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Faking It: Artificial Enhancement in Show Dogs

Once when I was very young, but certainly not so young that I shouldn’t have known better, I was visiting a very famous Terrier handler in England. He was a very likable man, generous in sharing his knowledge and remarkably upfront about the dogs in his care. This one was a little crooked in front, that one’s head planes weren’t really ideal, the coat texture on a third one was a little soft, and so on. He even walked down the line of runs and ticked the dogs off one by one: “This one has a fixed tail, that one used to have bad ear carriage until we took care of it…,” etc.

Almost as surprising as this handler’s off-the-cuff honesty was the fact that I wasn’t shocked. Perhaps I had been involved long enough even then to know that cosmetic enhancements of some kind occur fairly frequently in show dogs, or perhaps I was in such awe of this famous professional handler that I just couldn’t see how deeply unethical these alterations were. The fact that the incident has stuck with me for all these years must mean that it did, somehow, make a deeper impression on me than I realized at the time.

All dogs deserve to be clean, bathed, have their nails trimmed and their coats groomed, but some exhibitors take enhancing their dogs’ appearance a step too far. Photo by Darak77/Dreamstime.

The subject of artificial enhancement in show dogs has reared its ugly head with fairly regular intervals since then. One dog that is doing a lot of winning surely didn’t have such good ears, or such great tail carriage, or whatever, when he was young – or so we’re told. You would have to be pretty naive to not realize that in a competitive activity such as dog shows there will always be some people who try to cut corners and score an advantage by “assisting Mother Nature” a bit.

The problem really lies in how far they go, and what are defined as unacceptable alterations. There is a famous passage in the AKC Afghan Hound standard that says the breed should be shown “in its natural state,” but as the late, great breeder-judge Babbie Tongren once put it, “An Afghan Hound in its natural state is dirty, matted and running like hell in the opposite direction…” That’s hardly what anyone wants.

Nobody would argue that all show dogs (well, all dogs, for that matter) deserve to be clean, bathed, have their nails trimmed and their coats groomed – but already we come upon “artificiality” in the sense that some people would in all seriousness argue that trimming constitutes faking, in the sense that a well-trimmed dog presents a different image than it would if it were shown less well trimmed. In other words, the judge would be rewarding the trimmer’s talent, not the dog’s intrinsic qualities, and thereby make a mockery of dog shows. (I know, we’re taking things to the extreme here, but bear with me…)

Rules Applying to Dog Shows
The American Kennel Club devotes a lot of space to the subject of artificial enhancements in “Rules Applying to Dog Shows”. The following is from Chapter 11, Section 8, with my underlined italics: “A dog which is blind, deaf, castrated, spayed, or which has been changed in appearance by artificial means except as specified in the standard for its breed, or a male which does not have two normal testicles normally located in the scrotum, may not compete at any show and will be disqualified…,” etc. The only exceptions for neutered dogs and spayed bitches are that they may compete in Stud Dog and Brood Bitch classes, and at independent specialty shows in the Veteran class.

Here’s how AKC defines what’s considered artificial changes: “… any type of procedure, substance or drugs that have the effect of obscuring, disguising or eliminating any congenital or hereditary abnormality or any undesirable characteristic, or that does anything to improve a dog’s natural appearance, temperament, bite or gait.”

It should be noted that even procedures, substances and drugs that are necessary for a dog’s health and comfort will disqualify that dog from competition if they change the dog’s appearance, temperament, bite or gait.

Here’s a partial list of procedures that would be considered a change in appearance by artificial means and therefore make a dog ineligible to be shown:

  • • The correction of entropion,  ectropion, trichiasis or distichiasis;
  • • Trimming, removing or tattooing of the third eyelid;
  • • The insertion of an eye prosthesis;
  • • Correction of harelip, cleft palate, stenotic nares or an elongated soft palate resection;
  • • Any procedure to change ear set or carriage other than as permitted by the breed standard;
  • • Restorative dental procedures, the use of bands or braces on teeth, or any alteration of the dental arcade;
  • • The removal of excess skin folds or the removal of skin patches to alter markings;
  • • Correction of inguinal, scrotal or perineal hernias;
  • • Surgery for hip dysplasia, Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD), patellar luxation and femoral head restriction;
  • • Alteration of the location of the testes or the insertion of an artificial testicle; and
  • • Altering the set or carriage of the tail.

When a judge finds any of these conditions in a dog while judging, he or she must disqualify the dog, mark the judges book, “Disqualified,” and state the reason. The judge cannot obtain the opinion of the show veterinarian. That, of course, is one reason so few dogs are disqualified for any of the above reasons. How many non-veterinarian judges have the knowledge and confidence to, during the short time allowed for examining each dog, determine with absolute certainty that any of the listed procedures have actually taken place? You may suspect something is wrong, but the damage done to the reputation of everyone involved if it turns out the judge is mistaken would be monumental – so no wonder that most judges simply continue judging. At the very most they (we?) leave the suspected dog out of the ribbons, which is of course not really fair either.

When a dog has been disqualified at a show for being changed in appearance by artificial means (except as specified in that breed’s standard), any awards won by this dog at that show will be canceled, and the dog may not compete again unless and until that owner has received official notification from AKC that the dog’s show eligibility has been reinstated.

Coloring and Dyeing
Almost anyone would agree that surgery of the type outlined above – done for strictly cosmetic reasons – is pretty gross. That anyone who professes to love dogs would even consider taking a knife to their dog for the express purpose of increasing its win ratio is frankly beyond the pale.

There’s another paragraph in “Rules Applying to Dog Shows” that deals with the “softer” crime of coloring or dyeing a dog. (Or, as the Poodle people say, “enhancing” their color; a lovely euphemism if ever there was one.) According to Section 8-C, “No dog shall be eligible to compete at any show and no dog shall receive any award at any show in the event the natural color, or shade of natural color, or the natural markings of the dog have been altered or changed by the use of any substance, whether such substance may have been used for cleaning purposes or for any other reason. Such cleaning substances are to be removed before the dog enters the ring.”

The disciplinary action required for an infringement doesn’t go nearly as far as that stated above. If the judge believes that any substance has been used to alter the natural color or markings of a dog, he or she shall withhold any award from such dog and make a note in the judge’s book giving the reason for withholding the award. That’s it, though – no disqualification. However, the handler or the owner, or both, or any judge who fails to perform his or her duties under this section, shall be subject to disciplinary action. (Has any judge ever been disciplined for awarding a placement to a dog whose color has been altered? Somehow I doubt it, but I’d love to know.)

This is all less heavy-duty than cosmetic surgery, and it’s also usually easier for the judge to establish that a dog has been dyed – at least if the color comes off on the judge’s hands. Of course, a clever handler would make sure the dye he or she uses doesn’t rub off, which brings us to those judges who somehow find a good dye job acceptable and only penalize a bad one. I remember one famous ex-handler judge who very publicly, at a very important show, excused one contestant for being “insultingly badly” dyed. He knew very well that of course pretty much all the other competitors had had their color “enhanced” as well – but obviously this judge appreciated the fact that those handlers had gone to the trouble of doing a better job of it!

I’m not sure how much dyeing goes on in most breeds, but even in mine, where every possible color and color combination is allowed, you often see people “painting faces” at shows: filling in or just darkening the pigmentation around the eyes. It’s a little annoying to hear judges praise a competitor’s “gorgeous expression” when you’ve been beaten by one of the painted faces, so if you’re a judge, please think about it before you make any remarks like that, almost regardless of breed.

Not that I can claim complete innocence: at least in the past, when I was more ambitious than I am today, I used to chalk the white parts of my dogs. We called it “cleaning their legs,” and we made at least some cursory attempt to brush off the chalk before going in the ring, but I’m not sure our motives were quite as pure as all that. However, I was shocked once when I brought a co-owner’s dog to a show and, along with the dog, received a make-up kit with little black, brown and white dye-pots, even a little chart to tell me what went where. (We didn’t use any of it, and we still won.)

By the way, I find nothing in “Rules Applying to Dog Shows” that outlaws changing the texture of the coat of a dog. In fact, the word “texture” does not appear at all, as far as I can see. Does that mean that, for example, the hair sprays that are frequently and openly used in the Poodle rings are acceptable? It seems like it. But then, the rule books don’t specifically mention the “wiggies” either — the false hair-pieces that a lot of Poodles (and maybe some other breeds, too) sport. I’m not sure how common they are, but they are an established enough practice that I once saw a judge turn his back on a special whose wig came loose, pretending not to notice… and waited politely until the handler had fixed it before examining the dog!

Please do not be misled by the light tone in the above. Artificial enhancements of any kind are wrong, and one day, when dog shows are the subject of a “60 Minutes” type exposé, we will wonder how we could all have been so stupid. If you’re even thinking of cosmetic surgery for your dog, you’re in the wrong end of the dog business anyway. It’s not quite as fast, but it’s so much more rewarding in the long run to simply breed dogs that look the way you want them to be!

Written by

Bo Bengtson has been involved in dogs since the late 1950s and judged since the mid-1970s in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Japan, China and Russia. He has judged twice at Westminster, twice at Crufts and four times at the FCI World Show, as well as the U.S. national specialties for Scottish Deerhounds, Whippets, Greyhounds and Borzoi.
  • Lynda Beam (Canine Candids by Lynda) February 27, 2013 at 10:28 AM

    it’s a good point to make, I’ve seen people draw faces and markings on their dogs with makeup (not mentioning names!), but it didn’t really change things much to be honest. These dogs were very good dogs and didn’t need it. I think a lot of the grooming that is done (and that includes in the ring and on the table) is nervous handler energy…

  • Danielle February 27, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    My male Newfoundland has what we call a “happy” tail. Not severe, but it can be noticeable if he’s overly excited. I can’t tell you how many times professional handlers advised me to have my boy’s tail surgically altered. I refused to “fix” it, and felt that my dog should be judged based on the total of his merits – and his faults.

    He got his championship in just three weekends – happy tail and all.

  • Mark Sachau: Duxinarow Labs February 27, 2013 at 11:27 AM

    Honest dogs and handlers will win more often under honest judges. Dishonest dogs and handlers will win less frequently under honest judges. Dishonest dogs, handlers and judges eventually lose it all. Those dishonest handlers and judges lose respect, reputation, clients and assignments. Dishonest dogs lose it in the whelping box.

  • Diane Stille February 27, 2013 at 12:30 PM

    This type of behavior will prevail as long as the results are rewarded. Too often the dyes/colorings are noticeable yet the dog is rewarded. What about judges that encourage this type of behavior ie; telling exhibitors how to skillfully apply color to a coat another telling an exhibitor that the tail needs to be fixed on a dog? At some point dogs shows have went from an evaluation of breeding stock to a glorified beauty pageant. As a fancy we need to decide what the true objective of showing dogs is. Is it the evaluation if ones breeding program or a win at all costs platform to feed ones ego?

  • Collin February 27, 2013 at 12:37 PM

    I have a judge friend who often complained about the “painted up mask” on one of the country’s top Working dogs a few years ago, but when he got in the ring to judge, after honestly evaluating the dogs he had to put up that particular one, as it was clearly the best of its breed. So, judges don’t always WANT to “reward” the practice… sometimes they just want to do the best possible job of judging the dogs shown to them, and in the process are forced to overlook cosmetic enhancements.

    • Brad February 28, 2013 at 7:41 PM

      If the Judge had followed the rules and dismissed the dog from the ring, he wouldn’t see that dog again with a “painted up mask”. Then, the next time, he could reward that dog with what it deserved. He would also get the “do not put anything on the dog” reputation that the most respected judges already have. Not a bad thing at all.

  • Jinnie February 27, 2013 at 12:40 PM

    Winning and breeding are often at odds because of these enhancements. What you see is often not what you get in the whelping box. Surprise! We talk about disclosure in regards to health tests but then we get surprised when coat color or ear set is crazy. It has to stop somewhere but I’m not sure where.

  • Brad February 27, 2013 at 3:09 PM

    Thank you for writing and publishing this article. The most important part of fixing any problem is admitting that there is one (you did that). The hard part is convincing the establishment to change. It can be done.

  • elvbend
    apete February 27, 2013 at 4:21 PM

    Ours is a breed to be shown “in its natural state.” The Westminster winner had its butt shaved or clippered, as well as the tail and the underbelly. Clipper marks were obvious. The judge should have overlooked this dog based on the over-grooming. And now this will become the standard since it won. I am very disheartened. There were beautiful examples of the breed available. And he chose the severely overgroomed dog. Very disappointing as this sends a signal to our exhibitors that over-trimming is acceptable and rewardable.

  • Robin Gates February 27, 2013 at 8:42 PM

    I am always amazed that a rule against color changing, enhancement is even out there. The buckets of chalk at dog shows is in the hundreds of pounds. The enhancing shampoos, sprays and creams are just as prevelant. I know why they have the rule but if you are not going to enforce it then what is the point?

  • Judy Silker February 28, 2013 at 5:36 AM

    I agree with apete’s comment above! I couldn’t have said it better!

  • Kathleen February 28, 2013 at 7:25 AM

    I was very discouraged to see the dogs that were awarded BOB and BOS at Westminster in my breed were severely sculpted – it was obvious even on TV! My breed standard states that they are to be shown in a “natural state”. I don’t have any objection to trimming tails and belly lines just enough to “neaten” then up a bit, but the excessive trimming and shaving is very upsetting. I stopped breeding and showing shelties years ago mainly because they had become an “artificial” breed, and it makes me sad to see that my present breed seems to be going down that same path. Where does it end?

  • Mark S February 28, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    I actually had an older judge a couple of weeks ago comment that it was a nice change to not feel sticky legs and a crunchy coat. That’s sad commentary. I think it’s the extremes that all of us have problems with, whether it’s sculpting a dog whose standard say show in a “natural state” or dying muzzles – ear-noses, eyeliner, or 5 lb of chalk and cholesterol in each leg. More is not always better, a little can go a long way. Unfortunately now that vendors sell every product on the show grounds known to man to alter the natural coat, color, look of a dog exhibitors and especially new exhibitors think that’s what you are supposed to do. At out door shows in the rain all dogs are equal, too bad at other times they aren’t. Long ago when I first started I used spray chalk on the legs of my dog for the first time, never had before but we’d tromped through a muddy parking lot so I tried it as a last minute touch up. Well in the group ring that day , a long time just examined him and got some color on his hand where it hadn’t dried, His comment was ,” I had really liked your dog.” as he wiped his hand. As unintentional as that was on my part that was the last time I took a dog in the ring where that might have happened. One well placed comment by a respected judge, made me think about things like that. If judges don’t want to formally cause a problem with AKC maybe a well placed comment when they see something would “Open” some peoples eyes and practices would change.

  • Iva Kimmelman
    Iva Kimmelman February 28, 2013 at 4:13 PM

    Thank you for addressing this subject once again.
    Remember all those years ago we got ourselves all “whipped” up about things we thought were going on?

    Anyway, not sure anything is ever going to change, until the AKC takes it as seriously as we do. The UK certainly takes it seriousl. Dog shows in modern times are anything but natural.
    Love your writings Bo.

  • Brad February 28, 2013 at 7:13 PM

    Over grooming some of the breeds is a problem. But, much more serious problems exist. As stated in the article some of the dogs have been surgically altered. Ears, Tails, Testicles and other parts. Colored by Clairol.
    I spend my money and lose to these dogs. So, am I supposed to cheat also?
    I know breeders who will not show in breed. “It fake”. “What’s the point”, “it doesn’t tell me anything” If the cheaters were removed, some of the best dogs may start to make an appearance at dog shows (and entries might increase).
    So how do we stop this? I know judges are supposed to dismiss altered dogs or face a penalty. How about a 1 year suspension to handlers showing altered dogs. That would make them think twice.
    Ok, I’m done ranting (for now).

  • Mike March 27, 2013 at 3:59 PM

    Great article! I love when someone is willing to tell the truth. Sari Brewster Tietjen has expressed the same honesty in her articles in Kennel Review. It is because of win at all costs that I will appreciate my dogs at home save a lot of money. Dog shows used to be FUN now it is big business with big money the so called family sport is already on life support.

  • Lisa Harper August 30, 2013 at 1:00 PM

    A few years ago a vendor brought his companion Bichon Frise to an AKC show–dyed bright pink! The exhibitors were outraged, telling the man he should be turned in for animal abuse and/or evicted from the show because ‘that was not allowed’ at AKC shows. Our little group laughed so hard! If that was the case, there go all the Poodles and American Eskimos, half the Pugs, Akitas, Portuguese Water Dogs and Bull Terriers, etc. Sorry, no Best In Show today–the no-color-enhanced-dogs-allowed rule has been invoked. And the vendors are pulling out–all those colored chalks and color-enhancing shampoos cost money to haul from show to show!

    Oh, and then there was the Handler and her Special who showed up one day with the exact same shade of cobalt-black hair…that was a good one. Can’t imagine how long it took her to find the one shade that exactly matched her dog, right? 😉

  • Mary Forbes September 1, 2013 at 9:08 AM

    I was not aware this publication would print the comments on this article to point out certain dogs being shown as “enhanced” When these exhibitors feel their dog has lost to an “enhanced dog”, then at that time call in the AKC rep and file a complaint.

  • Gay Dunlap September 1, 2013 at 9:37 AM

    Great piece, Bo! I particularly like your summation and the warning of the extent to which the fancy will have egg on its proverbial face if the likes of 60 Minutes decides to expose the practice of “prettying” up our dogs. Frankly, I think many handlers take coloring beyond the pale…no pun intended!

  • Deborah September 2, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    We ran into a group of Newfoundland exhibitors and breeders who INSiSTED it is okay to show their dogs – multiple! – who had OCD surgery because it was for pain control even after we printed, highlighted and presented them with the rules clearly stating such surgery is a disqualification. Not only that – but they also insisted it was okay to breed these dogs. Unbelievable stupidity!

  • Iva Kimmelman
    Iva Kimmelman September 3, 2013 at 11:53 AM

    I had forgotten about this article until Karen Lee (Surrey Hill whippets) pointed it out on FB. Her thoughts are to enlighten newcomers to whippets and hopefully discourage a practice that is clearly against the ideal of showing potential breeding stock.
    Over my long time in whippets I have seen many things.
    In the early 70’s top handlers and breeders were fixing ears and even a few gay tails on whippets.
    These dog were being used pretty regularly in breeding programs and you can probably guess the rest.
    I purchased a male dog from a very successful breeder at the time, to use in my fledgling breeding program in 1973 and couldn’t understand why his puppies, while superior in conformation, tended to have small gay ears. The woman I bought him from admitted without so much as a second of hesitation at my concern about all my bad ears: “Oh his ears were “fixed”, the left one had to be cut two times”. She pretty much ended the conversation with “everyone else is doing it” after I said I never would!
    I was horrified and it quickly ended my friendship with her. But it wasn’t just her. Many of the people I competed against did the same thing without much hesitation, apparently. It was easy to see and feel in the fold of the ear, once I was “enlightened” about my own dog.
    The good news is that judges started to get wind of it and the breeders started breeding for good ears and whippets with gay ears or even fixed ears are a part of history for the most part. Yes, I could be naïve to believe that. I check ears when I judge, which isn’t often and have never seen a fixed ear or tail. I do see makeup, but that is easy to deal with. Excuse them.
    Sometimes the cynical side of my brain says why waste your breath Bo even talking about this. Those who would cheat with surgery or makeup will never read this article because they don’t care. All they care about is winning.
    These practices will continue to happen until the AKC actually enforces it’s rules.

  • Iva Kimmelman
    Iva Kimmelman September 3, 2013 at 11:57 AM

    One more thing:
    I was working with a veterinarian who specialized in artificial insemination and she was married to a top handler at the time.
    One day I went to her clinic, which was attached to her husbands boarding/grooming facility.
    As I walked through the grooming area to her office, there was the handler with a Irish Setter in the tub and a bottle of Clairol hair dye on the edge of the tub.
    I was so disappointed to find out this nice man was one of the cheaters.

  • Alyssa September 4, 2013 at 6:58 AM

    I have a female with a dudley nose. Our breed standard says “black for preference, liver, brown or dudley is acceptable and not to be penalized. Nose color varies and may change with weather and/or age.” (Paraphrased). People told me to use a product called “black button” to color her nose black. I did it because many others did it. But then, I felt like I was lying, presenting her as having a black nose when it was really dudley, which is IN OUR STANDARD. Someone who has been in my breed a long time said that stuff is carcinogenic. She encouraged me to go with my gut and show my pretty girl natural. She took 2 of her 6 wins this way. It’s a SHAME that JUDGES are promoting this behavior by putting up dogs who have altered appearances. I will not ever do the nose thing again. If I win, I want to win honestly. Thank you for posting this article.

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