“Conformation” is the official name for “dog shows.” While they may seem glamorous, the true purpose of conformation showing is to evaluate breeding stock. The dog’s conformation—his overall appearance and structure—is an indication of the dog’s ability to produce quality purebred puppies, and that is what is being judged in the ring. That’s why mixed-breeds and spayed or neutered purebreds are not eligible to compete. Many times a new exhibitor will get started in dog shows by finding a mentor, usually the breeder they acquired their puppy from. Many AKC clubs also offer handling classes to teach owners how to present their purebred dog to a judge at a dog show.
Dog-show judges attempt to identify dogs who epitomize the published standards for each breed. This can be challenging, because some judgements must necessarily be subjective. For example, what exactly entails a “full coat” or a “cheerful attitude”, which are descriptions that could be found in the breed specifications.
Strictly speaking, a dog show is not exactly a comparison of one dog to another, it is a comparison of each dog to a judge’s concept of the ideal specimen as dictated by the breed standard, containing the attributes of a given breed and a list of conformation points. Based on this, one dog is placed ahead of another. All-breed judges should therefore have a vast amount of knowledge, but the ability (or inability) of humans to retain all these details mentally for hundreds of breeds (and to maintain their objectivity despite their personal preferences) is the subject of intense debate, particularly from the fanciers of working dogs. Politics in the purebred dog world can be as vicious as in any other arena; there have been charges of favoritism, nepotism, bribery and even drugging of competitors’ animals.
Dogs compete at dog shows to earn points towards the title of Champion. Each time a dog wins at some level of a show, it earns points towards the championship. The number of points varies depending on what level within a show the win occurs, how many dogs are competing, and whether the show is a major (larger shows) or minor (smaller shows). As well, the number of points needed to attain a Champion title varies by country.
Dogs compete in a hierarchical fashion at each show, where winners at lower levels are gradually combined to narrow the winners until the final round, where Best in Show is chosen. At the lowest level, dogs are divided by breed. Each breed is divided into classes based on sex and, sometimes, age. Males (dogs) are judged first, then females (bitches).