Best in Show: Showing Your Dog
In This Chapter
- Taking a look at the history of dog shows
- Deciding whether you and your dog are cut out for competition
- Learning the lingo of showing
- Putting your best foot forward in the ring
Discovering the World of Dog Shows
Achieving high standards
– Structure: Size, proportion, color, coat, and so on
– Temperament: The personality, described in such terms as “alert,” “even-tempered,” “cheerful,” “confident,” and “reliable”
– Movement: How a breed should move (“at a gallop,” “powerful,” “purposeful”)
Who can compete?
– A purebred.
– Registered with a kennel club. For an AKC-sponsored event, a dog must be individually registered with the American Kennel Club. In other words, the dog must have papers proving its registration as a purebred. (See the nearby sidebar, “The kennel clubs: Playing for papers.”)
– The correct age, often 6 months or older.
– Intact (not spayed or neutered).
– The United Kennel Club offers, in addition to its purebred registry, a program to all dogs who are spayed or neutered — including mixed breeds, purebred dogs of unknown pedigree, and purebred dogs with “faults” that disqualify them from UKC breed standards. Included in the program are trials for agility and obedience, dog sports, weight pulls, and the group’s junior program.
– The Canadian Kennel Club allows unregisterable dogs of CKC breeds to participate in competitive events, as long as the owner has obtained a Performance Event Number from the organization. Such dogs must be spayed or neutered.
– The American Kennel Club has a program for spayed and neutered mixed breeds (see Chapter Profiling the Mixed Breeds), as well as a program for unregistered dogs of AKC breeds. For more information, go to www.akc.org/reg/ilpex.cfm.
The kennel clubs: Playing for papers
Dogs who compete in conformation must be registered with a kennel club. But what does that really mean? A dog can be registered with a kennel club if it is the offspring of two purebreds of the same breed. Such a dog gets papers — paperwork that certifies the dog as a purebred. Does this mean that a dog with papers is better or healthier than a dog without papers? Nope, not necessarily. Kennel clubs register dogs as a way to track them. You can register your dog with one club or with many, depending on the breed and where you live (owners near the border of Canada and the United States may choose to register with both the AKC and the CKC). Although there are countless kennel clubs in the world, these clubs are a few of the big players:
Types of conformation dog shows
– All-breed shows: An all-breed show offers competitions for more than 150 breeds and varieties of dogs recognized by the AKC or one of the other major dog registries. These shows are the ones you’re most likely to see on TV. The first-place dog from each of the seven breed groups competes in a final round to be Best in Show. The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is one of the best-known all-breed shows.
– Specialty shows: Often hosted by breed clubs, specialty shows are open only to dogs of a specific breed or to varieties of one breed. For example, the Border Collie Society of America specialty show is for, not surprisingly, Border Collies only.
– Group shows: These shows are for dogs who belong to one of the AKC’s seven groups: Hound, Herding, Sporting, Non-Sporting, Terrier, Working, Toy, and Miscellaneous. Beagles, for example, are in the Hound Group, so they compete with other hounds such as Bassets, Bloodhounds, and Dachshunds.
– Workshop: The most informal type of match, in which dogs are not judged by breed or group. Judges typically give advice, not ribbons.
– Fun match: The next level up from a workshop. Dogs are judged by breed, usually with ribbons awarded.
– Sanctioned match: The most formal type of match, the closest thing to a sanctioned show. Clubs use sanctioned matches as part of the approval process for being able to hold shows.
A group by any other name
This book primarily refers to the AKC breed groups, and other clubs break down the breeds differently. The UKC has eight groups that are based on purpose: Companion, Guardian, Gun Dog, Herding Dog, Northern Breed, Scenthound, Sighthound and Pariah, and Terrier. The FCI relies on ten groups. The Canadian Kennel Club uses the same seven groups as the AKC.
Getting to know the cast of characters
– Breeders: More than a matchmaker, the breeder is responsible for the health of the father (sire) and mother (dam), as well as any puppies in the litter. Breeders must have a thorough knowledge of AKC regulations and breed standards; they are also responsible for seeing to it that the proper AKC documentation is submitted for new puppies. Although a breeder is there at the start of a show dog’s life, a breeder may or may not be an owner or handler.
– Owners: An owner is typically the person who decides whether to show a dog. Does a dog conform to the breed standard? Is the dog trainable? Will the dog have a winning personality in the ring? An owner considers a number of factors — time and expense among them — before launching a dog on a show career. An owner may or may not be a breeder or handler. It’s becoming more common for people to be more interested in showing than breeding, and that’s fine.
– Handlers: The person in the ring with a show dog is the handler. Some handlers are professionals (sometimes referred to as agents). A good handler is well versed in the breeds and understands all the rules of competition. Handlers are not limited to showing — most devote a lot of time to training and grooming. A handler can show one dog or many.
– Judges: A judge is the person who examines the dogs in a show and awards them based on how closely they match the breed standard. Judges need to be breed experts, able to examine everything from a dog’s teeth and muscles to the way the dog moves and behaves. Judges have to meet various requirements to be approved by a registry; although they vary, most judges have to be active in the dog fancy for at least ten years, with dogs whom they’ve bred having gone on to championship level.
Understanding the basics of competition
– Points must be awarded by at least three different judges.
– Points must include two majors — shows in which at least three points are awarded.
– Puppy: Dogs between 6 and 12 months of age are usually divided into 6 to 9 months and 9 to 12 months. Dogs in this class have not yet achieved champion status.
– 12 to 18 Months: For dogs 12 to 18 months old. These dogs have not yet achieved champion status.
– Novice: For dogs 6 months and over who have not won three first prizes in the Novice class or a first prize in the Bred By Exhibitor, American-bred, or Open classes. The dog may also not have been awarded any championship points as a puppy.
– Amateur-Owner-Handler: A new AKC class (started in 2009) for dogs at least 6 months of age who are not champions. Dogs must be handled by the owner of the dog, and that person cannot have been, at any point, a professional dog handler, an AKC-approved conformation judge, or an assistant to a professional handler.
– Bred By Exhibitor: For dogs who are exhibited by their owner and breeder. These dogs have not yet achieved champion status.
– American-Bred: For dogs born in the United States from a mating that occurred in the United States. These dogs have not yet achieved champion status.
– Open: A catchall class, and typically the biggest of a show, for any dog registered with the AKC who is at least 6 months old and not yet a champion.
Looking back: A short history of dog shows
Undoubtedly, people have been comparing their dogs to others since ancient canines first became companions. What began as friendly get-togethers of breeders eventually morphed into informal dog shows, but it wasn’t until June 1859 that the first official dog show took place. The location was the English town of Newcastle-on-Tyne, and the competitors were Pointers and Setters, with 60 dogs shown. Other shows soon followed in Birmingham, England, with Spaniels and then Hounds included.
Not to be outdone, fanciers in the United States began organizing their own dog shows, and the first was held in Chicago in 1874. Three years later, the Westminster Kennel Club held its first show, with more than 35 breeds competing. The club has held the annual Westminster Kennel Club show for more than 133 years, making it the second-longest continuously held sporting event in the country.
Another big player entered the scene in 1884 when the American Kennel Club (AKC) was established; the group’s primary goal was as a dog registry, to maintain the breeding records of purebred dogs in the United States; today the organization maintains the records of more than 15,000 events a year. The United Kennel Club (UKC) followed on the heels of the AKC in 1898. The group’s founders believed it was important to focus more on the original function of the dog breeds. Although the UKC held dog shows, the shows were geared more toward performance events such as gun dog and obedience competitions.
After brief stints with AKC rules, Canadian dog shows were held under the rules of the
Canadian Kennel Club and have remained that way since 1896. The Fédération Cynologique Internationale, the World Canine Organisation, recognizes 83 member countries and licenses international shows in those countries. One of these shows, the World Dog Show, held annually since 1971, is hosted by a different country each year. Billed as the world’s largest dog show, Crufts, run by England’s Kennel Club, hosts an estimated average 28,000 canine competitors each year, with about 160,000 spectators and visitors.
Dogs shows are big business, and some of the larger organizations televise competitions and build interactive Web sites for fanciers. With thousands of dogs and their entourages, New York City is taken by storm each February when the Westminster Dog Show hits Madison Square Garden. The canine version of the Super Bowl brings with it great fanfare, extensive television coverage, and media events. Dog show culture probably peaked in the limelight when the hilarious film spoof Best in Show was released in 2000.
– Best of Breed: The dog judged best in its breed category
Best of Winners: The dog deemed better between the Winners Dog and the Winners Bitch
– Best of Opposite Sex: The best dog who is the opposite sex of the Best of Breed Only the Best of Breed advances to the next step: competing in the Group competitions. And only the dogs who win in the Group competitions go on to compete for the coveted top prize: Best in Show.
Deciding If Showing Is Right for You
Taking it all in: Being an informed spectator
– Grab a show catalog: The show catalog is the official listing of the dogs entered in a show, categorized by breed. Dogs are assigned a number in the catalog; the dog’s name, registration number, date of birth, parentage, and owner are typically listed.
– Check out the grooming area: Talk to professional groomers, whether about your current dog or a breed you may be interested in owning.
– Look at the dogs: Compare different dogs of the same breed at a specialty show, or many different breeds at an all-breed show. What looks good to you? As tempting as it may be, don’t pet any dog unless given permission (some of those doggie do’s take hours to perfect!).
– Try to follow the action: Use your show catalog to track the progress of the show — the breeds, groups, judges, and winners.
– Chat with anyone and everyone: Here’s your chance to schmooze with people who have experience. Ask questions, listen, and take it all in.
Pros of showing
– Better bonds: Owners who show their dogs spend a good deal of time with each other, helping to ensure a strong bond.
– New friends: People who enter the show world are likely to meet a host of new people, some of whom may turn out to be lifelong friends, supporters, and even mentors.
– Education: Understanding the complex world of dog showing can take years. Look at it as a learning experience, with regard not only to dogs, but also to life (winning, losing, playing nice, and so on).
– Breed insight: Being surrounded by dogs of the same breed may give you valuable insight about the breed and ways to improve the health of your dog or, if you’re a breeder, future dogs.
Considering Junior Showmanship
Think you’re too young to show your dog? Perhaps not. Junior Showmanship competitions typically are open to boys and girls who are at least 9 years old and under 18. These competitions give young fanciers the chance to develop handling skills, practice good sportsmanship, and learn about dogs and dog showing. In fact, many professional handlers started off in Junior Showmanship, so it’s a good way to get experience early on, and maybe even decide whether a career as a pro handler is in the cards. Conceived as Children’s Handling in the 1920s, Junior Showmanship competitions vary according to kennel club; the UKC’s youngest class is for 2- and 3-year-olds! Though the junior competitions share some similarities with the adult competitions, judges evaluate the children’s handling methods, but not the animals.
Cons of showing
– Ego: Yours, not the dog’s. Though dog showing should be about promoting good health and temperament in dogs, that focus can be eclipsed by breeders, owners, and handlers who think it’s all about them.
– The money: Though most breeders don’t make much, if any, money on breeding, dog showing is big business. Some people are discouraged by others in shows who are motivated more by financial gains than interest in dogs.
– Your money: Or lack thereof. It costs money to pay entry fees for shows, buy equipment, and foot the bills for travel.
– Breeding issues: Some believe that dog showing encourages unhealthy breeding practices. In 2009, the BBC refused to broadcast the annual Crufts Dog Show, citing concerns that intensive breeding of pedigree dogs in the United Kingdom is leading to health problems in breeds such as Boxer dogs with epilepsy and Pugs with breathing problems. The Kennel Club, which runs Crufts, has since introduced regulations to encourage responsible breeding.
– The scene: Sabatoge, snarkiness, rumors, and fakery are alleged issues of dog shows, although these problems are certainly not typical of the general dog-showing community.
Getting in Gear to Show
– Register your dog: Dogs must be registered with a kennel club before they can compete. You can register your dog with one club or many (see this chapter’s sidebar “The kennel clubs: Playing for papers”), but if you’re like many people, you’ll show your dog at AKC events, so your dog must be registered with the AKC. Club rules vary, but for a new puppy to register, both the puppy’s sire and dam must have papers. Typically, a breeder is responsible for registering the new litter, and you work with the breeder to register your individual puppy.
– Join your local breed club: Local clubs are a great resource for information on classes for conformation, handling, obedience, agility, and other activities. Depending on where you live, clubs can be all-breed or breed specific. Search for a state-by-state listing of clubs affiliated with the AKC at www.akc.org/clubs/search/index.cfm.
– See a vet: A vet checkup is a critical piece of the preparation puzzle. Your vet may be able to offer helpful advice about your dog’s show potential and spot issues that may get in the way of a successful show career. Your vet can also guide you in the area of vaccinations, ensuring that your dog is healthy and able to join the pack. However, a vet may not be an expert on any specific breed standard.
– Get some identification: You’re not likely to lose your dog, but it’s best to be prepared. Collars with identification tags are one option, tattoos another, but many people prefer a recent technology, microchipping. No technique is foolproof, so your best bet for bringing Fido home safe may be to use more than one method.
– Make nutrition a priority: All dogs should be fed quality nutritional food, but a dog getting ready for competition needs to be in top form, both inside and out. The right foods will help keep your show dog trim and his coat shiny (see Chapter The Scoop on Dog Food for more on food).
– Begin a grooming regimen: Although the level and intensity of grooming varies from breed to breed, bathing, brushing, scissoring, and plucking are important parts of a dog’s show life. If you’re showing a Poodle or Bichon, you may need to take a grooming course or hire a groomer. It’s never too early to get started, though. Go to shows, get advice from groomers, and try out a bath or two.
– Get an anatomy lesson: Personality, charm, and temperament are factors that help sway a judge in the ring, but conformation is really about how closely the dog conforms to the breed’s official standard. The standard refers to how the breed’s form follows its original function, and it has everything to do with hocks, rib cages, tails, ears, and shoulders — and, critically, how a dog moves in the ring. Familiarize yourself with the breed standard and the basic terms of dog anatomy (see the illustration in this book’s color insert).
– Make friends: Plenty of Web sites and books offer advice on showing, but one of the best ways to get advice is to meet and talk to actual show people. These folks are doing exactly what you want to do, and many are happy to share their personal stories and tips for getting ahead. Mentoring is a big thing in the show world, and you may find someone willing to take you on as an apprentice, so to speak.
– Submit your entry forms: Dog showing comes with a daunting amount of paperwork. Be sure to carefully complete all entry forms. Then be certain to send them in on time so they are received before the entry period closes.
– Set some goals: Thinking about your goals will better prepare you for the amount and level of work you’re in for when it comes to dog showing. Will showing be a hobby? A career? Something in between? Be realistic when it comes to your dog — not every pup is destined to be a champion. Preparing for fun matches will be very different from preparing for your dog’s debut at Westminster.
Packing: Checking your list twice
Packing for a show is no small matter. You need plenty of gear, and it’s a big nuisance if you forget something. Although your list may be different, here’s one to get you started:
Throwing yourself into training
– Obedience training: A prerequisite. Impeccable behavior is a must for any dog, but especially those at a dog show. No nipping or jumping allowed. Given the excitement, crowds, doggie hormones, and noise — not to mention the somewhat invasive poking of the judges — a show dog needs to have passed obedience training with flying olors. Start early; many breed clubs offer training classes.
– Conformation and handling classes: Another prerequisite, especially if you plan to handle your dog yourself. Although you’ll do some training at home, classes taught by experienced handlers give novices a chance to do the following:
- Practice their dogs in a controlled showlike setting
- Use show-style collars and leads
- Get used to being surrounded by other dogs
- Learn to stack, or pose your dog to best show off his conformation and features
- Learn the secrets of gaiting, or moving your dog around the ring in a trot
Your dog will need to use his manners in class (no impolite sniffing, please) and you’ll need to make sure that your dog’s shots are up-to-date.
– Conditioning: You guessed it, a prerequisite. A swimmer needs to do laps, a soccer player needs to run on the track, and a show dog needs to do whatever it takes to stay fit. The type of conditioning a dog needs will vary. For some, conditioning means regular walks; for others, it means herding trials or a treadmill. Check with your veterinarian for guidance.
Mastering the stack
– Practice often — once a day, if possible — but keep sessions short, about three minutes. A weekly class is helpful until you’re both at ease.
– Use a mirror so you can see what the judge will be seeing, and set your dog facing to your right.
– Always handle your dog gently.
– Don’t mess around with your dog’s feet — dogs don’t like it. Instead, when placing the front or back legs into position, hold the leg above the elbow (for the front) and above the hock (for the rear), and move the entire leg into place.
– Use lots of praise. Then add some more.
– Practice the free stack, letting your dog pose herself. Bait (a treat) is useful for this move; some say that tossing a piece of bait for a dog to catch can help put a dog in a nice free stack.
Getting ahead with gaiting
– Control the lead, holding it taut but not tight. Keep excess lead tucked into your hand, to prevent it from distracting your dog or the judge.
– Use a command that lets your dog know what’s going on: “Let’s go,” “Let’s show,” or some other phrase.
– Watch the dailies — that is, view some video of your gaiting techniques. Too bouncy? Collar too low? Watching both of you from a different perspective gives you a chance to make corrections before you get into the ring.
– Figure out the best speed for your breed. Faster is not always better. When you find that speed, practice until you can match it with some consistency.
– Learn the patterns — “take them around,” “up and back,” “triangle,” “L,” and “T.” Then practice them.
– Praise and encourage your pup. Stay positive!
The question of bait: To use or not to use?
The show ring is a place of great commotion and excitement, and it’s not unusual for a dog to get distracted by another dog or sounds from the crowds. Handlers rely on bait, an edible treat of some sort, to entice a dog or get a dog’s attention when necessary, often when stacking. Bait can be bits of cooked liver or steak, cheese, sausage, or even popcorn — whatever makes your dog pay attention. Handlers carry bait in a pouch or in a pocket and dole out a piece to achieve an alert look or have a dog stay focused (some handlers hold the bait in their mouth, but that’s an individual choice). Bait is not allowed at all shows, however. If you’re showing at a UKC event, you can’t have food in the ring. Alternatives to edible bait include balls and any toys with squeakers. Edible or not, you may have to test a few different methods before you find the one that works best.
Choosing a handler
- Grooming your dog according to the breed standard
- Presenting your dog in the ring when called
- Moving the dog around the ring to show him off to his best advantage
- Making sure that your dog looks good at all times
The best handlers have a way of disappearing in the ring so the spotlight stays only on the dog. Good handlers have a knack for making it fun, which can make all the difference for some dogs, giving them that extra gleam in their eyes or extra something in their trot. Handlers may also take care of other aspects of showing:
– Boarding, conditioning, grooming, and training
– Getting your dog to and from the show (if you choose not to attend)
Competing: Let the Games Begin!
Arriving at the show
– Get settled: Because most shows today are unbenched, you want to find the area for exhibitors so you can set up for the day; benched shows assign each exhibitor a section of bench. Take your dog for a quick walk to see the layout, and then secure her in her crate or pen and take care of unpacking.
– Check in: Visit the check-in table or ring and pick up your armband from the ring steward (judge’s assistant); have your entry confirmation handy. Stash your armband somewhere safe or put it on, securing it in an armband holder or with a rubber band.
– Study the catalog: Although you’ll probably buy at least the first few catalogs for the shows you attend, you can also look through the catalog available at the superintendent’s table. Check your dog’s listing to make sure that it’s correct; your pooch’s wins will be tracked in this way.
Dressing the part
The dress code for dog showing is a serious matter. Although proper, smart attire is a must, a dog show isn’t a fashion show for you. What you wear needs to help your dog look her best, not detract attention from your dog. Simple and conservative works best, with solid colors; the color of your suit needs to complement your dog’s coat but not be the same color. For example, don’t wear a black suit if you’re showing a black Labrador — the judge may not be able to see the outline of your dog. Men wear dress trousers, a shirt, and sometimes a jacket. Women choose skirts, dresses, or slacks, and some top it all off with a jacket. Typically, the formality of dress matches the formality of the show. Of course, whatever you wear has to be practical and comfortable — skirts with sufficient length and shoes with rubber soles.