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!