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Best in Show: Showing Your Dog


In This Chapter

So you think that you have the best dog in the world? Your Bichon, Border Collie, Pug, or Portuguese Water Dog is perfect, and you want everyone to know it. Fortunately for you, a whole sport is dedicated to doing just that — the fascinating world of dog shows.
Conformation trials, or dog shows, are sporting events in which dogs compete against other canines to see who is top dog. Although dogs today can compete in a whole host of events — agility, flyball, herding, and earthdog among them — a dog’s overall appearance and structure is judged in conformation.
Shows of all sizes and shapes take place in the United States each year; leading the pack is the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, one of the most famous dog shows in the world. Held each year in New York City, this show has been running since 1877 and draws an interesting mix of fierce competitors (including the humans), unified fanciers, and devoted spectators.
Dog shows like Westminster are popular and very competitive, and the whole scene can seem quite overwhelming for beginners — even people who simply buy a ticket so they can sit back and watch. This chapter helps answer questions about the different types of shows, the breed standards, and how to get started, plus it aims to give you enough information to help you decide whether dog showing is right for you and your dog.

Discovering the World of Dog Shows

Some basic information about dog shows is helpful in understanding this fascinating and sometimes strange world. Hype and glitz aside, keep in mind the original goals of the sport set down by canine devotees more than a hundred years ago.

Achieving high standards

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), breeders must work to “produce a dog who most closely conforms to the breed standard.” In competitions of conformation, judges examine dogs and rank them according to how closely each compares to the dog described in the breed’s official standard, a description of the characteristics that allow a breed to perform the function for which it was bred. Standards often include a description of general appearance, as well as detailed specifications on the following:

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”)

Despite the razzle-dazzle, dog shows are not beauty contests. When it comes to conformation, the standard rules. How else can judges objectively choose one magnificent, gorgeous dog over another?
Breeds were developed to perform specific duties, and a written standard describes the ideal structure for the breed. Terriers, for example, needed a rough, protective coat to allow them to chase vermin under brush and underground. A long-legged, smooth-coated breed just wouldn’t hold up to the work of chasing down rats and badgers.
Standards for breeds are developed and maintained by the breed’s national club, and those breeds registered by the AKC are included in the AKC’s Complete Dog Book. The AKC’s Web site,, lists each breed’s standard and includes a link to the breed’s parent club.

Who can compete?

Not just any good-looking pooch can compete in a conformation event. To be eligible to compete, a dog must be

– 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).

Because conformation has always been about judging a dog’s potential as breeding stock, show dogs are required to be intact — whether or not you plan to breed your own. Serious health risks are associated with intact dogs, and individual owners need to decide whether showing a dog is worth the potential health problems.
Don’t despair if one of these requirements excludes your dog from competition. Not to compare apples to oranges, so to speak, but altered cats have been able to compete in a special class at pet shows for years, and some shows offer a special altered class for competition. Three kennel clubs offer signs of hope for pups that don’t fit the standard show mold:

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

The Mixed Breed Dog Clubs of America (MBDCA), a national registry for mixed breeds, provides many opportunities for mixes, which must be altered to participate. In addition to obedience, lure coursing, tracking, and other performance events, mixed breeds can compete in conformation. Before dogs can earn an MBDCA championship title, they must earn the organization’s obedience titles, ensuring a mix of both brains and beauty.
Individual breed clubs may also be making changes to accommodate owners who are not interested in breeding or, for some other reason, want to show an altered dog. For example, the Australian Shepherd Club of America allows spayed and neutered Aussies to compete in all club programs, including an Altered Conformation Program, in which dogs can earn points toward breed championships.

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:

American Kennel Club (AKC), oldest and largest in the United States, with more than 160 breeds

United Kennel Club (UKC), second-oldest in the United States, with more than 300 breeds

States Kennel Club (SKC), formed in the 1980s, with limited geographic reach

American Rare Breed Association (ARBA), a newer registry, with limited geographic range

Canadian Kennel Club (CKC), somewhat aligned with the AKC, with 175 breeds

Kennel Club (in Great Britain), the oldest kennel club in the world and organizer of the Crufts show

Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI), with member clubs from European, Asian, and Latin American countries

Types of conformation dog shows

You’re faced with a host of new terminology as soon as you start looking into dog shows. All-breed, specialty, group — what do they all mean? Here’s a head start on the three 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.

Dog shows can be indoors or outdoors, benched or unbenched. In a benched show, dogs are kept on assigned benches when not in the show ring. This arrangement gives visitors attending the show a better chance at seeing the breeds and talking to breeders and handlers. Few shows these days are benched; Westminster is one of them.
But wait — there are shows and there are matches. In the three types of shows, dogs compete for points toward a championship. Matches are more informal, and dogs do not earn points toward a championship. Don’t discount this level of competition, though; matches can be very useful for practicing and getting your feet wet in the ring. Dogs can enter three types of matches:

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.

You can check the events calendar of different breed clubs to find out when matches and shows are being held in your area. Many dog magazines also list dates for upcoming 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

Putting on a dog show is no small feat. Consider the time and energy involved in scheduling and coordinating what are often multiday events. Although many people work hard behind the scenes to make a show a success, you can familiarize yourself with a few of the key characters you’ll come across in the world of dog shows.

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.

Though some people take on multiple roles — breeder, owner, and handler — a dog usually has more than one person involved in its show career.

Understanding the basics of competition

Sure, there’s camaraderie with other fanciers and bonding between dogs and owners, but the goal for most dogs who compete in conformation shows is to win points toward a championship. Depending on the show and sponsoring kennel club, points are accumulated based on some fairly complicated formulas, some of which change each year (see your club’s Web site for details). For example, to become an AKC champion, with a Champion of Record title, dogs must earn 15 points, with two stipulations:

– Points must be awarded by at least three different judges.

– Points must include two majors — shows in which at least three points are awarded.

The number of championship points awarded at a show depends on the number of males and females of the breed actually in competition. The more entries, the greater the number of points that can be won, with five points being the maximum number awarded to any dog at any show. A dog who earns a Champion of Record title can compete for Best of Breed and Best of Show awards. So just as in any other sport, points are important.
The following simplified description explains a complicated process (entire books are devoted to it), but you can use this information as an introduction to the way competition works. In a show, dogs are divided by breed first and then by gender. For example, a Greyhound is separated from other breeds and then divided into groups of males and females. At that point, the males and females are divided into seven regular classes:

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.
After the male (dog) and female (bitch) winners are chosen in each class, they are brought back and judged against each other to determine which dog is the best of those winning dogs, known as the Winners Dog and the Winners Bitch. Judges award championship points to these dogs, from 1 to 5, depending on the number of dogs competing.
The Winners Dog and the Winners Bitch then compete with each other and with any dogs who have already earned their champion title, called the Best of Breed CompetitionThree awards are usually given during this part:

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

Maybe you’ve been to a dog show or two and loved the camaraderie, or your friend shows her dog and has raved about the experience. Maybe you’ve dreamed about showing a dog since you were a teen and saw the Westminster show on television. Whatever it was, it got you thinking about getting a show dog or showing the dog you already have.
Take some time to think about whether you have what it takes to be a show dog’s human. Are you outgoing enough to mix with other show people? Do you like to travel with your dog? Keep in mind that most newcomers to showing will lose and lose badly. It will most likely take some time before a win comes your way. Are you prepared for the mental beating your confidence will take? Are you the type who can smile as the awards are handed out to others? Will you be able to make sure that your dog doesn’t feel as though she let you down? Be honest and give these questions some thought.
What about your pooch? If you’re thinking about showing a dog you already have, consider the dog’s temperament and tolerance for excitement. If your dog has never even been to a dog park, let alone a loud, crowded arena full of other dogs, she may be in for a shock. Puppies destined for showing are socialized and trained from an early age, both of which help with temperament and tolerance of noise and crowds.
A good way to test both you and your dog is to try a local workshop or fun match (see the earlier section, “Types of conformation dog shows”). Some dogs may enjoy a smaller outdoor setting but will tremble or yawn their way through a large indoor match. And if you don’t have a dog to show, maybe someone you know has an experienced dog you can take for a test run.

Taking it all in: Being an informed spectator

As with any sport, it’s a good idea with dog showing to spend some quality time watching from the sidelines. Attend as many different types of shows as possible and really soak it all in.

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

People have strong opinions about nearly everything having to do with dogs, and dog showing is no exception. The advantages of being involved with dog showing vary with the people you talk to. Some pros include the following:

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

Dog showing is not without its downsides, as even the most ardent fanciers will attest. Others see more controversy in the sport. Some cons include the following:

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.

Of course, these points are just some food for thought, and individuals are responsible for making their own decisions.

Getting in Gear to Show

After you’ve decided to enter the wonderful world of dog showing, you need to prepare yourself and your dog before bounding into the ring. The homework items to check off your list include the following:

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

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:
  • Grooming equipment (tack box or bag, grooming table, supplies)
  • Regular collar and lead
  • Show collar and lead
  • Bait (treats)
  • Water bowl and gallon jugs of water
  • Crate and/or exercise pen
  • Dog bed or blanket
  • Cart to carry equipment
  • Tarp, canopy, or umbrella for shade
  • Chair
  • Towels
  • Bags or other method of scooping poop
  • Confirmation of entry paperwork and show/parking pass
  • Show clothes/apron
  • Extra shoes/socks/hosiery
  • Sunscreen
  • Cooler with lunch and drinks

Throwing yourself into training

As with any sport, dog showing requires a fair amount of training. Neither you nor your dog will be very happy — or successful — if you show up and compete without first training. To get yourself and your pooch in top form, consider the following:

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

A good conformation class teaches you a lot about stacking, but practice really makes the difference when you’re presenting to a judge. Although most dogs are stacked with all four feet square and even, some breeds are stacked differently, so be sure to find out if your breed’s pose is unusual in any way. Small breeds are stacked on a table. Some tips for great stacking practice include the following:

– 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.

This practice is important for both you and your dog. Neither one of you will be able to look relaxed or natural if you’re nervous — and a judge is likely to notice.

Getting ahead with gaiting

Gaiting doesn’t come naturally to most people or their dogs, so classes are critical in getting this part of the competition down. Not surprisingly, practice makes perfect. During competition, you’re asked to go around; all the dogs then trot around the ring at once, as well as gait individually. Gaiting gives the judge the greatest chance of seeing your dog’s best qualities and structural features. Keep the following tips in mind as you practice 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.
Good gaiting comes from practice and experience, but remember one other point: Listen. If you miss what a judge is saying, you miss out on the chance to show him what your gait is made of.

Choosing a handler

Yes, it’s possible to do it alone — be the breeder, groomer, handler, secretary, travel agent, chauffeur, and pooper scooper. But it’s not easy. Many in the dog show world rely on a team of people to help ensure a successful dog-showing experience. Because some handlers take care of everything from transportation, to grooming, to piloting around the show ring, a professional handler can be a key component in any team.
A professional handler has the skill and knowledge to present your dog in the ring as a winner. In general, the dog show handler’s job includes the following tasks:

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)

The fees handlers charge vary; some charge per class entry, per day, with additional charges per each point won, and more for dogs who go on to win Best of Breed or Best in Show. Expect to pay more for handling a dog who requires extensive or finicky coat care.
Breeders and local breed clubs can suggest where to find handlers. The Professional Handlers’ Association ( has membership requirements and a code of ethics; the AKC also has a program for handlers who commit to following the organization’s criteria and standards for professional handlers.

Competing: Let the Games Begin!

You’ve done your homework, your pooch is primped and poofed, and you’re prepared in every way possible. It’s show time!

Arriving at the show

Your first show will be a whirlwind of emotion, nerves, and excitement. You need to keep your head about you to take care of a few important steps:

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.

Entering the ring

This moment can be nerve racking, so try to relax and follow the lead of the ring steward. The steward, sometimes a volunteer, is responsible for getting each class into and then out of the ring. You’re called in by your number (the one on your trusty armband) or by group. If you go in by group, you can pick your spot in the line; if you’re called by number, you have no choice. Give your dog one last look, but too much fussing may make him nervous.
When you’re in the ring you’re in the hands of the judge. Hopefully, you’ve watched the judge with other classes and have a good idea of her routine. You take your place, stack your dog, and wait for what comes next.

Judging: The process

Most judges share a fairly simple routine when it comes to show time. Some room exists for variation, so it’s always a good idea to get a preview before it’s your turn. This section presents a typical scenario.
When a class of dogs first enters the show ring, the judge stands back and looks at a dog from a distance to get a general impression. Then he begins an individual examination, usually in the direction of head to toe, starting with the eyes, ears, and mouth. While in the mouth region, a judge often looks at the number of teeth (missing teeth can mean a disqualification in some breeds), as well as the dog’s bite, or how the teeth come together.
When the judge is done with the head area, he “goes over” the rest of the dog, judging coat texture and feeling the parts of the dog’s body: hips, shoulders, ribs, and so on. By using his hands, especially with heavy-coated breeds, he can tell a great deal about a dog’s bone structure and musculature. If a judge thinks a dog may be too big or small for the standard, he may ask for a measuring wicket to check the shoulder height.
When judging male dogs, a judge has to make sure that there are two fully descended testicles. At this moment, many handlers try to distract their dog, often with some bait. Distraction isn’t a bad idea, because most dogs — male or female — don’t like to have their nether regions examined.
When that business is over, it’s time to move. The judge asks the handler to trot the dog in a pattern that allows him to see the animal from every direction — from the front, rear, and side. Throughout this part of the judging, the judge is watching the smoothness of the dog’s gait and structure and deciding how well the dog can perform in its original function.
A dog may be disqualified for a number of reasons: missing teeth, a missing testicle, or some other physical trait defined in the standard. Aggression toward a judge or another dog is not a good sign and may also spell disqualification.
You’ve spent weeks or months preparing, and the whole experience may take only about two minutes per dog. Then the judge may simply point to the winners or, if the class is large, ask for additional gaiting for some dogs so he can compare them a final time before making his decision and handing out the ribbons. Game over.

Playing nice: Good sportsmanship

Whether your dog wins or loses, practicing good sportsmanship is essential. Think back to the lessons of childhood: “Play nice,” “Don’t brag,” “Don’t pout,” and “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.”
by Eve Adamson, Richard G. Beauchamp, Margaret H. Bonham, Stanley Coren, Miriam Fields-Babineau, Sarah Hodgson, Connie Isbell, Susan McCullough, Gina Spadafori, Jack and Wendy Volhard, Chris Walkowicz, M. Christine Zink, DVM, PhD
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