What does "conformation" mean? Some people view the conformation classes at dog shows as mere beauty contests. And sometimes, depending on the judge, it is "just" a beauty contest. But it should be much more than that, which is why we try to employ expert judges: people with experience and knowledge of canine anatomy, breed history and purpose, and an "eye" for a dog.
So what is "conformation"? Basically, it is everything about a dog you can see and feel with your hands. The importance of various qualities depends on the breed. In the Lhasa Apso breed, important qualities include the size and proportion of the dog, the quality of the bone and muscle, the coat quality, and the proportions of the head and face. Since this is a Tibetan breed, originating in the very high altitudes of the Himalayas, the shape of the body and head and the coat quality are paramount. The body shape needs to provide strength and substance, and large lung capacity. The head must provide good breathing apparatus and a well protected eye. The coat must provide insulation and weatherproofing to withstand the harsh alpine winter. These requirements are spelled out in the breed Standard, a written description to which each dog is compared to determine it's quality relative to the other dogs present in that competition.
So what will you see at the dog show in the conformation classes? The first classes to enter the ring are those dogs not yet champions. Even though champions can compete in some of those classes, they almost never do, except by accident. The reason is that the non-champion dogs are competing for championship "points". The number of points awarded to the winners of a competition is based on the number of dogs of each sex competing, and at each show can vary from 0 to 5 points. 15 points are needed to become a champion.
First in the ring will be the puppy dogs. (No "ladies first" at dog shows, we are strictly chauvinistic!) After Puppy dogs comes a class, rarely entered, called "Novice", followed by "Bred by Exhibitor", "American Bred," and finally "Open". Puppy class is open to any dog between 6 months and 12 months. Novice is open to any dog over 6 months which has never had a major win before. Bred by Exhibitor is open to any dog over 6 months, but the breeder must also be the handler of the dog. American Bred is open to any 6 month or older dog bred in the USA, and Open is open to any dog over 6 months bred anywhere, handled by anybody, regardless of it's previous wins. A winner is picked in each of these classes as well as the second, third and fourth place runner-ups.
After the winners of the male classes have all been picked, the first place winners of each class go back in the ring to determine which male will get the "points" and become "Winners Dog". The second place dog from the original class of the Winner, goes in then to see which dog will be designated "Reserve Winner". In case there is any disqualification of the Winner after the fact, the Reserve Winner will be awarded the points.
Following the determination of the male Winner and Reserve, the girls go in the ring in the same order. After the Winning and Reserve females are judged, in go the Champions, along with Winners Dog and Winners Bitch, for the Best of Breed competition. A Best of Breed and a Best of Opposite Sex are picked from this class. Also a best of the two winners of the non champion classes is picked. The Best of Winners takes home the maximum points awarded for that breed. (e.g. if the bitches were numerous and therefore garnered more points in that show, and the male is Best of Winners, he would be awarded the number of points for females in that breed because he "beat" the winning female.)
So now you know what the dogs are doing in the ring. Perhaps we should take a look at what the judge is doing.
The judge normally has the class line up and get settled, then he takes a look at the overall appearance of the exhibits in a static posed lineup. He can get an idea of the uniformity of the class, any unusual deviations, the general outlines of the individual dogs. Following the lineup, he usually asks the class to move around the ring as a group. Now he can get an overall idea about the class. Any standouts, good or bad? Make a mental note.
Now the judge will examine each exhibit individually, in detail, on the table. He will look to verify what he saw on the first move around the ring. (Was that unusual gait on #3 the result of some anomaly of structure, or not?) He will be comparing the details of head, body, legs and coat with the breed standard, making a mental note of the quality of each exhibit relative to the others. After each examination on the table, the judge will ask the dog to be gaited again so that he can verify anything he found on examination, and refresh his impression of the dog's ability to cover ground efficiently. After all the dogs have been examined individually, the judge may need to clarify his impressions of two exhibits' relative merits, and may ask individuals to gait again, or may even ask individuals to go back to the table again.
Finally, the judge usually asks the dogs to go around as a group again. He may be giving the dogs one last chance to impress him or looking for small differences in structure revealed by movement. Now the judge may rearrange the order of the dogs, and ask them for one final go-round. At this final go-round he usually points to his choices in order - one, two, three and four. Or in the Best of Breed class he will point out Best of Breed, followed by Best of Opposite Sex, and Best of Winners.
Then everybody cheers, or cries and we go back to our tables to congratulate the winner, commiserate with the losers, finish our lunches, and our conversations, put our dog's topknots back in, and start packing up our grooming tools. "Are you staying to watch the groups?" Will the Lhasa win the group and perhaps Best in Show? Or is it a long drive home, and you have to get started. In either case it's been a good day, in the fresh air, shared with friends and our favorite canines. "See you all next week!"