Canine Conformation 101

About 4 years ago, I drove to Virginia to pick up Jax, the first dog that would teach me about the conformation show world. In those 4 years, he’s taught me a lot, but what has also taught me a lot about canine conformation is being able to stand ring side, talk to different owners, handlers, and breeders about all of the different breeds, and being able to talk to the judges who judge our dogs and interpret the breed standards.

Conformation isn’t just about pretty dogs trotting around the show ring. Correct conformation is important for sound structure and a healthy dog. Each breed is different, but I will describe a breed that can be pretty straight forward and many of the traits can be applied to many other breeds and mixed breeds: The German Shorthaired Pointer.

The dogs in the following photos have all been bred by the same breeder, and she has kindly given us permission to use them in this post. If you’re not already familiar, now might be a good time to brush up on your conformation vocabulary!


The lines drawn on the dog show the angles that a breeder or dog show handler looks for when looking for correct conformation. These lines should flow and create a picture of balance.

The line from the withers to the pasterns (down the front legs) should be straight, with all points – withers, elbow, pasterns – lining up on that line.

The triangle on the chest shows the angles of the shoulders. The top line from the point of the withers to the point of the chest shows the layback of the shoulders; the shoulders should not be too steep or too flat.

The next two lines show the length of loin – this is measured from the point of the last rib to the first point of the hip. The above dog is male, and so he should have a moderate length of loin, in proportion to the body. Bitches will have a longer loin, but still in proportion to the body.

The hind end assembly is important, and you’ll often hear people talking about a dog’s angles in this context, meaning their rear angles. There are two important points here: the curvature from under the tail to the hock, and from the hock straight down to paws meet the floor. A dog should not be over-angulated, meaning that curvature shouldn’t be overdone. On the flip-side, a dog shouldn’t be straight in the rear, either.

The GSP in the example photo above has good rear angulation. The following two photos are to compare-and-contrast, and are of American Bullies. The first shows a dog who is over-angulated in the rear, and the second photo shows a dog which does not have enough angulation, but is not quite straight, either.


American Bully/APBT, over-angulated. Photo courtesy of Jamie Lower


American Bully/APBT, under-angulated. Photo courtesy of Jamie Lower

The front assembly of the dog, in addition to the angles of the shoulders, the toes of the dog should be pointing forward, and they should not toe-in or toe-out.

Poppy has a beautiful straight front structure.

Poppy has a beautiful straight front structure.

Frank is a good example of "toeing-out"

Frank is a good example of “toeing-out”

The topline of a dog is also something to take into consideration, and this will also be important. In general, the topline should not be arched (or over-arched for those breeds that should have a slight arch to their topline). Likewise, the dog should not sway-backed. The topline should be straight and level*.

*It is necessary to keep in mind that all of these rules will not apply to each and every dog or breed. For example: while a Golden Retriever should have a fairly straight topline, an American Pit Bull Terrier should have a slight arch to their back. This is why we have a written standard for each breed, and why a good judge will always refer to these standards if they’re not sure.

Combining all of this will equal a dog that moves properly. “If you’re not built right, you won’t move right.”


The lines in this photo demonstrate the balance of movement. The top line shows the balance along the topline of the dog – the spine. Ideally, the nose should be balanced with the spine and along the tail, but in this photo, the handler may be lifting the head a bit with collar. In a video, we may see the nose actually does fall in balance, which is also why photos can be deceiving.

Phoenix, an American Staffordshire Terrier, gaiting with co-owner Valerie Piltz

Phoenix, an American Staffordshire Terrier, gaiting with co-owner Valerie Piltz

When gaiting, or “moving out,” the front and rear legs of the same side should meet – that is to say, the back foot should fall where the front foot is leaving from (as shown in the photo of Phoenix, above). Both pictures above are also beautiful examples of “reach” and “drive.” Reach is the description of the front legs, while drive is the driving force of the back legs. A dog should not over/under-reach, nor should a dog over/under-drive.

Lastly, all feet should be level on the ground, as shown in the first gaiting photo of the German Shorthaired Pointer. The line along the ground shows us that all feet are level; next, looking at the photo of Phoenix the Am Staff without lines, you can clearly transfer that visual to his feet as well.

Now, you should be able to take away this information and better watch a conformation class. Westminster will be held on February 16th & 17th, with Best in Show being held on the 17th starting at 7:30pm EST. It would be a great time to put your new-found knowledge to the test!

**It is important to note that these traits will not be the same for every breed – especially breeds like a Corgi or a Dachshund. These can be mostly be applied to “boxier” breeds, but all breeds should follow their written breed standards.

Go Forth and Encourage

Just for a minute, I want you to think about who inspires you. It can be one person, it can be multiple people, it can be a group of people. Who inspires you to get up every day? Who inspires you to do better, to be better?

More importantly, who are YOU encouraging – who are YOU inspiring?


The dog world is complicated, even if your dog is “just a pet.” What do you feed them when there are so many options on the shelves, so many colorful bags promising that each one is better than the last? Which vet do you go to when each person has the best one in the entire area? Which trainer? Which collar? It can be dizzying.

This is why controversial trainers like Caesar Millan are so popular with the general public: they relate to the owner first instead of berating them how horrible they are for using prong collars, or how stupid they are for feeding Science Diet. They are charming, they validate the owner, their problems, and their feelings. You can be the best dog trainer on the planet, but if you’re rude to the people you’ll lose the dogs.

Now, imagine how you felt as a new competitor, before you knew everything – the world of specialized dog training and competing is even more dizzying. It’s downright cut-throat. People are cruel to their competition, often treating new people who have questions as if they are worse than stupid, they are in they way. They are a waste of time. It’s a wonder that anyone gets involved at all, much less stays involved.

I am still wholly new to the competition world. I started approximately six years ago with a backyard bred pit bull, and he and I were going to conquer the world. It was tough figuring out the world of dog competition, and I thought I had what was a good group of people – until I became a real competitor. It wasn’t until I felt like I hit rock bottom (or rather, I felt like I was the rock on the bottom of someone’s shoe) and was ready to leave that I met people worth knowing.

In many of my social networking groups, I see discussions about clubs seeing less and less entries at shows, and I also see how some of these “newbies” are treated on the same discussion board. They are greeted with rude comments, they are mocked, and they are made to feel horrible for simply asking a question. Then I see how they are treated at shows – and it’s just about the same way.

Why are seasoned exhibitors treating new exhibitors like idiots? Why are we not stepping up to help them, to inspire them? Experienced exhibitors need to be ringside and be there to jump in and help a new exhibitor who is clearly struggling. We need to be there to be cheerleaders, to be a guide, to be encouragers. Even more so, experienced dog people need to be there to encourage the common “pet person,” even if they do not want to compete. We need to empower them to do better, instead of belittling them for getting a well-bred purebred instead of a rescue dog.

My group of people are not only my direct competitors, meaning that we are both in the ring chasing after that blue ribbon, but they are my greatest friends and my biggest cheerleaders. We give each other high fives for high obedience scores, and we cheer for each other when the other’s dog win best of breed. We celebrate the big wins, and we encourage the small victories.

These are the kind of dog people the dog world needs. We need to empower, we need to encourage, we need to befriend.

So, as you reflect on the people who encourage and inspire you, ask yourself, who is it that you encourage and inspire?


Team Unruly Reads: Show Dog (Josh Dean)

Josh Dean (author) poses with Jack (star)

Welcome to Round Two of Team Unruly Reads, TU’s semi-monthly virtual book club where we get together to talk about dog-themed books. This month, we’re reading Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred. We’ll be keeping this post open for comments through Monday, 3 December: we hope that’s just enough time for a fun, easy-to-follow discussion that gives us enough time to get into things but doesn’t stretch on forever.

As before, the floor is open for you to talk about anything you’d like to bring up about the book. Likes, dislikes, interesting bits, open-mouthed gawking at some of the intra-breed bad behavior, whatever you’d like!

If you’re stuck for what to talk about, here are a couple of our thoughts that might spark your own ideas:

  • Dean doesn’t hide the fact that while he’s a big fan of dogs, he’s an outsider to both dog shows and the larger world of Dog People. He does, however, still clearly have dogs on the brain: he’s been writing an occasional dog-based blog since the publication of the book. In the blog, he writes “I’m often asked to explain how I, a guy who has written mostly about people and sports, came to write about dog shows. I tend to answer that a) you can’t have dog shows without people, and a book about dog shows is as much about people as it is about dogs, and b) many would argue that dog showing is a sport, and I felt pretty confident I could cover it in that way. And I did. Sort of….[O]ne of the things that scared me most putting it out there into the world was that dog show people might find it overly simplistic, or somehow wrong.”

So first, people who show: did he get it right? And second, for the rest of us: did you think the fact that the book was authored by a non-Dog Person helped it? Hurt it? Something in between?

Team Jack: (l) Kimberly Smith, Jack’s owner, (r) Kerry Kirtley, Jack’s breeder (far right: Jack)

More Team Jack: Heather Bremmer, Jack’s primary handler (r: Jack)

  • The relationship between humans and dogs is always an important factor in books like these, and in a situation like Jack’s (where he’s got a whole bunch of really important humans in his life), it’s even more multi-dimensional.  For me, one of the most interesting part of Show Dog was the (sometimes tense) interactions between Kimberly (Jack’s owner), Heather (Jack’s handler) and Kerry (Jack’s breeder). While they all wanted him to win, they each had their own specific goals for him that the others didn’t share, and I get the sense they had pretty different methods for achieving those goals. What did you think about this?

Frisbeeeeeeee! (don’t tell Heather)

  • Of course, in a perfect world, all show dogs are beloved family pets first and foremost; however, as the occasional tension between Kimberly and Heather (over Frisbee, Jack’s condition, Jack’s manners and so on) indicated, sometimes a dog’s career as a pet can be a little at odds with their career as a show dog.  Thoughts on this? What about dogs who are involved in other kinds of performance venues (sports, service, different kinds of work, etc)? Is it possible for dogs to comfortably wear multiple hats (service dog during the day, lazy buddy playing with the kids at night) or do Dogs With Jobs have to sacrifice a ‘normal’ life?

Vendor area at the Peninsula Dog Fanciers’ Club All-Breed Dog Show

  • As I do not live under a rock, I was aware that a bunch of money flows through dog shows, but BOY does Show Dog shine a light on that! From the show vendors to the entry fees to the, um, “collection services” to the rates for professional handlers to the people who are jetting between shows in their private planes, it seems pretty clear that showing dogs (especially at the higher levels) is not an inexpensive hobby to participate in.
  • On this same note, Dean writes a lot about the growing professionalization of dog shows, particularly the near-ubiquity of professional handlers (rather than owner-handlers). Of course, this dovetails with a growing trend towards specialists/away from amateurs in many, many hobbies and pastimes (don’t believe me? Check out Stefan Fatsis’s Word Freak, about the competitive Scrabble circuit, and Sam Walker’s Fantasyland about an especially ruthless fantasy baseball league made up of fantasy baseball professionals (which, among other things, spawned Nate Silver). Anyway, as a current non-show person who is vaguely interested in maybe showing someday, I found this all rather terrifying! Do you feel the same, non-show people? And show people, what do you think? Are Dean’s concerns overblown here?

There is so, so much more to talk about, but that’ll hopefully get you started! In the meantime, I will leave you with an excellent video of Jack’s most recent litter of puppies, with book co-star, Hallie B.

[Wait, one more thing: anyone wanna take bets on how long it'll be before Josh Dean gets a dog?]