Performance Versus Conformation in the APBT

by Mike Kerns

Hang around dog people long enough and sooner or later you'll hear about performance breeds and conformation breeds, and why one is better than the other. These can be confusing terms, particularly to those new to canine sports and activities. It doesn't help matters that a single breed can be considered both a performance breed and a conformation breed. So first, let's start by defining some terms for the sake of this discussion. This terminology is informal and usage is where I think it should be. There is no specific "performance" criteria or registry with published "performance" standards. Generally, however, when speaking of dogs, "performance" animals are those bred for work or sport. The emphasis on breeding this type of dog is how well the dog can perform the task it's being bred for. Superficial physical attributes such as coat or nose color are only of secondary consideration if considered at all. This is in stark contrast to conformation dogs, those bred strictly to meet show standards in appearance. Appearance is the key word here. Temperament, intelligence and general working ability are ignored for the sake of producing dogs that best meet a predefined list of physical attributes that create a specific appearance.

So what would be a performance dog? An American Bulldog catching hogs in a Carolina swamp is a performance dog. A beagle running after a cottontail in a frozen Wisconsin cornfield is a performance dog. And, of course, an APBT either wrestling gamely in the pit or going out on Search and Rescue with its handler after a Louisiana hurricane is a performance dog. I would consider breeds such as the American Bulldog and the APBT performance breeds. They are still bred primarily for temperament and working ability, not conformation. I believe the APBT is on the brink of divergence in this area but I'll get to that later.

An example of a conformation breed that immediately comes to mind is the American Cocker Spaniel. Originally bred for hunting upland game, through selective breeding for conformation the Cocker has been reduced to a nervous, oversize caricature of it's former self. Their nose is unable to find birds, their coat is worthless in briars and thornpatches and the drooping eyelids allow all types of foreign matter into the eye causing extreme discomfort. For these and other reasons the breed is no longer suitable for the purpose for which they were created. Collies, Old English Sheepdogs, Irish Setters, and German Shepherds have all suffered at the hands of breeders who sacrificed utility for appearance.

So what does this have to do with the APBT? It's a performance breed, right? Yes, but it is now a breed held to a breed standard in confirmation shows held by the American Dog Breeders Association (ADBA), one of the several registries that registers purebred APBTs. The United Kennel Club (UKC) also has a breed standard, but as I am only familiar with the ADBA, I'll stick to that particular entity.

The standard itself is enough to warrant it' own discussion; here I only want to discuss what it means to the breed now that it is being held to a standard.

The conformation shows began with the blessings of the ADBA as Ralph Greenwood, the owner of the ADBA, recognized the need for a legal sport to promote support for the breed. In one of the most intelligent moves ever seen in the dog world, the ADBA went to the men and women who actually matched the dogs in the pit and put the question to them, "What physical characteristics make a winning pit champion?" After getting enough of a consensus to put together a standard, the ADBA went themselves one better and made some of these men and women judges!

While it seems like only common sense, it is not always the case that those best qualified to judge a breed on it's physical merits are the ones making the standard. The main implication of this is that the dogs will remain true to the physical characteristics that have combined to create the breed.

There is little doubt that the ADBA and involved fanciers have contributed to public acceptance of the breed and encouraged it's popularity. But there are pitfalls in following this path. The desire to win can overrule good sense. As a group, APBT fanciers need to present a united front to protect their breed; yet at several shows I've seen what could politely be referred to as poor sportsmanship. I truly believe that as APBT owners we are always under close scrutiny from the general public, many groups and individuals are just waiting for us to demonstrate behavior they can point to and use to condemn. The dogs themselves are another concern. Show dogs of other breeds have suffered everything from neurotic personalities to corrective surgery and orthodontal work (braces) in order to gain a coveted trophy or title.

Frankly, if someone wants to put braces on their dog and has the money for such buffoonery, I'm not terribly concerned. But what about temperment? When our breed is characterized as "a loaded gun waiting to go off!" (one of my favorite media bytes) don't a lot of us retort with statements pointing out the calm, stable temperment of our dogs? Physical prowess is only one side to the marvel of the APBT. The other side is his heart, his courage, and his gameness. The dogs with heart and gameness are the exemplary models of our breed and the aspiration of most reputable breeders.

One could ask why gameness is necessary. Most APBTs these days are house dogs and pets that will never see a pit. What would we lose by giving up gameness? To answer that we need to look at gameness and why our dogs have it. The quick answer is that our dogs have gameness so they can conquer any other breed that challenges them. Owning an APBT can quickly lead to smugness if one is not careful. On a more serious level, our dogs have gameness because it was the elusive quality that won most matches and earned the respect of those involved with the dogs. Even now most of us like to know or at least believe we own a game dog.

But what good is this gameness for our house pet? The game dog is a natural for obedience and protection training. The game dog has more drive and intelligence than most other dogs I can think of. That drive and intelligence can make training a contest of wills at times, a fact I frequently face looking wistfully at those Rottweilers on a tight heel after hearing the command for the first time. If your dog is bred to take punishment, facing a potential human attacker is not going to phase him. It's unpleasant to think about but if your dog is resistant to pain he'll perform that much better against an armed aggressor, no small consideration in many urban areas with high crime rates.

Gameness is the drive that will also keep your dog on track during long exercises. Although it is immeasurable and impossible to prove, I think it's the gameness that provides the mystique and magnetic appeal so many of us feel for our dogs. Realistically, most of us will never own a dead game dog, but buying from reputable breeders with gameproven stock will allow us to look at our dogs with pride knowing that game blood is flowing in their veins.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of gameness and its presence in the APBT, it got there in the first place by the old time dog men bred for gameness out of necessity. Regardless of how destructive the dog was, if he gave up first and refused to scratch the other guy went home with the purse. Dogs that could disable or destroy an opponent in a matter of minutes existed then as they do now, but never in large numbers and on several occasions met the dog that could ride out the storm and come back to win the match after the destroyer found it impossible to disable his opponent in the first 10 minutes.

Gameness, intelligence, and spectacular physical ability combined with a trusting, affectionate temperment is what made the APBT what it is today. What remains to be seen is whether the APBT we've come to know and love can withstand the inevitable pressures of competition in the conformation ring. If someone can ask hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a stud fee, how concerned are they going to be with the temperment of the dog? And it follows that if the stud is that desirable, the majority of females will be bred to him, shrinking the gene pool. Ramifications from that exact situation are now facing the breeders of many show dogs. What will happen when characteristics of the breed become faddish, with red coats being the look desired by judges this year, only to change to black or buckskin the following year? If all the blue ribbon dogs have red noses, is it likely breeding programs of newcomers will emphasize that characteristic while ignoring the more important qualities?

I believe that as fanciers, owners, and breeders of these amazing dogs we're at a unique and significant pivotal point in the long history of the APBT. We can follow the path of other show breeds, and expect to face all the problems other breeds are currently battling. But there is another choice. We don't have to let our breed disintegrate into a hollow caricature of its former self. What can we do? I'd like to suggest several courses of action.

First, support the ADBA and the people who are used as judges. Insist on judges who are familiar with the combat role of the breed and won't get hung up on meaningless superficial characteristics. Admittedly, some people will be horrified, or disgusted or uncomfortable around the issue of dogfighting. I've even heard people decry dogfighting at the same time they marvel at the abilities of their APBT. Well guess where those abilities came from? I'm not telling people what to think or feel. However, if you look down at your ABPT with amazement and love as I do, you can thank the people who match the dogs for this gift. Otherwise, there are lots of herding breeds that need loyal supporters.

Second, potential APBT owners should do their homework. Read pedigrees which can be found in many books and magazines, become intimately familiar with the history and different lines that have evolved through the generations. When the time comes to buy, use only reputable breeders who can provide pedigrees and prove their dogs at least have quality ancestors. It's a known fact in the APBT world that the paper doesn't make the dog (meaning a good pedigree doesn't guarantee you a game dog or puppy) but it can give you an idea that the breeding was made in an attempt to maintain or improve the caliber of the breed, rather than making a fast buck.

Weight pulls and conformation shows have provided us with a way to legally promote our breed, work as a team with our dogs, and meet others who share our passion. With those benefits it's hard to condemn the shows without mercy. The issue becomes one of responsibility and dedication. Our dogs deserve the best we can do by them. It's up to us to keep the standard of excellence that is the hallmark of our breed alive.

These are good days to be APBT owners. The hysteria of the 1980's is fading in the face of reality and exposure as the general public comes face to face with our dogs, and the myths are replaced with reason. Tragically, with the increase in popularity comes a rise in exploitation. If we truly want to see our breed survive and maintain the qualities that make them unique and wonderful, we all have to pitch in. Don't let the gleam of a trophy or a coveted title get in the way of the welfare of the breed. I believe our bulldogs have the biggest hearts in the canine world. The best way to return that love and dedication is for each of us to act in the best interest of our dogs.

It's taken hundreds of generations of dogs to arrive at the magnificent APBT of today. As more APBTs are seen in shows, it's up to all of us to decide where the future of the bulldog lies. We can keep the bulldog as he's inspired and beguiled for decades, or watch him turn into a shell of his former glory. It's up to us.