Getting Started in Conformation Dog Shows

Posted by  on June 14, 2010

The world of dog conformation shows can be confusing to the newcomer.  Here is’s guide to getting started.

Choosing a breed

If you are uncertain which breed you wish to show, spend some time visiting dog shows in your area.  At any bench show, the dogs will be kept at the arena when they are done showing so you can mingle, ask the handlers about the dogs, and observe how the dogs of a particular breed act.  (By contrast, an unbenched show allows the dogs to leave after they have finished their part of the show.)  Take advantage of bench shows by wandering in the bench area back stage to meet the different dogs.  You will see the grooming requirements of the various breeds and can talk to the handlers about the pros and cons of each.  If you have children in your home, take the kids with you.  If all of the competitors from a particular breed seem to turn up their nose at your child, you can assume that the breed is not particularly known for being good with children.

Use tools like the breed guides on to learn more about the breeds you might consider and to narrow down your choices so you can visit a reasonable number of dogs at a show.

Choosing a Breeder

The single most important determinant of success for a show dog is breeding.  When you purchase a family pet, you might stop at a shelter or visit someone in your neighborhood who “happened” to have a litter.  However, if you want a show quality dog, particularly if winning championships is your goal, you must find a breeder who is aware of, and breeds selectively for, the breed standard.

The American Kennel Club, as well as most other clubs, publishes a standard for each breed recognized by the club.  The standard tells you the size, color, coat type, and temperament a champion dog should have for the particular breed you are considering.  A breeder dedicated to bettering the breed will know the standard backward and forward, and will work at producing puppies that are ever closer to the standard.  No dog ever perfectly conforms to the standard in all respects but you, as well as the dog show judges, are looking for the best possible example of the standard.

When you locate a breeder with whom you think you want to work, you should not expect to call them and take same-day delivery of a dog.  A really good breeder will have a waiting list for show quality dogs.  Besides, the breeder will want to ask you some questions, and you should interview him or her as well.  Expect the breeder to question your motives for wanting a dog as well as your ability to care for and protect the dog.

In return, you will want to see the puppies’ parents and know about the health history of both parents as well as that of the puppies.  At a minimum, you should see certification of eye health from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) and of hip health from either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) or the Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Project (PennHIP).  Don’t settle for just seeing the dam.  Insist on seeing the sire, as well.  If he’s not on the breeder’s property, ask where you can go to see the father.

You want to physically lay eyes on both of the parents to look for any obvious problems like three heads or a coat that is falling out.  Both parents should conform as closely as possible to the breed standard.  One way to determine this is to check their championship points.  The breeder can pull up a report online through the AKC store, and he or she should be willing to show you the total for each dog. You should also check the parents for identifying marks such as ear tattoos that will assure you that the dogs shown on the health certificates are the same dogs who are said to be your puppy’s parents.

A word about points

Each show will award a different number of points to winners, depending on how many dogs are entered for each breed competition.  To be denoted as an AKC conformation champion, a dog must get 15 points, including winning at least two different majors under two different judges, as well as winning at least one point under a third unique judge.

Once a dog has earned 15 points, the letters “Ch” are placed before his or her registration name.  For example, Lady Belle of Handel Lane would become Ch Lady Belle of Handel Lane after earning 15 points.  However, her call name, “Lady” would not be changed to include the Ch designation.  When you are looking at puppies, check out the pedigree certificate the breeder should have.  See how many champions are included in the new puppy’s ancestry.

Choosing a Specific Puppy

After you have selected a breeder who you are comfortable working with, tell the breeder you are looking for a champion-quality dog.  Of course, he is going to tell you that all of his dogs are champion quality, but he knows deep down that only the best of each litter will do well in the show ring.  The others should be sold as pet-quality or for other dog competitions such as agility or herding.  Take the time to establish a relationship with your preferred breeder so he will start looking out for a dog that will be perfect for you.

Ideally, you will want to have first pick of the litter, so you can select the puppy that looks the closest to the breed standard.  Although at first glance, you may think that all of the puppies in a particular litter look exactly alike, with practice you will begin to be able to notice important variations that may mean the difference between winning and losing in the conformation show ring.

Take the time to become thoroughly acquainted with the breed standard so you know what to look for in a puppy.  Sometimes, breeders who are only out to make a buck will try to sell you a dog that is “rare” or “unique”, oftentimes charging you extra for such a special dog.  Make sure you adhere to that old maxim “buyer beware”, the same as you would when shopping for a house.  Just as “needs a little TLC” means  the house will be falling down around your ears the second you sign the loan papers, a “rare” puppy is likely to be one who doesn’t conform very well to the breed standard.  This, incidentally, is why the dog is rare.  Most breeders try to make puppies who are good examples of the standard.  Those that would be disqualified the minute they step into the ring would definitely be in the minority.

What’s next?

Once you have found the right puppy and brought him or her into your home, it’s time to begin training.  Of course, you want your dog to know basic obedience commands so he or she is not a wild child in the ring.  You also want your dog to become socialized so he or she doesn’t bark wildly whenever another dog is close by and so he or she plays well with the other dogs at the show.  (We really don’t want the dogs humping each other on national television.)

Training should also include getting the dog used to extensive grooming.  It is important that you use grooming to show your dog’s beauty in the best light.  For example, a poodle who appeared in the ring in a “natural” cut would likely not win, as poodle judges expect to see poodles with the pom-pom coats.  Similarly, many small dogs are kept in a “puppy clip” for grooming ease if they are going to be pets only.  However, when they are in the show ring, their long locks must be on display to show conformity with the breed standard.

Do your research on dog shows in your area.  Join a breed club and get on their mailing list so you will get updates on when particular judges who are experts in your breed will be in your area.  Make sure the show you are considering is sanctioned to award points to your dog toward his or her championship.  Spend some time observing other handlers at shows so you can see what will be required of you.

Finally, go to your first show, dive in, and have fun!  Your dog will relax and show better if you can force yourself to stay loose.  Especially when you are first starting out, show your dog a few times at small shows or informal ones like “cute dog” or “ugly dog” contests to get the animal used to being crowded by strangers and poked at by judges.