track (study in Borzoi that touches on the likely role of skin tightness in speed). If I didn't do all of that with my dogs, there are aspects I'd never know about. I could breed dogs for twenty years and never know about some of these aspects of my dogs.
Turning my focus back to the main point, showing your dog in conformation gives you an idea of your dog's structure, their strengths and weaknesses. Yes, it would be helpful if more venues offered written critiques ,but you can approach judges after you show to ask their opinion. You can get a feel for what a judge likes by what they put up and by what they watch while dogs are in the ring. Overall, showing conformation is a piece of the puzzle.
And on a more over-arching scale, exhibiting in conformation can do a whole lot more for a breed than just tell your the virtues and flaws of your individual dog. There is a weird dichotomy in rare breeds, where more often than not, it is the exhibitor, fancier, expert, and/or breeder who often knows substantially more about their breed than the judge. After all, most times the exhibitor has likely seen more examples of their breed and studied longer and harder than most judges. So, unlike if I was exhibiting a Labrador Retriever, I have to know my breed standard (every exhibitor should anyway, but for rare breed enthusiasts it's more important than most). It is not at all uncommon for a judge to ask me about proper coupling (essentially how long a dogs trunk connecting front and rear assembly is) or pastern angle or breed movement. It's not uncommon for judges to ask me my own feelings on my dogs.
Yes, that means I need to not only know my dogs' faults and virtues. It also means I need to be able to articulate them clearly and succinctly. And that's not an easy job. Is this fair to exhibitors? Perhaps not, it's a pretty heavy burden to put on them. That being said, it's also a powerful position to be in. Within AKC, there is a designated parent club for a breed. That parent club controls both the breed standard and judge's education. That means judge's receive the majority of their book education from set curriculum. However, and I have yet to talk to a judge that doesn't feel this way, judge's learn most from hands on experiences, or at the very least, seeing the breed in person. This means, judges are going to learn most about the breed by the first individuals they meet.
Again, as an exhibitor of a rare breed, this gives us influence. I bring out all three of my Azawakh often, because even in UKC (which has a different procedure for setting the standard) there are many UKC judges who are also AKC judges. Additionally, I have three different Azawakh from three different lines. I am happy to compare and contrast and speak with judges about the different styles within the breed. I am happy to show them (in my opinion) nice examples of the breed that show variation in the typical refined European type (which is what Anubi is).
This power is of course tempered by the frustration of having judges repeatedly misinterpret or misunderstand the standard. I once moved Anubi beautifully. He was a little excited to be showing (unusual for him) and he gaited on a tight leash, but aside from that he moved beautifully, not over reaching or over striding, floating over the ground. The judge turned to me and made me move him again, telling me that movement was a critical part of the standard so I needed to let him move! I mentally sighed and moved him much faster. We took a Group 1 under that judge in a competition group, but it still felt wrong moving him that fast and he didn't look balanced or comfortable showing him that way. You see, the judge had read the phrase "movement is a key point" and automatically looked for tremendous reach and drive. When the standard instead means that Azawakh movement is quite different and almost unique when compared to other breeds and that is an important part of the breed.
Similarly, I've struggled again and again with Ami in the ring. She has very correct, breed specific movement but she isn't flashy like Anubi or Amalu. She doesn't have reach. And she shouldn't, but often judges fault that. I once had a judge tell me: well her chest doesn't drop to her elbows and she doesn't reach well and her tuck is so high. And I turned to her and said, "Ma'am, you've just described everything that makes her a good Azawakh," That judge put her up over Amalu after taking a moment to reread the standard.
And while those frustrations sometimes make me want to wring my hands and pull out my hair, I remind myself that if I don't play, I don't get a say. I bring my dogs out in AKC conformation even though I can't make a Major (3-5 points at a time based on number of dogs in a breed entered and two are needed to finish a dog's AKC Championship). Bringing my dogs out does practically nothing for their CH when I can make majors (there's never been an Azawakh major west of the Mississippi). But I take my dogs out at the big shows all the same because that's where the big, important, influential judges tend to show up. That's where Meet the Breed booths and other educational opportunities are offered. That's where the public can see my dogs - stable, calm, good examples of the breed. And my dogs get seen because we're the ones showing up. It means we get a seat at the table whether other people would like us to or not.
I get the frustration with AKC conformation (and conformation in general). Trust me, I really do. I understand why some people say that AKC recognition ruins breeds. But ultimately, it's not AKC that ruins breeds. It's breeders making decisions that steer breeds off course. If you want to be able to influence your breed on a wide scale, outside your own program, your dogs have to be seen. Judges cannot change their mind or put up dogs they don't see. The public cannot understand the breed if they never see them. People attending Meet the Breeds can't learn if a breed isn't represented. I don't blame people for not showing- for being too frustrated to commit to the system and their at times infuriating rules (closed stud books, requiring a 3 generation pedigree, requiring majors despite decreasing entry numbers and a whole lot of low-entry breeds in general). But I want my breed to honor the Sahel and the people that they hail from. I want moderate dogs with correct gait to be seen and respected and put up. And the only way I can make that happen is to show my dogs and hopefully encourage future puppy owners to show the dogs I breed who have been bred with those goals in mind.