Conformation breeders are heroes who have devoted their lives and fortunes to preserving and improving their chosen breed of dog. They are the bulwark of defense against ignorance ("backyard breeders") and venality ("puppy millers"). Sure, there are those who distort the breed because they don't understand the history and original purpose, or who ignore the written standard to pursue the latest fad in appearance, but these are not representative of the true faithful.
Is this true? Well, not exactly. It is not that show dog breeders do not have praiseworthy intentions. It's only that those intentions can never be realized within the system they have committed themselves to. Indeed, the very opposite of what they hope to accomplish is inevitable, and there is no way to change this without scrapping the whole system.
People like competing for prizes. People like being Pygmalion, too, creating beautiful living things (Pygmalion was that mythological Greek sculptor who carved and then fell in love with, a statue, who was brought to life with unfortunate results). And dogs, being genetically malleable, fairly easily kept in suburbia, and inherently loveable, are natural targets for these impulses. Noble verbiage aside, this is more or less what it comes to.
The foundation of the whole dog show enterprise rests upon the fact that human beings are addicted to physical beauty. We can't resist it, we crave it, we must struggle to see beyond it. Given two animals, one of which is stupid, sickly and vicious but beautiful, and the other, ugly but kind, sound, and intelligent, humans will do anything to excuse the failings of the first, and barely acknowledge the second. Just like we do with people.
When the selection system rewards appearance without any other criteria required to be met — an exact description of the show ring — then no other criteria will be a significant factor. No show breeder, no matter how ethical, will breed a ugly dog who has all the invisible virtues, but all show breeders will be tempted to breed a very pretty dog who is moderately unpleasant, or slightly dimwitted, or has manageable health problems, probably hoping to mitigate those problems in the next generation. All those individual decisions then have a cumulative effect.
The first thing that happens when a breed becomes a show breed, is that physical variation is eliminated as much as possible. The ideal dog is identical to the standard, and so is every other ideal dog. That's what "standardization" means. Of course, written standards of dog breeds are filled with imprecise language, giving rise to much disagreement, but the principle is uniformity. Hence, even dogs bred to quite a loosely-written standard, such as the Aussie, become much more uniform than the standard itself permits.
The royal road to uniformity is inbreeding. Which of course is also the royal road to biological dysfunction. But that appears erratically and slowly, compared with the speedy arrival of the desired uniformity of appearance.
Once everyone has achieved a level of uniformity, in order to actually win, one must stand out. That's where the inevitable exaggeration begins. A dog who is a bit "more so", whether that is a more melting expression, a bit larger, a more muscular appearance, straighter legs, whatever, will get the nod. That is human nature too. Then that dog becomes the standard for uniformity that all the breeders must aspire to. And the way to achieve it is, yes, inbreeding on that dog.
So, it is not a fluke that all show breeds are highly inbred, and exaggerated in appearance, for it is inescapably built into the system. Although the efforts of conscientious breeders to mitigate the most obviously destructive effects via codes of ethics, and diatribes against fads, and so forth, are neverending, they are doomed to failure, as long as the foundational system remains. By all measurable factors, such as longevity, freedom from inherited disease, stability of temperament, usefulness, there is always a decline. It is certainly not intended, it is simply an inevitable by-product.
It is inevitable because, firstly, genetic disorders are the handmaidens of inbreeding. Even those who ruthlessly cull defectives—and almost no one does—will still run up against inbreeding depression, and the auto-immune disorders which homozygosity eventually begins to produce. Secondly, qualities that are not selected for, disappear. If temperament (the foundation of usefulness in any dog breed) is secondary or unimportant, it will decline in quality rather quickly, because it is such a complexly inherited trait. Herding instinct is a case in point.
Humans are extraordinarily poor at sacrificing short term gains for long term ones, most especially if the short term gains are personal, and the long term ones are for the greater community good. This is exactly why we are destroying the very fabric of the planet we depend upon for our existence. These same human qualities are the reason why the dog show fancy has not changed in any significant way for a hundred years, despite all the developing knowlege of population genetics. Nor will it, until it faces the kind of extremity of failure that few can imagine.
I don't have any particular faith in the power of the printed word to convince. Persuasion isn't my goal. The only reason I write this kind of essay is, well, the reason I write anything— because I'm thinking about it, and writing things down is my way of getting rid of ideas, sort of a literary flea bath. Hopefully my mental hide is clean enough now that I can get back to writing about my dogs.