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A Dog Show Primer


Filed in Dogs, Behavior and Training

Becoming familiar with dog show basics is fairly simple. The two most common activities that take place at shows are conformation judging and obedience trials. These may be separate shows, or they may be part of a single, all-breed show. There are also "specialty" shows, where one breed of dog, or one Group takes part. 

Breed Standard
Conformation is not so much the "beauty contest" it is often claimed to be, as it is more like comparing a car to the blueprint by which it is built.

Each dog is weighed against a breed "standard," which is a kind of written specification for the ideal dog of a given breed. In the judge's opinion, the one that comes closest to the standard for the breed is the winner.

And the Winner Is . . .
Dogs are first judged by breed. Multiple breeds are usually judged simultaneously. There are classes within each breed, depending on the age of the dog and the experience and status of the dog's handler. The largest class entry is usually the Open class. The final winner is called the Best of Breed. If the Best of Breed is a male, a Best Opposite Sex female is also chosen. If the Best of Breed is female, then Best Opposite Sex is chosen from the males.

Breed winners then compete in their respective Groups. (There are seven Groups: Sporting, Non-Sporting, Working, Herding, Terrier, Toy, and Hound.) Finally, winners from each of the groups are judged to find the "Best in Show." This is where a tiny Pomeranian may go up against a giant Irish Wolf Hound. In order to find the best specimen here, judges must have a great deal of knowledge about all of the standards and a lot of experience. It's still a case of the dog who comes closest to its own standard who wins.

Ring Fundamentals
There are several classes for entries. First, the classes are divided up into males (dogs) and females (bitches). There are age ranges for puppy classes and classes where amateur exhibitors will be spared going against professional handlers.

Stand and Deliver (and Move Around the Ring)
Judges ask the handlers (who may be professionals or may be owners or breeders of the dogs) and animals to move around the ring in a circle. This is so that the judge can get a look at the dogs (male or female) as a group. The dogs are also asked to move back and forth individually while the judge observes.

If I'd Have Known There Was a Test, I Would Have Studied!
During the "examination" the dog is checked against its specifications by sight and touch. The evaluation may include things like length of neck, thickness of leg bones, the size of the ears, and how the dog holds it's tail. The judge looks at coat texture, eye color, and anything else that is the standard for the breed. Since a specific type of "bite" (how the dog's teeth line up) is often established, the dog's mouth and teeth are also checked. Small dogs are put up on a table to make them more accessible to a judge. Larger dogs are examined where they stand on the ground or the floor.

Either before announcing the winners, or immediately after, the judge will "mark" his or her "book." This is the official record of the judge's choices for each of the awards. This record is submitted to the American Kennel Club (AKC). Points are awarded to the winners according the number of competitors. An accumulation of points entitles the dog to be called Champion and allows the owner to use this title at the beginning of the animal's name.

Ring Etiquette
Spectators are usually pretty quiet, so as not to distract dog, handler or judge while the evaluation proceeds. However, when the dogs move around the ring, observers often express their opinions about the entries by clapping. If this is your first dog show, follow the crowd and you probably won't go wrong.

In a show of good sportsmanship, handlers often shake the winner's hands when leaving the ring. The winners wait in the ring for pictures to be taken with the judge, and pose with the ribbons and the winner's trophy.

Handlers are usually more than happy to have you congratulate them on their win, and they might let you admire their dogs, but be aware that they may have several dogs to show. They may not have time to linger. If you can find the section where the handler has set up a grooming and holding area (breeds often congregate together), they will be more relaxed and willing to talk when they have finished showing.

Junior Showmanship
Junior Showmanship competition does not involve judging dogs, but instead judges the ability of young people (over 10 and under 18 years of age) to handle their dogs in the conformation ring.

There are ranks through which a dog (male or female) passes to prove that they are capable of more complex obedience tasks. Unlike Conformation, spaying or neutering does not disqualify dogs from competition. Showing in Obedience is a sport, as it is in Conformation, but it also makes for good canine citizens. During obedience trials, dogs must perform exercises both with their handlers singly and in a large group.

The "Degrees" of Separation
Like Conformation, dogs do not compete in Obedience against one another. Rather they perform their paces to accumulate points toward a total score. Achieving qualifying scores, called "legs," toward a "degree" is the goal.

The most common Obedience degrees are Companion Dog (CD), Companion Dog Excellent (CDX), and Utility Dog (UD). Awarding of these titles qualifies the animal to have the respective letter abbreviation used behind their name. Competition is involved only in that awards are often given for first, second, third and fourth highest score (ribbons and / or prizes).

But Look, There's More . . .
There are other competitions that have "degrees" awarded. Among them is the "brace" class for pairs of dogs who move through their exercises in tandem.

Agility competitions are also becoming well known. The requirements are similar to other areas of Obedience in that there are certain exercises to perform and qualifying scores to be completed. Four agility titles may be earned as the dogs progress.

Field Trials, specifically for dogs bred to retrieve and point, Hunting Tests, Tracking Degrees, Herding Trials and Earth Dog Trials are also held. The most obscure of all the AKC trials is probably that of Lure Coursing. Where sight hounds (those who use their eyes to track a prey, rather than their noses) are required to show their abilities by following a lure (commonly a white garbage bag) attached to a motorized line.

Something for Everyone
Finally, there is the only test for which the AKC will award a certificate to a mixed breed, a non-AKC breed, and an AKC registered canine. Although this is not a title, many people use the letters CGC - Canine Good Citizen -- after the dog's name anyway. The certification is a recognition that a dog is able to serve as a personal companion and a highly regarded community member. The dog must demonstrate good behavior and the ability to be under the owner's control throughout the exercises. The test is not very well known, but the AKC has future plans to promote it.

In Summary
It takes a certain "breed" of person to be committed to what showing dogs entails, whether in Conformation or Obedience. However, anyone can enjoy attending a show, and can appreciate it more when they have a basic understanding of what's happening in the ring at any given moment.

For more information on AKC trials and shows, regional breed clubs and information on contacting obedience clubs, go to:

Suggested Reading:
"The Complete Dog Book: - New updated official publication of the American Kennel Club." All 140 recognized breeds are presented in photographs with histories and current official standards.
"Dog Showing for Beginners." - Lynn Hall
"Show Me! : A Dog Showing Primer." - D. Caroline Coile
"Dog Showing : An Owner's Guide." - Connie Vanacore
"What You Need to Know to Show Your Dog." - Jeannie Burt
"Successful Obedience Handling: The New Best Foot Forward." - Barbara S. Handler Kent Dannen (Photographer) Donna Dannen (Photographer)
"Best Junior Handler!: A Guide to Showing Successfully in Junior Showmanship." - Anne Olejniczak Denise Olejniczak

Anna Furtado is a writer and a dog lover. She has groomed dogs professionally and has shown them in both conformation and obedience.

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