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Australian Shepherds were bred to be herding dogs. Even as puppies, the breed exhibits the desire to herd and guard.
Dogs / stock.adobe.com

Among inexperienced dog seekers, one question looms early in the process of finding that perfect puppy. Pet or show dog? This is an inquiry often asked by breeders, but you may find yourself wondering, “how should I know?”

Of course, every puppy will fulfill that first category as a loyal companion. And hopefully, they’ll be a part of your family for many years to come. But, while breeders are gratified to see their puppies going to loving homes, that’s not the sole reason they are breeding. If they are serious about purpose-bred dogs, they’ll always be looking ahead to the new generation that will bring their family of dogs forward.

So, while you’re scrolling through lists of dog names and scheduling your first vet visit, your breeder might be sipping their morning coffee next to the whelping box, trying to divine if the next conformation champion awaits.

Pet-quality and show-quality are labels that breeders attach to their puppies, but they can be fluid. Experienced breeders spend years grading, selecting, and following puppies. This helps learn their growth patterns and develop a baseline for predicting how they will turn out. But, Mother Nature has a particular fondness for curveballs. Sometimes the most promising puppy defies his rosy predictions as an adult, while his gawky, uncoordinated littermate matures into an enviable swan.

Understanding the difference between show dogs and pet puppies – and how breeders arrive at those assessments – can significantly demystify the selection process for many new owners.

Four Shetland Sheepdog puppies sitting in a row.

Screening For Show Dog Success

The difference between a show dog and pet puppy is the degree to which each meets the standard for the breed. Knowing the standard for the breed you are interested in – and how to interpret it – is vital. Some standards have disqualifications, which prevent such dogs from entering the show ring.

Certain disqualifications result from missing traits that are considered hallmarks of the breed. Examples include the lack of a ridge in a Rhodesian Ridgeback or the presence of a smooth or wavy coat in a Spanish Water Dog. Other times, disqualifications address those traits that evoke an earlier ancestor or blur lines with another breed. For example, any white spot on the shoulder, back of neck, or back or sides of a Pharaoh Hound is a disqualification, so as not to confuse it with its heavily white-marked cousin, the Ibizan Hound. So too are blue eyes in an Alaskan Malamute, to differentiate it from the closely-related Siberian Husky.

Sometimes, a disqualification isn’t immediately identifiable. Some breeds, for example, mandate full dentition, which is a fancy way of saying all their teeth. With Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers, the absence of two or four teeth, respectively, means a dog is disqualified. However, puppies often don’t have permanent teeth yet when they go to a new home. Therefore, determining show potential in those breeds can be a bit more complex.

Similarly, breeds such as Whippets and Beagles have a disqualification for size. A puppy that a breeder thinks might not grow tall enough – or, conversely, might grow too tall – also could be sold as a pet. And in males of any breed, the absence of one or both testicles is an immediate DQ.

A disqualification is the most obvious reason for a puppy not being show dog material, but it is hardly the only one. Each standard lists dozens of required characteristics. Eyes alone include color, shape, size, set, and depth. But good breeders know how to prioritize faults. So, what may seem a big deal, because it’s in the standard, may not be from a showing perspective. An eye for that important but equally intangible quality – overall balance – can take years to develop. All the more reason to trust in an experienced breeder to explain why a certain puppy is destined as a show dog instead of a full-time couch guardian.

Picking The Proper Pup

Predicting how a puppy will turn out is an inexact science, but good breeders have a knack for such things. For this reason, it’s likely that your breeder will select your puppy for you. Other than show-versus-pet quality, the breeder will also take into consideration the puppy’s temperament. Also, what will work best with your lifestyle and family configuration. Naturally, a puppy suitable for young, active couples will be different from one that goes to an elderly owner.

Because puppies go through dizzying growth spurts, many breeders wait until seven or eight weeks of age or later to make final determinations about which puppies are destined for the show ring. Some have formal evaluation sessions, inviting other breeders they respect to have a look and render an opinion. Try to be patient, and as soon as the breeder has figured out who goes where, you’ll know, too.

Bloodhound puppies together on a white background.

The difference between pet-quality and show dog potential often has an impact on price, with the latter logically being costing more. But this isn’t always the case. Putting aside that once-in-a-lifetime superstar, some breeders charge the same price for both pet and show prospects. Even if there are two price tiers, the difference between them is usually not very significant.

While people toss around the term “pick of the litter,” it’s all too often meaningless. That much-touted puppy’s only comparison is its littermates, who may not be anything to write home about. Ironically, the bottom-ranked pet puppy from an extremely high-quality litter could be a better example of the breed than the “pick puppy” from a mediocre litter.

Limited Registration

Many breeders sell their pet-quality puppies on a limited registration. This means the puppy can participate in official AKC events like Obedience, Agility, and Rally, among others, but cannot participate in conformation. The logic here is that “pet-quality” means a dog is, in the opinion of its breeder, not a candidate for breeding, and the show ring is the place for evaluating breeding stock. Similarly, if a pet-quality puppy does produce offspring, they cannot be registered with the American Kennel Club.

As you might guess, breeders will place their pet-quality puppies on limited registration in order to prevent unscrupulous individuals from breeding them anyway, against the breeder’s wishes.

A dog’s breeders – but not its owners – are permitted to change a dog’s limited registration to full registration, allowing the dog to be shown and bred. Some breeders ask the owners of pet-quality puppies to see the puppy before it is spayed or neutered to make this determination.

Welcome To The World Of Show Dogs

Some puppy buyers experience trepidation about bringing home a “show dog” when they went looking for “just a pet.” While the dog show world can seem intense, having a show dog is not as demanding as it may seem.

A big culture shock for first-timers is that show dogs are not spayed or neutered, as altered animals can’t be shown. Once a dog achieves its championship – a process that can take a couple of months to a year or more– the breeder might be happy to end things there. That’s because the best breeders are also the pickiest. Just because a dog is a champion doesn’t mean it has to be bred. Advances in reproductive technology also mean that a dog’s semen can be stored for years and even decades. This is an option for owners who prefer not to keep their male intact indefinitely.

Females are a significantly greater responsibility. They come into heat every six to 12 months, and whelping a litter takes a lot of time and effort. Some owners work out an arrangement. Breeders handle breeding, whelping, and placement of puppies, and the owner keeps a puppy at the end of the process. This requires a great deal of trust and communication. All details and possible scenarios should be spelled out in the contract between the owner and breeder.

The financial commitment of having a show dog can vary widely as well. Many breeders enjoy showing their own dogs themselves and will ask owners just to pay entry fees. Others will require owners to hire a professional handler, which can be a significant investment or to show the dog themselves, which can be the start of an exciting new hobby. Remember that the biggest challenge many breeders face is finding good show homes. Many will work with prospective owners who are willing to take a show puppy.

Honest Intentions

Some buyers are willing to pay top dollar for a show-quality puppy but don’t want to be involved in conformation. Sometimes, breeders with especially large litters of high-quality puppies can accommodate such a request. If a puppy is good enough to be a champion show dog, a breeder will want them to achieve that. Therefore, they may hold out for the right home.

Buyers should never pretend to want to show in order to snag a show-quality puppy. Just as you trust breeders to be honest about practices and dog quality, you should be forthright about your intentions.

Responsible breeders, after all, are not in it for the money. They focus on producing healthy, sound dogs that meet the breed standard. To do that, they need to breed new generations of dogs to carry on. Maybe, just maybe, you’d like your dog to be a thread in that ever-weaving tapestry.

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