"Show quality" and "pet quality" are terms that you will probably hear frequently while looking for a puppy. To a lot of people these can be very confusing terms. You may not be interested in showing your dog, or really know anything about it, but you do not want to end up with an inferior puppy by choosing one labeled "pet quality" if the "show quality" ones are actually better. After all, everyone wants to be sure they are getting the best puppy possible. On the other hand, maybe you are looking for a family pet and have no interest in becoming involved in dog show activities, so you are led to steer clear of breeders offering "show quality" puppies because you don't want to end up paying more for a "fancy show dog" if a good pet is all you need. The information provided here will hopefully clear up some of the confusion and help you understand whether you want a pet quality or show quality dog, and why you should go to the very same breeders no matter which one you feel you want.
Every breed of dog has a written breed standard, which describes the desired characteristics for that breed. A breed standard can be viewed as a blueprint for the perfect dog of a given breed. They are minutely detailed and include information on everything from what size is correct and how a breed should move to the preferred color and markings and even how the dog should hold its ears. (To read the standard for the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, click here). At a dog show the judge is mentally comparing each dog in the ring to his knowledge of the standard, and the winner is the dog which most closely matches that ideal. Breeders of quality dogs are looking to get closer and closer with each breeding to that perfect dog described in the standard. Of course, the perfect dog has never been born and never will be, but that doesn't mean we won't keep trying to produce one. Along the way breeders inevitably produce a mix of puppies that come very close to the standard, and some that are a little further away from it.
And this is, in essence, the difference between "show dogs" and "pets." But what does that actually mean for the person looking for a puppy? What are the real differences between those successful show dogs and the ones who don't quite make the grade? The honest answer is very little. In many ways these terms are misleading, because all dogs should be pets, regardless of whether or not they spend part of their time in a show ring, and one which doesn't possess the most important qualities in a pet (good health and sound temperament), is not a quality dog, no matter what it looks like.
The vast majority of responsible breeders also show their dogs (or compete in performance events such as field trials; for brevity's sake we will limit the discussion here to those people breeding for the conformation ring); consequently these breeders want puppies that will grow up to be show dogs. However, just like not every child grows up to be a famous athlete or a beauty queen, not every puppy is destined for greatness in the show ring. When a litter is born, the breeder immediately starts evaluating the puppies in terms of the breed standard. They want to see which ones have just the right length of leg, the perfect set ears, the best coat and conformation. This evaluation process continues up until the puppies are old enough to go to their new homes. At that point, the breeder has to make a decision about which of these puppies to keep, which to place in show homes, and which will go to homes where their only job will be as a loving pet.
All of these puppies came from quality parents, and have impressive pedigrees. They are all healthy, friendly, and beautiful. They have received the same loving care and the same socialization. Any of them will make wonderful additions to someone's family. So what distinguishes the future champions from the rest? Usually it is very small things that are most likely completely unnoticeably to the untrained eye. For example, maybe the puppy has a tiny over- or under-bite. If its a male, he might be missing a testicle, thus rendering him ineligible to be shown. Perhaps that one's shoulders do not have exactly the right slope, or another ones' feet turn out slightly when he moves. Breed standards are very specific, dog show judges are very picky, and the overall quality can be extremely high. There are any number of tiny differences that can distinguish a dog who will become a champion from one which wouldn't quite make it. And none of these differences is going to have the least little impact on that dog's ability to be a loving companion.
So why all the fuss about pet quality and show quality? Well, that's a good question, because it really only matters to the people who want a dog to show. If you are specifically looking for a show dog, then you want one which will be able to win fairly consistently in the show ring, and all these tiny details become important. However, if you are not looking specifically for a dog to show, then it makes absolutely no difference at all. If you are purchasing a dog from a reputable breeder, they are going to have in every litter a mix of those dogs they deem fairly likely to win in the show ring, and those dogs that for some little reason are not quite as close to the standard as the others. However, those "pet quality" dogs, while they may have some minor cosmetic departures from the breed standard, are still going to be beautiful representatives of their breed with all the qualities desirable in a companion.
The key here is that you want a puppy that is coming from a responsible breeder who is breeding quality dogs. While any dog from a good litter will make a good pet, not all dogs should be bred. If a dog is going to be used to perpetuate the breed, it really should be the best of the best. For that reason, only the dogs with correct temperaments, all necessary health clearances, and who also most closely meet the breed standard should be bred. This is to ensure that the quality of the breed continues to improve with each generation. This is why it is important to acquire a dog from a responsible breeder who, among other things, is testing the quality of his or her breeding stock through conformation showing or some other competition like field events. All dogs from a litter with top-quality parents have a high likelihood of being wonderful, healthy companions, but not all dogs are going to produce wonderful, healthy companions when bred. This is why responsible breeders will insist that all dogs which are not sold as show quality be spayed or neutered, and that any dogs sold as show quality which subsequently don't develop as expected and as adults are not quite close enough to the standard, also not be used for breeding.
The bottom line: if you think you are interested in showing your dog, study the breed standard, learn to recognize the subtle differences that distinguish the dogs that win in the show ring from the others, find a breeder whose dogs you admire, and be willing to wait for that near-perfect show dog. If you are looking for a companion--as the vast majority of people who want a dog are-- find a responsible breeder, bring home that adorable puppy, and don't worry a bit about show or pet or any other label. Your dog won't care. Why should you?