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Never mind the Mouse. This time of year, Orlando is all about the dog.

Actually, make that plural: Dogs – thousands of them, from Chihuahuas to ginormous Great Danes – will be streaming into Florida during the week of December 9 to compete in the American Kennel Club’s annual flagship event, formally called the AKC National Championship Presented by Royal Canin. But if you’re never attended before, you might just call it overwhelming.

With dozens of events that take up the better part of the week, culminating in the big show spread over the final two days – Saturday and Sunday, December 14 and 15 – there’s a lot to see and do. But fear not: For first-timers, we’ve assembled this survival guide to what is the biggest dog show in North America.

With a little planning – and not a few energy bars – here’s how to make the most of this Disney of dog shows.

Feet first

Consider for a moment that the square footage of the Orange County Convention Center’s North-South building (9899 International Drive), where the show and all its ancillary events take place, is one million square feet. Yes, one million.

Rest assured that by the end of the day, your own dogs are going to yipping at you. So the first thing you’ll need to pack are a couple of pairs of comfortable shoes. And – for bragging rights – don’t forget your Fitbit.

Increasingly at the show, mobility-impaired and elderly visitors rent scooters to get around. Scooters, as well as wheelchairs, can be rented from Scootaround starting at $55 a day; the weekly rate is $225. You can reserve a scooter by clicking here; you can also book a walk-up rental at Scootaround’s on-site booth outside the FedEx Office in the South Building.

Car talk

Tickets to the show can be purchased ahead of time, but if you forget, they are available at virtually all entrances. The parking lot, like the convention center itself, seems to go in forever, so make special note of where you leave your vehicle. “Next to the palm tree” just won’t cut it.

Show and go … and go … and go

While the AKC National Championship spans Saturday and Sunday, the constellation of events surrounding the show start as early as Tuesday, December 10.

From Tuesday through Friday, there’s the Orlando dog show cluster. (“Cluster” is just dog-show-speak for a group of separate but consecutive shows that share the same venue.) Starting off the week on Tuesday, December 10, is the Space Coast Kennel Club of Palm Bay, followed by the Brevard Kennel Club show on Wednesday, December 11, and the Central Florida Kennel Club show on Thursday, December 12.

NADD AKC Diving Dogs at the 2018 AKC National Championship.
©American Kennel Club
NADD AKC Diving Dogs at the 2018 AKC National Championship.

While there is no all-breed show on Friday, December 13, there are a number of specialty shows, which are open to dogs of an individual breed or group. There are dozens of specialties scheduled for Friday, from Akitas and Afghan Hounds to Pugs and Pembroke Welsh Corgis, as well as two group shows (Working and Herding).

If rare breeds are more your thing, there are Miscellaneous and FSS Breeds Open shows on all those days as well, sponsored by the Biewer Terrier Club of America the first three days and the Dogo Argentino Club of America on Friday. Even though the shows are sponsored by individual breed clubs, all eligible breeds can compete, from Danish-Swedish Farmdogs to Teddy Roosevelt Terriers to Karelian Bear Dogs.

(Time-out for some jargon-busting: FSS stands for “Foundation Stock Service,” which is the first place a new breed starts out on the road to eventual recognition by the American Kennel Club. Once the breed has met a number of requirements – including a certain number of dogs in the studbook – it advances to Miscellaneous status, which is the final step before formal AKC recognition.)


Being the eve of the big show, Friday has a number of stand-alone events. The hugely popular AKC/Royal Canin National All-Breed Puppy and Junior Stakes highlights the youngest generations of show dogs aged six to 18 months old. Then for the up-and-coming humans in the dog-show world, there’s the AKC Juniors Agility Competition, open to handlers ages nine to 17.

The main event

Arguably, the high point of the week is the AKC National Championship show on Saturday and Sunday, followed by the group and Best in Show judging in the big arena on those respective evenings. Because of the sheer size of the show, judging takes place over two days: Sporting, Hound, Toy and Non-Sporting breeds on Saturday, and Working, Terrier, and Herding breeds, as well as Miscellaneous and Best in Show, on Sunday.

The show’s endless expanses of red carpeting and the low, European-style ring gates make for a pleasant viewing experience during the day. Consult the judging program to find out the ring number and time for your favorite breeds, and plot your day out in advance. If you want the best chances of snagging a ringside seat for a popular breed (the biggest entries among the show’s 5,284 competitors are Golden and Labrador Retrievers, with 159 and 127 dogs entered, respectively), go a bit early and hang around that ring while the previous breed is being judged. Once judging wraps up, some seats invariably become available.

(If you see clumps of official-looking people sitting ringside, those are likely prospective judges who are receiving “ringside mentoring” from breeders and judges who are experts in that breed.)

Also on tap over the weekend: the AKC National Owner-Handled Series Finals, in which dogs piloted by their actual owners – instead of professional or paid handlers – compete against each other.

Performance review

Conformation – that fancy word for dog-show judging – is just one part of the AKC National Championship. Also taking place Saturday and Sunday are the AKC Agility Invitational and the AKC Obedience Classic, featuring the nation’s top-ranked competitors in those canine sports.

And because Juniors are the future of the sport, they are encouraged to compete in AKC Juniors Classic Obedience and Rally, which take place on the weekend as well.

Right to left: Best of Breed: GCH CH Brynwood's Have A Field Day TKN, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever; Best of Breed: CH Barba Bagnata Breda L'Arma Segreta CGC, Spinone Italiano; and Best of Breed: GCH CH Rolyart's Let's Have A Party, Welsh Springer Spaniel; Sporting Group judging at the 2018 AKC National Championship presented by Royal Canin, Orlando, FL.
©American Kennel Club
Right to left: Best of Breed: GCH CH Brynwood’s Have A Field Day TKN, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever; Best of Breed: CH Barba Bagnata Breda L’Arma Segreta CGC, Spinone Italiano; and Best of Breed: GCH CH Rolyart’s Let’s Have A Party, Welsh Springer Spaniel; Sporting Group judging at the 2018 AKC National Championship presented by Royal Canin, Orlando, FL.

Getting to know you

With its intensely competitive handlers and groomed-just-so dogs, ringside can be a tricky place for a meet and greet. (Important: Always ask a handler, “Do you have a minute to talk?” or “Can I pet your dog?” before launching in.) To log in some no-pressure petting time, head to the AKC Meet the Breeds event on Saturday and Sunday. There, representatives from the national clubs of more than 140 AKC-recognized breeds will be on hand to talk about the dogs they love. Not to mention the dogs themselves, which are yours for the petting. (And, of course, selfie-taking.)

No kidding

Meet the Breeds isn’t the only event that’s perfect for pint-sized attendees. The various performances in the AKC Demo Ring – including tricks, flying-disc catching, and scent detection, to name a few – are fast-paced and kid-friendly. Ditto for the NADD/AKC Diving Dogs Championship, in which dogs make a splash to see who can dive farther or higher.

Show me the money

Don’t bring that wad of cash unless you intend to spend it. No matter how much you love dogs, eventually you’ll want a break from watching them, and the seemingly endless aisles of vendors at the AKC National Championship have plenty of “dog stuff” on offer – crates, leashes, brushes, toys, agility equipment, ID tags, beds, dog doors, coats, motorized treadmills, and on and on. But there are also booths where you can buy original artwork, treat yourself to some special jewelry (dog-themed, of course) or have a consult with an animal communicator. (Dogs that are not entered in events are not permitted at the venue, but no worries about getting chatty with your couch-bound pooch at home: Pet psychics are accustomed to asking questions – and getting answers – over the space-time continuum.)

Next best thing

If you’re not able to tear yourself away from your gingerbread making long enough to get to Florida, you can watch the show live on or on Animal Planet on January 1, 2020.