Every year, over two million dogs compete in conformation shows. From the outside looking in, conformation dog shows are a lot to absorb. These events are more than just beauty competitions, however. Before stepping into the ring, a show dog must be trained.
What is a Dog Show?
In 1884, a group of passionate dog fanciers formed the American Kennel Club, or AKC. The original purpose of the AKC was to create a pedigree registry and uphold the quality of breeding stock. One of the ways that the AKC did this was through dog shows.
Today, AKC-sanctioned dog shows continue that mission, and dog shows have changed very little since the original competitions. Every breed recognized by the AKC has a "breed standard" that describes the perfect specimen of the breed. A judge compares competing dogs against the breed standard and chooses as the winner the dog that most closely complies with the breed standard.
What Happens in the Ring?
At the beginning of the competition, the judge brings all of the dogs into the ring. The dogs and their handlers line up in a row for the judge to make a first impression. Often, the judge will then have the handlers move the dogs around the ring to make a first impression of how each competitor moves. Then, the judge will examine each dog individually.
After the individual examinations, the judge will reassess the dogs one last time, potentially having them move around the ring once more. Once the judge has made a decision, the winner will progress to the next level of competition.
Training for the Ring
You might notice that all of the dogs in the ring stand in a certain way and move alongside their handlers obediently. You will also notice that the dogs sure take a lot of poking and prodding from the judge. These dogs may have been born beautiful, but they were not born with the innate ability to know how to behave in the ring. Before the dog steps into the ring, the dog trainer must prepare the dog for all the inspections they go through.
- Socialization: To succeed in the ring, a show dog must be properly socialized. "Socialization" is the process of introducing a puppy to a wide variety of situations, people, and places so that, as an adult, new experiences do not scare the dog. Dog shows are noisy and crowded, so socialization is a non-negotiable aspect of a show dog's training.
- Stacking: When a handler presents a show dog to the judge, the dog appears nearly perfect. This is called "stacking." The dog's feet are placed in proper position, the head is up, and the dog is alert. A show dog must remain stacked even when the judge approaches for an individual examination.
- Mouth Handling: Breed standards are often very specific about the number of teeth that a dog should have, along with bite and placement. Dogs generally do not like people, especially strangers, handling their snouts; however, show dogs must be trained to accept this.
- Gaiting: A show dog must learn how to "gait" alongside the handler so that the judge can examine movement. This means that the show dog must first learn how to move on a leash without pulling or squirreling around.