Hester winning the herding group

At a Dog Show: What does Conformation Mean and How is it Judged?

Going to a dog show can be fun. It can also be confusing. Just what is going on in the ring? Why does the judge make the dogs run around the ring? Why does the judge make the dog run back and forth to and from the judge? Why does the judge run his hands over each dog, open its mouth (to see if the dog has all its teeth) and check for temperament? (Temperament testing in this case is a simple method of noticing whether a dog backs away, bares it’s teeth, cringes, lays back its ears, snarls, growls or tries to bite when the judge approaches the dog head-on and reaches out his hands.)

The judge examines the dog for its conformation to the breed standard. Every national dog club such as the AKC (American Kennel Club) or the CKC (Canadian Kennel Club) is composed of associated breed clubs. These breed clubs set the standards for their breed. What is the dog supposed to look like. Are there acceptable and unacceptable coat colors or coat length? What is it’s characteristic temperament supposed to be? What was it bred for? How is it supposed to move? What is the underlying structure (skeleton) of the dog. How is its head formed? Does it have a purpose or function or is it simply decorative? All these issues are described, explained and valued for each breed. The degree to which the dog meets all the standards set by the breed club is the criteria by which it is judged at a conformation dog show. (Conformation means the degree to which each dog conforms to the breed standards.)

What the judge looks for when the dogs run around the ring is the type and quality of movement that corresponds to its underlying structure. The skeleton and muscles of a dog determine its movement, so the judge makes the dogs run around the ring several times so each dog in the group can be evaluated on its movement. When the judge asks for the dog to run back and forth, it is the structure being examined. Is the dog knock kneed? Is it bow legged? Are these characteristics appropriate to the breed?

When the judge asks for all the dogs in the ring to line up head to tail, then walks up and down the row looking at the side view of each dog in turn, it is the structure the judge is examining. Is the dog standing square? Is this required by the breed standard? Does the handler place the dog’s hind foot back? Or place both hind feet back? These are all part of the breed standard, and the judge wants to know which dog is closest to the standard.

The dog closest to the standard is said to “conform” to the standard, therefore this part of the show is called “conformation.”

Breed Judging
Just as with humans, the gender and age of the dog is obvious. Therefore, there are different standards for female dogs (called bitches) compared to male dogs (called dogs), and different standards for puppies as opposed to adult dogs. This is the reason why, in breed judging, males and females do not compete against each other in the classes. There are separate classes for dogs, bitches and puppies. It is only at the Best of Breed judging that the winners bitch and the winners dog will compete against each other for Best of Winners.

Best of Breed judging will include both male and female champions, male and female class winners and best puppy. The judge must now decide which of the dogs conforms most closely to the breed standard. There is only one Best of Breed, and it can be either male or female, a champion or a winner, a puppy or an adult dog. Then the judge selects the Best of Opposite Sex and Best Puppy.

Men and women who judge breed competitions are expected to know the breed standard thoroughly. At the judges’ table where all the ribbons lie, there will be a book of breed standards so the judge can use it for reference in making a final decision.

Group Judging
Only after all the judging of the individual breeds in a group has been evaluated and one dog is selected as Best of Breed, will the judging continue to Group competitions. All breeds of dog are categorized by group. The name of the group may indicate the purpose for which a dog has been bred. Herding Group is composed of dogs originally bred to herd some other animal whether it is sheep or cattle. The Working Group is a more generalized term used to designate dogs bred for a distinct function that is not herding. Sled dogs, mountain rescue dogs, draft dogs, etc. The Toy group is very descriptive of the tiny dogs you see at shows. It would be unreasonable to make Toys compete against Great Danes or German Shepherds, so they have their own group. There are eight different groups designated by the American and Canadian Kennel Clubs. The characteristics of each group are posted on their websites.

The winner of the Group competition (whether the adult competition or the puppy competition) is eligible to compete at the prestigious Best in Show or Best Puppy in Show competitions.

And that’s the end of the show, until the next day when the process begins all over again with a new show, different judges and different winners.

Why? Because each day is a complete dog show. Since dog shows last more than one day, watching the same judge examine the same dogs day after day is not only boring but a complete waste of time. Therefore, judges rotate through the breeds giving every dog a chance to win. After all, judges have different preferences for what they look for in a breed. Some emphasize one characteristic over another while another judge may see those same characteristic as being minor rather than a major criteria. It is for this reason that dogs that win one day may not win the next under a different judge.

For the owner, breeder and handler, each day is a new beginning and a possible win.