The sport of purebred dogs has an image problem. Although the American Kennel Club has often been criticized for its response to shrinking registrations and declining show entries, many exhibitors and judges who participate in the organization’s all-breed events ostensibly fail to promote the unique characteristics of the registry’s 197 (and counting) recognized breeds. Indeed, too many conformation show enthusiasts seem to value one quality at the expense of all others—no matter the breed. Today’s fancier, it seems, can’t get enough of the “pretty” dog.
In the modern-day show ring, every exhibit—Maltese and Mastiff alike—is expected to be balanced in body, correctly coated and colored, sound in mind and movement, with proper expression and no disqualifying faults. These qualities are essential, naturally, but the question must be asked, “Does every purebred dog also need to be exalted for having a generic charm and a pretty face?”
“Pretty” dogs are nothing new, of course. For centuries, Toy and companion breeds gained entry into Royal households and ports of call owing to their delicate beauty and refinement. Historically, however, most canines needed to earn their keep through a form that strictly followed the dog’s intended function. This is the condition under which most breeds were developed. By contrast, many of today’s purebreds—certainly the majority of dogs that compete in US show rings—need only “look like” they can perform the job for which they are intended. In the 21st century, it’s the dog that’s as “pretty as a picture” that’s likely to be rewarded in the ring
“Does every purebred dog also need to be exalted for having a generic charm and a pretty face?”
Thankfully, purebred dogs remain tied to their ancestral past through their breed standards. Each standard presents a word picture that honors a single breed’s history, describing it through specific words and detailed phrases that are exclusive to that breed. With such carefully crafted documents to guide us, it seems irresponsible for breeders, exhibitors, and conformation show judges to refer to any purebred with a casual, “Oh, that’s pretty.”
By definition, something is said to be “pretty” only because the viewer finds it attractive, usually in a delicate or simplistic way. What this has to do with purebred dogs is not at all clear, unless the intended purpose of all dogs is to simply be admired. Most breeds, of course, were developed to perform more strenuous tasks. (Even if their job was to simply look good while attracting fleas.)
In the early years of conformation shows, purebred dogs were exhibited following a morning spent in the field, with “honorable” scars intact. Prettiness didn’t enter into their evaluation. However, those early exhibits were eventually brought into the ring following a good scrubbing. Coats were trimmed or stripped to enhance the dogs’ physiques, and elaborate hairstyles became the norm for the presentation of some breeds. Forced air dryers encouraged even more fantastic “hairdos” and, ultimately, portable generators allowed the hair salon to move outdoors. By the mid-20th century, impeccable grooming had become not just an advantage in the ring, it was de rigueur for any serious competitor. In order to win, a show dog needed to look the part, even if its picture perfect presentation flew in the face of its standard of perfection.
Throughout the ensuing years, presentation techniques continued to evolve. Today’s exhibitors have access to an ever-expanding arsenal of products and equipment that allow show dogs to be presented at an extremely high level: Vet wrap keeps the ears of Springer Spaniels clean; drool rags keep the Bulldogs’ lips dry; and Shih Tzu topknots continue to go up, up, up even as their drop coats go down, down, down. Never before have so many purebred dogs looked so “pretty” while standing in the ring. (Hairless breeds, it may be noted, have an advantage in that they have no need for beauty salons. Their beauty is, genuinely, skin deep.)
The panoply of cosmetic trickery found in most of today’s tack boxes can certainly transform any dog into a pretty picture, but it should also prompt a few serious questions. Are smoke and mirrors (and sleight of hand) essential to the presentation of the well-bred animal? In order to win, is it really necessary to backcomb the legs of a Golden Retriever or flatiron the ears of a Standard Poodle? Must a Terrier’s leg furnishings be bathed and rinsed before Breed, Group, and Best in Show judging—at every show? Have dog shows become precisely the thing at which so many detractors have launched criticism: A beauty pageant that rewards the “prettiest” contestant?
If “pretty” is the standard by which all purebreds are to be judged, the dog sport will continue to set ever-higher standards of presentation. By disregarding the tried and true limitations set forth by the breed standards, the exodus of exhibitors from conformation shows to performance events is likely to continue. But if the standards are to retain their rightful role as blueprints for the breeding, exhibition, and adjudication of purebred dogs, the merit of being “pretty” will be considered only as it relates (or doesn’t) to an individual breed’s written standard. In this manner, the relevance of dog shows might well be assured.
The only lasting solution to the current problems that face the sport of dogs is a return to the fundamentals of breeding required by the breed standards. Although today’s fanciers—exhibitors and judges alike—may be quick to admire the “pretty” head, the “pretty” coat, the “pretty” movement or the “pretty” showmanship, it bears repeating that being the “prettiest” dog in the ring is not the intended purpose of conformation dog shows. Rewarding correct breed type is.
Even the “prettiest” purebred in the world is not defined by a breed standard that uses a word as baseless and banal as “pretty.” To do so would be poisonous to the welfare of every breed.
A version of this article first appeared in the February 2015 Dogs in Review magazine.
top: The head gear on this Bulldog suggests she’s ready for a dental visit, not a dog show.
bottom: Hairstyles may come and go, but this
Shih Tzu beckons the question, “Is this a hairdo or a hair ‘don’t’?”