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Courtesy of the AKC Library and Archives

Conformation shows began over 150 years ago as a competition among friends about breeding dogs. Today, it’s easy to attend an all-breed event and see hundreds of trained and well-groomed dogs of multiple dog breeds, all showcased outdoors or inside a large arena.

Conformation dog shows are a fun and impressive sight that many spectators never forget. But this celebration of the form and function of purebred dogs and the attention they bring as companions didn’t spring up overnight.

The Beginning of Conformation Shows

Putting on a dog show takes incredible time, preparation, and the dedication of people who care about dogs.

The first dog show dates back to the mid-19th century in Newcastle, England, in 1859, when 27 Setters and 23 Pointers exhibited their best features. The gun dogs were an extra event to the annual cattle show. Winning dogs and owners received guns from W.R. Pape, the Bench Show Chairman’s gun factory, as prizes.

The event proved so popular that the Birmingham Dog Show Society‘s second show in 1859 added 30 non-sporting breeds, for a total of 267 entries judged in 42 classes. At the end of the 1860s, Birmingham’s National Dog Show drew more than 700 dogs and 20,000 spectators.

Another show soon followed at Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea, West London, England, in 1863. More than 1,000 dogs vied for top honors in this event, which lasted over a week, with . The Prince of Wales was among the 100,000 visitors who attended. The canine presentation led to the first national kennel club in the world, which was formed officially 10 years later in 1873. S.E. Shirley and 12 other man set out to establish a consistent set of rules for dog showing and field trials, in a club first called the British Kennel Club, now known as The Kennel Club.

Courtesy of the AKC Library and Archives

In 1891, Charles Cruft put on his first show in Islington, England, with 2,437 entries and 36 breeds. The show came to a halt from 1918-1920 during the First World War. After Cruft’s death in 1938, his widow Emma Cruft assumed the show’s administration. The Second World War forced the Crufts Dog Show to suspend events again from 1942-1947. A year later, Emma Cruft handed the show’s control to The Kennel Club. Since then, Crufts has been held annually in London.

Dog Shows Come to the United States

It took about 20 years for these shows to make their way over to the United States. Soon after the Civil War ended, early records show that 21 Pointers and Setters appeared in the first American dog show in Chicago in 1874. Other small shows began popping up in different parts of the U.S. soon after.

Three years later, members of the Westminster Kennel Club and the Kennel Club of Philadelphia met to adopt rules and regulations for a show at Gilmore’s Garden, an open arena that later became Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, New York. The goal of the show was to compare sporting dogs in a setting away from the field.

A vintage photograph of a yellow Labrador Retriever winning first place at a conformation dog show.
Courtesy of the AKC Library and Archives

In the first Westminster show in 1877, four notable entries included two Staghounds belonging to the late General George Custer’s pack and two Deerhounds bred by the Queen of England. In 1889, famous entries included the Czar of Russia’s Siberian Wolfhound, and the Emperor of Germany entered a Russian Wolfhound the following year. Philanthropist J.P. Morgan entered his Collies in 1893, and journalist Nelly Bly’s Maltese was shown the following year in 1894.

The Westminster Kennel Club show is the second-oldest continuously-held sporting event in the country, only after the Kentucky Derby, which ran its first race in 1875.

The Origin of American Kennel Club Shows

As Conformation events caught on in the U.S., 12 sportsmen gathered at the Philadelphia Kennel Club. Each represented a dog club that previously held a benched dog show or field trial. This was the formation of the American Kennel Club in 1884. The association adopted a Constitution and By-Laws, and Major James M. Taylor was elected as AKC’s first president. The AKC established breeding records of purebred dogs in the U.S.

By 1905, 110 clubs and 500 associate members presented dog show classes and added a point system for all-breed dog shows. Groups and Best in Show judging added an exciting component to dog shows starting in 1924.

Five groups included Sporting Dogs, which at that time included all Hound breeds, Working Dogs, Terriers, Toy Breeds, and Non-Sporting. A Best of Breed winner in each group went on to compete for the Best Dog or Best in Show. The groups later split into the original five groups: the Sporting Group, Working Group, Terrier Group, Toy Group, and Non-Sporting Group. The Hound Group became a sixth Group in 1930.

Courtesy of the AKC Library and Archives

To further the sport’s original intent, Conformation events combine fanciers’ camaraderie and competition while gathering to celebrate the distinctive features of breeds and produce the next generation. In 1973, All-Breed clubs came together to present shows on consecutive days called Cluster Shows. Ten years later, herding breeds split from the Working Group to form the Herding Group, the seventh group.

Dog Shows Today

Today, you can see purebred canines exhibited at any American Kennel Club conformation dog show. Thousands of AKC multi-breed, group, all-breed and specialty dog shows take place in the U.S. every year. Specialty shows feature one breed sponsored by the parent or local breed club. Local kennel clubs put on practice shows or matches. This gives puppies and owners a chance to learn the routines in a show ring. Handlers perfect their handling skills while puppies gain confidence and socialization awareness.

David Woo ©American Kennel Club

Every December, the AKC National Championship, presented by Royal Canin, showcases the nation’s top dogs at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida. Add in events like the AKC Agility Invitational, AKC Obedience Classic, Junior Showmanship, and specialty events, and it comes together as the largest dog show of the year, with more than 9,000 dogs all under one roof.