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What is “Conformation”? Or, the Non-Specialist’s Super-Quick Guide to Dog Shows!

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

Linda Ronstadt’s first hit came when she fronted a band called the Stone Poneys in 1967. Over fifty years ago! The song is called "Different Drum," and although the Stone Poneys were a folk trio, music historians call the genre “baroque pop” for its abundant use of strings and harpsichord. Much as I love the song, it does not exactly work when sung by Ronstadt. Why? It’s clearly written by a man—in this case Mike Nesmith of the Monkees—who doesn’t want to settle down and get married. He travels to the beat of a different drum. He doesn’t conform. As a matter of fact, Nesmith was happily married at the time he wrote it, a testament to his skill as a songwriter. In any case, this theme of not conforming might be suited to ‘60s pop songs, but it’s not what we want when we take a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in the show ring. We want conformation.

Conformation to what? Good question. The answer is: conformation to the standards of the breed. Now, before you read any further, you should know that this particular blog entry is written by the half of the Top Meadow team who does not do the showing. I go to the shows, wheel in the kennels, set up the chairs, keep track of who wins each class, hold dogs waiting to go in the ring, make runs for ice-tea, pretty much everything except walk that dog around the ring. That’s Jackie’s field. She’s just better at walking dogs around a ring. Sounds simple? It’s not. I can assure you the times I tried it were train wrecks. Jackie knows what she’s doing in the ring, and if she were writing this you would have a lot more detail. Instead you are getting an explanation of conformation by a non-specialist. At least you know I won’t use any big words!

Every breed recognized by the American Kennel Club comes with a set of standards. For example, how much a particular breed should weigh. A Cavalier should weigh between 13 and 18 pounds. A judge has a little latitude here: “slight variations are permissible.” The breed standards also address, for example, the structure and proportion of the legs: from withers to elbow should equal the distance from elbow to ground. Eyes, bite, muzzle, skull, etc. are all supposed to look a certain way. Then there’s tail set (where the tail meets the rear end) topline (the shape of the spine, essentially) and temperament. Temperament is very important in a Cavalier. Frankly it’s why so many people want them as companions. Here’s what the standards say: “Gay, friendly, non-aggressive with no tendency towards nervousness or shyness.” And just to drive the importance of temperament home, the standards continue—in italics, no less—"bad temper, shyness, and meanness are not to be tolerated and are to be severely penalized as to effectively remove the specimen from competition."

Sometimes people ask us if we train our dogs to compete. We do, but not in the way most people think. They are often thinking of things such as sit, stay, retrieve, jump, etc. These are skills dogs are asked to exhibit at obedience, rally, and agility trials. Cavaliers are great at these sport trials, by the way, but sport trials are different from conformation. We do have to get our dogs accustomed to being in the ring with other dogs, to show off, if you will, to have a great time, and not to sit, as a matter of fact! Much of the work, however, in preparing for the show ring is in the breeding. When we plan a breeding, we are trying to get a Cavalier puppy that comes as close as possible to conforming to as many of the breed standards as we can. No dog is perfect. Yes, I know, lots of people think their dog is the perfect dog! What I mean is there is always some kind of fault (that’s the word judges use) with even the very best dogs. When we breed, we are trying to correct as many faults as we can. This is a bit of a simplification, but say we have a girl whose body is a little too long according to the standards of the breed, then we would look for a stud to whom to breed her with a more compact frame. It’s truly much, much more complicated than that. Jackie is the expert, not me. There are so many variables, and, as everyone learned in economics class, or demography, or whatever it was, you cannot maximize every variable. If I’m starting to confuse, sorry! Jackie is much better at talking about all the decisions that go into a breeding then I am, but I promised you a quick explanation from a non-specialist.

One thing more: Sometimes when people inquire about a puppy, they want to make clear that they are looking for a pet and not a show dog. The fact is that all the puppies we place are companions. They are perfectly sweet and adorable creatures that for some reason we have decided not to “run on,” that is, not to take in the show ring. In the vast majority of cases the reason is something someone looking for a pet would never notice but something a judge would. What I can tell you for sure is that every time we breed, we are trying to get as close to the standards of the breed as we can. Especially important to us is health and temperament.

We think people who are looking for Cavaliers should work with breeders who also show in the American Kennel Club. These breeders want the same things we do: a Cavalier that looks and behaves like a Cavalier should.

If you would like to read all the standards of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (it’s even longer than this blog post!), knock yourself out. Here’s a link.


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