It’s Showtime! Grooming a Dog for the Ring

It’s Showtime! Grooming a Dog for the Ring

In This Chapter

  • Exploring what a dog show is all about
  • Understanding how dog show preparations differ from pet grooming
  • Discovering what grooming needs to happen at the show

Grooming a dog for a dog show is a little like grooming your pet — but just a little. You have to know how to groom your dog as a pet, but then you must go one step further and groom him for inspection by a judge who’s well-versed in the standards for your dog’s breed. Part of that standard is his coat. So in this chapter, I give you the scoop on grooming and how it pertains to the show ring.

Note: This chapter is for the owner-handler, as most people who start showing their dogs are owner-handlers, meaning that they own, groom, and handle their own dogs in the show ring.

Brushing Up on Dog Show Basics

So what, exactly, is a dog show, and why is it so important for your dog to look pretty in one? When dog people talk about dog shows, they’re usually talking about conformation dog shows and not necessarily a performance event, such as obedience or agility trials. Conformation shows are the typical dog shows most people think about and see on television, in which the dog is judged on how he looks and how he conforms to the standard. (Performance events usually are called trials to make a distinction.) The two types of conformation dog shows are all-breed and specialty.

All-breed shows are just as the name implies — all breeds compete in the show. If your dog does well and wins Best of Breed, he goes on to compete against other dogs of different breeds in a group setting and then on to the Best-in-Show setting. All-breed shows are usually sanctioned by a national or international kennel club, such as the American Kennel Club (AKC) or the United Kennel Club (UKC).

– A specialty show is for one particular breed — meaning your dog competes only against dogs of the same breed. Specialty shows are usually put on by a breed club and may be regional or national in scope.

Dogs in all-breed and specialty shows are both judged according to their respective breed standards, which are blueprints for how each dog breed should look and act.
Breed standards go into such excruciating detail that no dog can ever match up to all the standards. Dogs who come close, however, are said to be of show quality, and dogs that have serious faults or even disqualifications when measured up against the breed standard are said to be pet-quality dogs. The faults or disqualifications usually are cosmetic, such as a splash of color where it shouldn’t be, the wrong type of bite, or even a missing tooth or two. Of course, pet-quality dogs are not inferior to show-quality dogs when it comes to having them as a pet, but you need to understand the standard for your dog’s breed and whether your dog is truly cut out to be a show dog before you start grooming him for and dishing out the money to enter him in shows, because showing a dog can be expensive.


You can find your dog’s breed standard online at the AKC Web site (, or you can check out the various breed club Web sites.

Just because your dog is cute or smart or even a purebred doesn’t mean that he’s ready to hit the conformation dog shows. First, you must determine whether your dog is of show quality. Because AKC is the main kennel club that plays host to shows in the United States, I talk exclusively about its rules; UKC has a similar set of rules. If you decide to go the UKC route, you need to determine what the UKC rules are and how they differ from AKC rules. AKC requirements for showing indicate that your dog must

– Be registered with the American Kennel Club with a full (not limited) registration.

– Have parents who either have or were working toward conformation titles. This requirement establishes that your dog is from show lines.

– Come from a breeder who thinks your dog is show quality and knows you’re going to show him.

– Conform to the individual breed standard with no disqualifications and few flaws.

– Be intact — not neutered or spayed. You may be surprised that you have to have an intact dog, but AKC rules require that the dog be breeding stock, so dog shows are not simply beauty pageants.

– Be six months or older.

– Be trained to stack and to gait properly around the ring. 

Earning a championship title

The two reasons for showing dogs are to obtain championship points and to campaign a dog who has already earned champion status (that is, show the dog off as a champion and let him
or her compete against other champions). Dogs must obtain 15 championship points to earn a championship title. When campaigning a champion, breeders are showing their dog against other dogs who are champions; the more a dog wins, the closer he or she gets to being a top-ranked dog. (AKC and the breed clubs keep track of who’s ahead.) But the situation gets much more complicated than that.
Dogs who are not yet champions must win best dog of their sex — that is, either Winners Dog or Winners Bitch of their particular breed. If they win over all other untitled dogs in their breed, they earn points. The number of points awarded depends on the breed, the region of the country, and the number of dogs competing at a given show. If the dog wins over a small number of dogs, for example, the award is considered a minor and earns the dog one or two points. The maximum number of minor points that can apply toward a dog’s championship title is nine points. If a dog wins against many other dogs, the award is considered a major. A major win is worth three, four, or five points. Any dog that wins points goes up against the champions for the Best of Breed competition.
When your dog goes up against other dogs in the ring, you can win various ribbons. In the competition for dogs who aren’t yet champions, your dog can win a fourth-place through first-place ribbon. The dogs who win first place go on to the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch competitions. A dog who’s runner-up to the Winners Dog or Winners Bitch wins Reserve Winners Dog or Reserve Winners Bitch.
The Winners Dog and Winners Bitch go into the Best of Breed Competition. The dog can win Best of Breed, Best of Winners, or Best of Opposite Sex. (Best of Opposite Sex is the best dog who’s the sex opposite that of the Best of Breed winner. So if a male wins Best of Breed, the very best female dog will be picked as Best of Opposite Sex, and vice versa.) The Best of Breed advances to the Group competition, where the dog can win Best of Group. In turn, the dogs who win Best of Group advance to the Best in Show competition.
After a dog earns a championship, a CH is placed in front of his or her AKC name, such as CH Skywarrior’s Mishka Ice Dragon. But that isn’t the end of the road. After a dog achieves championship status, he or she can enter competitions only for Best of Breed or for any higher competitions, such as Best in Group and Best in Show. But those kinds of shows are where the fun begins, because competition advances a whole other level.
Showing dogs can be a costly endeavor not only in terms of show fees but also in terms of time, fuel, food, and lodging expenses. People caught up with the show bug often pay thousands of dollars each year to earn champion status for their dogs and then campaign them afterward. If you live in an area where shows are infrequent, you may have to travel great distances to earn majors.

Wow! That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? So much, in fact, that you may be wondering why dog owners even bother. That’s easy — dog shows are to show off a breeder’s stock and to judge the best of the best. The dog may even win points toward being a champion (check out the “Earning a championship title” sidebar for more information about dog show prizes). What do you get as a groomer? The satisfaction of a dog who wins, of course.


Going to the show is more that just showing up. Your dog needs to be trained to gait, stand, and stack, and the best way to develop these skills is to take a conformation class at a professional trainer’s facility or to have a breeder or handler teach you how to handle the dog. Here’s what those three skills entail:

Gaiting: This is the way your dog moves beside you. In most cases, the correct gait is a trot (see Figure 18-1), but occasionally, certain breed standards require a different gait.

Standing: Standing a dog is just as it sounds — getting a dog to stand in one place.

Stacking: Stacking a dog is a type of pose that has the dog stand straight with his legs positioned so that he looks solid. A well-stacked dog stands straight with all four paws facing straight ahead, positioned directly under the shoulders, and a body that looks more or less square. Good handlers can stack their dogs (literally manipulating the dog into position) to minimize the dogs’ respective flaws (too long or short of a back, cow hocks, or whatever).

You train a dog how to stack by baiting him, or by using yummy treats so he looks attentive and alert (think about the look your dog gives you when he’s begging for food). You give the treat when your dog is in the proper position.
Most dog-show handlers stack their dogs, but some dogs free stack; that is, they stack themselves whenever the owner or handler shows them food.
If you think your dog has what it takes to show well, sign up for a show in your area. You must sign up for AKC shows months in advance, and the cost can be anywhere from $20 to $30 per class per show (usually one show per day). You need to have your dog’s registered name, AKC number, breeder info, and other pertinent information on your dog’s AKC registration.

Then you can let the grooming begin! If your dog isn’t clean, the judge is unlikely to pick him, because he doesn’t look presentable. Likewise, certain approved appearances, or looks, are set for each dog. For example, some dog breeds call for no scissoring or trimming the coat; others require certain cuts as being acceptable for show. The following sections help prepare you and your dog for the exciting experience of participating in a show.
Figure 18-1: Show dogs strut their stuff as they gait around the ring.
So, you’ve decided that your dog is show quality, you understand what’s required to win those points, you’ve registered for the show, and you’ve received your dog’s confirmation (the dog show organizers send you a card that confirms you’re registered). Now you need to figure out just how to properly prepare your dog for the big show. Quite honestly, you’re going to brush, comb, bathe, and blow-dry your dog exactly the way you would a pet, but you’re going to be using more coat conditioners, and if you clip your dog, the style is going to be one that’s allowable by the breed standard. That usually means maintaining a show clip year-round or at least before and while the dog is showing.
You’d think that in the conformation ring, having better conformation is the most important. Well, that’s true, but how well-groomed your dog looks is crucial, too. So do yourself and your dog a favor: Show a clean and sweet-smelling pooch.
Successfully grooming your dog for a show requires planning well in advance of the show so you don’t run into any surprises the day of the show. The following sections help you prepare for the big day.

Trimming whiskers

Some show people like to trim whiskers. I don’t, because I think they’re an important part of the dog, and besides, they’re very sensitive. Trimming whiskers is more of an option than anything, and most standards don’t call for it. The point of trimming the whiskers is creating the type of look that the show person wants to convey. For example, trimming whiskers (or not) can soften or harden the look of the dog, depending on the shape of the head. In a small
or long-muzzled dog, clipping the whiskers emphasizes the shape and makes it look smaller. So if your dog happens to have a nose that’s a bit snippy (where the muzzle is pointed or weak), trimming the whiskers overemphasizes that point, which isn’t desirable. However, on a dog whose muzzle is blocky, trimming the whiskers can make it look a little less rough.
Use scissors to trim whiskers, but be careful — one slip can send your dog to the emergency vet.

In the weeks leading up to the show

Getting a show coat in optimum condition can take months if your dog’s coat isn’t ready. If you’re planning on showing, start shaping the dog’s coat at least six months in advance of the show. Check out your particular dog’s breed standard and clipping requirements. For example, if you have a dog with a clipped or stripped coat, you must start preparing the coat for show months or weeks in advance. That means that each week, you either clip or roll the coat (see Chapters Beautifying the Stripped Breeds and Tidying the Tresses of the Long-Haired Breeds).


Although grooming can’t fix a real fault, good, focused grooming well in advance can, on occasion, diminish a flaw to the point to where it isn’t quite as noticeable. This tactic is helpful when showing, because dogs don’t spend much time in front of a judge in the ring to begin with, and if your dog truly is a good specimen with the exception of that one flaw, the judge may decide the flaw really isn’t that important, if you’ve done everything you can to minimize it.

The night before the big event

On the night before you show your dog, you probably don’t want to wait up just to hear David Letterman’s Top Ten, so in its place, I give you the top ten steps you need to follow the night before the big show:
1. Brush out your dog’s coat.
2. Do any prebath clipping as required.

3. Trim toenails.
4. Clean ears.
5. Express anal sacs if needed.
6. Bathe your dog.
7. Blow-dry your dog.
8. Brush out your dog’s coat.
9. Do any postbath clipping.
10. Keep your dog clean.

That means crating him when it’s bedtime and walking him on a leash when outside. 

Now that your dog is taken care of, what about you? Yes, you, too, are going to have to look smart for the show. That means a suit if you’re a guy and a dress or pantsuit if you’re a woman. (Occasionally, you can get by without suit coats and jackets.) No jeans or grubbies. You’re supposed to look as good as your dog!


One change to the dressed-up ensemble is that you have to have really good shoes for running about and moving. That means no high heels and no dress shoes. Sneakers or shoes with good support and good tread are a must.


People usually bring two outfits to the show: One comfortable outfit to groom in and one outfit to show in. If you’re worried you won’t be able to find a place to change, simply wear your showing outfit and bring a groomer’s apron to keep most of the hair off you.

The morning of the show

The day of the big show has arrived, and you need to put your dog through a normal routine so the both of you are ready for the show ring. Here are the steps you need to take the morning of the show:
1. Keep your dog clean by using a snood or other ear/hair covering, and always walk your dog on a leash.
2. Brush out your dog’s coat and check for areas that may need touch-up clipping.
3. Use leave-in coat conditioners if your breed and/or dog requires them (for example, your dog may need coat dressings, bodifiers, and texturizers to help make the coat look and feel the way it’s supposed to).

4. Prepare your dog’s crate and get your equipment ready for the show. Here are some items you need to have:
  • Bait pouch
  • Battery-operated portable fans (for summertime or warmer environs)
  • Bed and blankets for the dog in wintertime
  • Combs and brushes
  • Coverings like snoods to keep hair from dragging
  • Crate for your dog
  • Cut-up liver, meats, cheeses, or compressed meat rolls in tiny portions
  • Dog food
  • Electric clippers
  • Folding grooming table
  • Grooming apron
  • Leave-in coat conditioners and bodifiers
  • Mat (for shows on dirt)
  • No-rinse shampoo (blue groomer’s soap)
  • Paper towels
  • Pet bowls (for food and water)
  • Plastic bags for trash and wrapping up dirty towels
  • Plastic basin (for keeping chalk off floors or for using no-rinse shampoo)
  • Poop cleanup bags or scoops
  • Rugged tack box (for all the stuff you’re hauling around)
  • Show slip-collar and leash (preferably close to your dog’s color) or show martingale (standard show collars and leads that are available online and through catalog supply retailers)
  • Spray bottles with water and other coat products
  • Toenail trimmers or grinders
  • Traveling dryer
  • Water jugs (with water), as most show sites don’t have a good and easy access to water
  • Washcloths and towels
  • X-pens or exercise pens


Most people don’t think about etiquette when it comes to their dogs, but good manners really are a necessity. Rude dog owners have made bad impressions, so much so that many hotel people don’t want to play host to any traveling pets. That’s a shame, because so many conscientious pet owners are out there. I’m sure you’re one of them!
But (lest you forget) here are some tips for taking your dog out in public: 

– Make sure your dog has basic obedience training and basic housetraining.

– Keep your dog on a leash at all times.

– Never yell or punish your dog in public — it really looks bad.

– Don’t try to sneak your dog into a hotel or other place that doesn’t allow dogs. They’ll know, trust me.

– Always crate your dog when you can’t watch him.

– Don’t leave your dog alone so he can bark in the room (or anyplace else, for that matter) and disturb other guests.

– Room service is your friend. Use it.

– If your dog must sleep on the bed, put your own blanket or towel where your dog sleeps to keep hair off the bed.

– Place your dog’s food and water bowls in the bathroom so it’s easy to clean up if anything spills.

– Don’t let your dog run loose.

– Don’t bathe your dog in the tub, and don’t groom your dog in the room. Bathe your dog at home, and groom your dog at the show site.


Without a doubt, you’ll think of other things to add to this list as you gain more show experience. The main thing to remember is that you want to keep your dog looking good and feeling healthy and comfortable — cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Depending on how far you travel to shows, you want to have enough gear to handle any grooming that you need to do while on the road.

Putting on the Finishing Touches at the Show

When you arrive on the show grounds, you’re likely to see a lot of confusing activity. There’ll be people rushing about with their dogs on leads, people trying to do some last-minute grooming, and people just taking in the sights.
Arrive early at the dog show site. Finding the ring you’re in (which should be printed on the judging schedule you should’ve received in the mail before the show), getting your armband for identification, and checking in with the ring steward (the person in charge of checking everyone in and making sure each round goes as scheduled) take a lot of time.
If you have enough time, you can stake out a place to groom your dog in the designated grooming area. Sometimes — but not always — these areas are assigned to certain breeds, so look for a place where your breed may be. If there’s a space where you can set up your table and finish grooming, great! Otherwise, use any place you can find (even out in the parking lot, as long as it’s not raining or too cold).

Touching up before entering the ring

Even if you make it through the morning routine with flying colors and you arrive at the show thinking your dog’s ready to score some points toward a championship title, make sure that you take the time to go through these four steps:
1. Brush out your dog’s coat and check for any areas that need touch-up clipping.
2. Touch up any place that needs to be touched up.
3. Keep your dog clean until it’s time to get in the ring.
4. Relax and have fun!
When it’s ring time, give your dog one last spritz and use your comb to fluff her coat if you have to.


Although you may be ready to carry a whole bunch of spray bottles full of bodi-fier and conditioners and a comb and brush with you while you wait, resist the temptation. Don’t do it, unless you have a friend handy to help you. After all, where are you going to put the stuff when the ring steward calls your dog’s number? If you have to bring something, take along a comb that you can slip in your pocket or on your armband before you head into the ring.

You’ll probably have butterflies in your stomach. That’s natural. But relax — you’ll do fine. If you’re nervous, your dog will most likely be nervous, too. The following section prepares you for your moment in the spotlight.


With everything going on at a show, it’s easy to get distracted and forget to watch the time. Showing up late to your ring is bad news — the judge may not even let you show your dog if you’re late, and it’s doubtful you’ll win, so be early just to be safe. You may have to wait for your turn, but being early and prepared is always better than being late.

Chalking it up

Chalking is a bit of a controversial topic.
Chalking is the addition of a substance like chalk, talcum powder, or cornstarch to a dog’s legs to make the fur look whiter. Chalking adds body to the leg hairs, and in breeds where a larger-boned appearance is preferred, chalking can actually help you make your dog’s legs look bigger. But when you groom your dog for a show, nothing that makes the dog’s fur whiter or fuller than normal is supposed to be left over.
Chalking technically is against American Kennel Club rules, but the truth is, show people do it all the time, and nobody talks much about it. Of course, if your dog is walking around in a powdery cloud like the Peanuts character Pigpen, the judge may not be so understanding — your dog can be dismissed from the ring and disqualified. If you get caught chalking and are disqualified, don’t blame me. Just, ahem, chalk it up to the fact that there are rules and then there are rules. And if you get a judge who goes by the letter of the law, then yeah, you’re in deep trouble.
But like anything, you can chalk in a way that improves the appearance of your dog’s legs but still removes most of the residue (the following steps tell you how). If you chalk your dog and do it right, not much of the powder will be left over in the fur. (Your dog won’t walk in a cloud of white when you do.) The point is to get rid of as much of the substance as possible but still keep the look. Technically, you’ve brushed nearly all of the powder out. But there’s still going to be some left in the coat; that can’t be helped.
1. Rub a product that’s a little sticky all over the dog’s legs, front and back.

I’ve found that Kolesterol (by Wella), a product found in the women’s hair-care department, works really well for chalking. It’s greasy enough to be sticky but goes on clear. Or you can use human hair mousse or gel.

2. Apply the chalk powder (cornstarch or chalk) through your dog’s legs, back and front.

You can buy chalk (and colored chalk) through grooming supply catalogs and online Internet retailers. I use cornstarch because it neither cuts the hairs on the legs nor results in the glittery appearance that real chalk or talcum powder sometimes can.

3. Use a small slicker brush to brush the coat upward against the lay of the hair.

The leg hairs will puff out and become white (or whatever color you’re using). Keep brushing upward until no more powder puffs into the air and the legs look white and pretty. Don’t brush the hair back down along the lay or you defeat the purpose.

Because your dog has sticky stuff on his legs (with the chalk, of course), getting them dirty becomes easier. If you can, wait until you’re at the show site before chalking your dog if you choose to do so.

Handling your dog in the show ring

The big moment has arrived. You’ve managed to keep your dog’s coat clean and presentable, and you’ve found your way to the proper place in line for the show. The following sequence of events is what you can expect to take place next as you show your dog:

1. When you get into the ring, you line up according to armband number and do a full circle around the ring when prompted by the judge.
2. Line up your dog in the stacked position in relationship to the other dogs (for more on stacking, see “Brushing Up on Dog Show Basics” at the beginning of the chapter).
3. The judge looks at all the dogs, one at a time, from the first through the last positions in the line, checking each dog’s head, bite (the way the teeth are set), body, and rear, feeling the testicles on male dogs to determine whether the dog’s intact and both testicles have descended properly.

Now isn’t really the time to adjust anything on your dog. Some show people may take a quick brush, but other than that, you pretty much have to leave your dog’s coat be. The ring is not a grooming place. 

Buying stuff at the dog show

One of the fun things about going to a dog show is visiting the vendors. Depending on the show, the vendors’ booths may be many or few. You can often see and touch grooming equipment and other items at a dog show and buy things you normally wouldn’t get at your pet supply store.
Dog shows are great for finding odd and different grooming items, such as special scissors (or shears) or things like snoods — devices that keep a dogs’ hair from dragging. Because your dog is present at the show, you can often try these items on your dog to see whether they’re
really going to work.
Although you can find interesting and unusual items at a dog show, they can have extravagant or even out-of-reach prices, or they may be on sale as part of a show special. The best bargains usually happen on the last day of the show — if there are going to be any sales.
When you look for grooming supplies (like shampoo and conditioner), look for them in bulk, and look for items you can’t just order from a catalog. Sometimes a dealer has an item on hand that you can otherwise order for less from the catalog. You can decide whether such items are something you want or need right away or whether you can wait until later to order. If the price at the show is close to the mail-order price, you may have to factor in how much shipping would cost or whether being able to immediately buy the items at the show is worthwhile.
If you decide to go shopping, try to do so only after you’ve shown your dog. That way, you won’t get your dog dirty before entering the ring.
4. After the judge finishes the individual examinations, he or she directs you to gait your dog, either in an up and back (diagonal) or triangle shape.

You may get away with running a comb through your dog’s coat before you begin walking, but be careful. Often, grooming in the ring can annoy the judge, and you really don’t want to do anything to annoy the judge.


Be sure to stop your dog in front of the judge and stack her again before taking her around the ring and back into the lineup. When you return to the lineup, keep your dog stacked and looking good, but don’t fuss too much (if at all) with combing (see Figure 18-2).

5. After all the dogs have taken an individual turn, the judge asks the handlers to circle the dogs around the ring one more time together as he or she chooses (usually) the top four. Good luck!

If the judge doesn’t choose the winners at this point in the competition, he or she may ask to look at two or three dogs again or may ask for the handlers to gait their dogs again. At large shows, the group may be split up, and the judge may choose several from each group to compete for placement. 

Figure 18-2: A little sprucing up in the ring is allowed to keep your dog looking great.
by Margaret H.Bonham