Last week I eagerly watched the seven group winners at Westminster. Which one would emerge as Best in Show, the most coveted award in the dog show world? All were gorgeous, and I wondered how any judge could pick a victor among such a stellar bunch. Eventually the lovely Miss P, a 15-inch beagle, trotted away with the top prize.
The purpose of conformation classes at an AKC (American Kennel Club) dog show is to evaluate a dog’s structure and compare it against a written description of the perfect specimen of its breed, known as the “standard.” Although it appears as if the dogs are competing against each other, they’re really competing against the specifications of their breed standard. The ultimate goal is to improve breeding stock.
But there’s more to a great dog than just looks and structure. Are AKC dog conformation shows important tools to improve dog breeds, or are they merely worthless doggie beauty pageants?
Dog shows, and the breeding practices associated with them, have come under attack for a multitude of reasons for many years. Inbreeding, in particular, has been criticized. This is the practice of mating closely related dogs in order to pass along desirable attributes to the next generation. For example, a breeder might have a dog with very favorable characteristics. That dog is bred to his daughter in order to preserve his “breed type” in the breeder’s stock. It may ensure great-looking pups that win at shows, but it can also pass along bad genes and weaken future generations. Inbreeding in the dog show world is widespread; one study of 20,000 boxers had the genetic variance of a population of 70!
Veterinarians condemn some of the breed standards that have evolved over the years. Because I am particularly fond of spaniels, I’ll use the evolution of the American cocker spaniel as an illustration.
My Own Brucie was Best in Show at Westminster in 1940 and 1941. This early photo shows a solid dog with a beautiful topline and great conformation. The cocker is a sporting breed, and My Own Brucie has the short, silky coat that is easily cleared of dirt and burrs after a day of hunting. His muzzle is long, which ensures an unobstructed airway, important for endurance.
Here’s an example of a modern American Cocker Spaniel. He may be adorable, but with his shortened muzzle and luxurious coat, he’s not a good choice for hunting in heavy underbrush on a warm day.
Another criticism of shows is that the health of the dogs is not taken into consideration unless an obvious defect is noted. After all, a judge cannot see that the dog they just named a group winner has epilepsy and a gene for juvenile diabetes. Temperament is another trait that is difficult to evaluate in a show ring.
Those are valid criticisms of AKC conformation classes, but I’ve seen a different side of dog shows. I was the proud owner of a winning show dog, a Welsh springer spaniel named Chris. Sure, I knew of breeders who didn’t care about anything but winning and would lie about their dog’s health; but I also saw breeders who would relentlessly neuter all but their best hunters that were also healthy and had good conformation. It’s easy to criticize breeders whose dogs pass along genetic problems, but until we have genetic testing for more conditions, it’s impossible to predict some of the maladies that may befall a foundation sire after he already has litters on the ground.
New organizations such as the United Kennel Club (UKC) have emerged with a different vision of what a dog show should be. Besides the usual obedience, agility, and conformation events, they’ve added drag racing, lure coursing, nose work, and weight-pulling events, among others. They also have health and temperament testing. Their mission is to promote the well-rounded “whole dog.”
But whether it’s the AKC or the UKC, there will always be breeders with dubious morals who want to win at any cost. They won’t care if the means to that end is injecting their dog with steroids so they win the weight-pulling contest. Folks of that ilk won’t care that all the pugs they breed will need surgery on their nostrils so they can breathe properly.
There’s no doubt that many breed clubs should overhaul their breed standards to improve functionality and health, and it would be great if the AKC would move more in that direction. But breeders themselves hold the key to minimizing the problems of their own breed, and indeed certain breed clubs are doing their best to do just that.
So among the bad apples in the show ring are representatives of excellent breeding programs, and they’re the reason I can’t issue a blanket disapproval of AKC dog shows. As a vet and former owner of a show dog, I do view the pooch pageants through somewhat of a jaundiced eye, but I still get excited to see a beautiful beagle like Miss P prancing around the show ring!
Handler Bryan Martin with Topmast Columbus, AKA Chris,1991