Take me out to the dog show, take me out with the crowd ...

Why the people and dogs do what they do


There’s an Irish Wolfhound! Wow, he’s huge!!
Isn’t that a Basset Hound?
Look at that fancy Poodle!
There’s an Akita.
And a Papillon like the one that won Westminster. And a Chihuahua!

A dog show is a dog encyclopedia come alive. Even small shows feature dozens of breeds – a few of these, a handful of those, and one or two of something else. Spectators can marvel at the shapes and sizes and colors of man’s best friend and incidentally learn something about the dog fancy, that loose-knit group of people whose lives revolve around dogs and dog shows.

Behind the pomp and circumstance of the show is serious purpose – the production of physically and mentally healthy dogs to preserve the integrity of breeds and provide companions to work and play with human families. But canine conformation shows are often scornfully (and mistakenly) dismissed as beauty contests and are easily misunderstood. Spectators see dogs that are bathed and dried and combed and brushed and primped and preened until they shine, then paraded around a ring in front of a judge who hands out ribbons without a word of explanation – a process guaranteed to leave them wondering why the white Akita in ring six got the first place ribbon or the cute Dachshund puppy in ring one didn’t get a ribbon at all.

Dog shows are confusing to the casual observer. It’s often tough to follow the schedule, understand the judging process, or figure out why one dog was chosen over another. Questions abound: What makes that fawn-colored Great Dane a winner? Why are some breeds divided by size or color and others not? And just what is the judge looking for when he looks at a dog’s mouth, feels its ribs, or watches it gait around the ring?

The standard of perfection

Breed conformation – a combination of skeleton, muscle structure, body shape, and coat type that is unique to each breed – is spelled out in a document known as the breed standard. The standard is written by the breed club and submitted to the American Kennel Club for approval; only those breeds with approved standards can compete in AKC events. Each standard spells out the characteristics that define the breed. Descriptions of head shape; eye color; ear shape and size; height and weight; length of body; coat texture, length, color, and patterns; foot shape; and type of gait paint a word-picture of the breed. After reading the standard, an observer should be able to pick out the sometimes subtle differences between similar breeds, see that the Shetland Sheepdog is more than a Collie in miniature, and recognize the different types of spaniels, retrievers, and terriers. But even though it describes the ideal specimen of a particular breed, a standard is open to interpretation. What looks like rich color, moderate angulation, or appropriate ear set to one person may not seem so to others. In addition to differences in interpretation, an observer might consider one dog to have a near-perfect head for the breed but be lacking in balance or size or coat type, while another dog might have a less-than-perfect head but better depth of chest, spring of ribs, and coat color. When the observer is at ringside, he can pick and choose the type of dog he likes and no one cares. When the observer is a judge in the ring, he must know the standard, be adept at selecting the dog that best meets the standard in that class, and make his decision in a matter of minutes.


All judges at American Kennel Club shows must pass written tests on the breeds before they can be approved to judge the breed and be hired by a club to judge a show. Applicants must have If the application is approved, the candidate must then take a written test on the breed standard, pass an open book test on AKC rules and procedures, and prove to an interviewer that he is knowledgeable about the breed. After this process, the candidate must complete five provisional assignments in the breed. During those assignments, he is observed by an AKC field representative. If he is approved for one breed, he must wait a year before applying for a second breed. After that, at one-year intervals, he can apply for a number of additional breeds based on the number of approved breeds, i.e., if he has two breeds, he can apply for two more; if four breeds, he can apply for four more, etc. Judges generally apply for the breeds in a particular group, then move on to other groups. Each year, AKC publishes a judgesdirectory, listing the breeds they are approved to judge. Show committees draw their panels from that directory and contract with judges for the show dates. Judges generally are paid travel expenses plus a set fee of $150 or more or a few dollars for each dog judged. Those who are approved to judge many breeds may evaluate up to 175 dogs in a six-hour day.

The classes

Conformation shows are divided into classes for puppies and adult dogs, males first, then females. The final class in a breed determines the best of breed. Here’s how it works: Male dogs compete in up to six classes: After each class is judged, the first place winners return to the ring for selection of the best male, known as “winners dog.” This is the only male that earns points towards a championship. Following selection of winners dog, the judge chooses the runner-up or reserve winners dog. The reserve dog gets the points if the winners dog is disqualified. Female dogs (bitches) then compete in the same classes, and the judge chooses a winners bitch and reserve winners bitch. The final class in a breed includes the winners dog, winners bitch, and dogs that have already achieved a championship. The winner of that class is best of breed; the judge also chooses a best dog of the opposite sex to the best of breed and the best of winners between the winners dog and winners bitch. Dogs become champions by amassing 15 points, a feat that takes at least three shows but is more likely to take 10 or more shows. Points are figured on the number of dogs defeated and vary by breed. Number of dogs shown in one year determines the number of points awarded in the next year, so popular show breeds must defeat more dogs than rare show breeds. For example, in Ohio, a male Labrador Retriever must defeat 44 other dogs to earn the maximum five points, but a male Akita must defeat only 14 other dogs. Clear as mud? The best way to get it straight is to go to a show, invest $3-5 in a catalog, and sit ringside to watch breeds with a dozen or more entries.

The decisions

When each class enters the ring, the judge generally asks the handlers to gait the dogs around the edge of the ring and then stack them in a line along one side. The handlers urge the dogs to a trot and move counterclockwise around the ring so the judge can stand in the center and check the dogs for smoothness of gait, balance, and soundness. The stack is a pose used to show the dog to best advantage. In most breeds, the dogs are stacked with their legs straight under their bodies, but some breeds pose with their hind legs somewhat stretched out. The judge gets an eyeful of the stacked dog, then moves closer to examine bite (the standard describes the position of the front teeth); feel the skull; check the facial expression; use his hands to determine the depth of chest, spring of ribs, shoulder angulation, coat, and body condition. On males, he checks for two testicles. Depending on the breed, he may also check the length of ears or tail, and if the dog appears to be too big or small to fit the standard, he may ask for a measuring wicket to check the shoulder height. After the hands-on exam, the judge asks the handler to gait the dog so he can assess movement going away, coming back, and from the side. He watches the dogs closely for movement faults – does the dog move straight and true or do his feet cross over and interfere with efficient movement? Is his movement free and easy or is it sloppy or restricted? All of this takes about two minutes per dog. If the class is large, the judge may ask handlers for additional movement so he can compare two dogs side by side or reconfirm his decision in his own mind before he hands out the ribbons.

The dog fancy

Breeders show their dogs for many reasons, chief among them to prove and promote their breeding programs. The agenda is to produce dogs that meet the breed standards, and good breeders justifiably take pride in their ability to do so. A championship is one criteria for a good breeding dog; others include good health, appropriate breed temperament, and working ability – the intelligence and physical attributes to hunt, herd, pull a cart, aid law enforcement, do search and rescue, guard, compete in obedience or agility, and/or become a treasured companion. Some breeders go beyond the basics of showing their own dogs and hire a handler to travel with the dog to various events to earn championship points or compete for group and best in show wins. Professional handlers often show a couple of dogs from each of the seven AKC groups: sporting, hound, working, terrier, toy, non-sporting, and herding. They may have a class dog and bitch that need points for championships and a “specials” dog that has already achieved a championship and is striving for best of breed, group wins, and best in show awards. Dog shows abound in spring, summer, and fall, giving pet owners a myriad of golden opportunities to revel in the company of hundreds of dogs of dozens of breeds. Dog shows are perfect family outings; parking is generally $3-5 per car, food is available on the grounds, and booths sell every kind of dog accessory imaginable. Most shows also include additional events such as obedience and agility trials, providing chances to see dogs at work and play as well.

Dog show etiquette

Dogs that are accustomed to shows are generally well-socialized with other dogs and have good manners with people. However, in the interests of courtesy and edification …

  1. Always ask before petting.
  2. Always approach the dog from the front.
  3. Make a fist and extend your hand for sniffing before you pet. Make sure your hands are clean.
  4. Keep food out of reach. (Children carrying snacks or wearing ice cream are likely to get licked.)
  5. Don’t block the entrance to the show rings.
  6. Wait until after the class to ask questions and pet the dog.
  7. Children in strollers are at face level with large dogs, so watch out for quick tongues and bruising tails.
  8. Visit the education booth for information about purebred dogs, dog shows, performance events, etc.
  9. Leave your pet at home; unentered dogs are not allowed on the grounds.

The Westminster Kennel Club show is easily the most famous dog show in the US. All champions, the top five in each breed by invitation, more than 150 breeds and varieties of AKC-recognized dogs take their turns under the hands of the judges as they vie for Best of Breed, Best in Group, and finally, Best in Show. Covered by USA Network, this canine showcase features the best of the best.
  [Westminster Kennel Club]
  [USA Network: 2000 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show]

More on conformation dog shows

Norma Bennett Woolf

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