Never mind the Mouse. In December, Orlando is all about the dog.
Actually, make that plural: Dogs–thousands of them, from tiny Chihuahuas to ginormous Great Danes–stream into Florida to compete in the American Kennel Club’s annual flagship event, 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 and special attractions that take up the better part of the week—culminating in the big show spread over Saturday and Sunday—there’s a lot to see and do if you’re attending the AKC National Championship for the first time (or twentieth time). If you’ve never been to this marquee event, here’s a survival guide to the biggest dog show in North America.
With a little planning, you can enjoy everything there is to offer at this veritable theme part of dog shows.
Walking the AKC National Championship Floor
Consider for a moment that the square footage of the Orange County Convention Center‘s North/South Concourse where the whole event takes place, is one million square feet. One million! Add in a trek out to the grass outside the Convention Center to watch the recently added AKC Fast CAT Invitational, and we’re now over a million.
Rest assured that by the end of the day, your own dogs are going to barking at you. So the first thing you’ll need to have are a couple of pairs of comfortable shoes. And–for bragging rights–don’t forget your step tracker.
Mobility scooters can be a helpful tool for visitors with disabilities or mobility challenges. Scooters, as well as wheelchairs, electric power chairs, and even stand-up scooters can be rented from the Convention Center. Scootaround is the exclusive scooter and wheelchair rental service for the Convention Center, and it’s recommended to reserve in advance through their website.
Parking at Orlando Convention Center
The parking lot, like the convention center itself, seems to go on forever, so make special note of where you leave your vehicle. “Next to the palm tree” just won’t cut it. Parking is on a first come, first served basis, and this includes the Convention Center’s disability permit parking spaces. It’s recommended that you use the parking lot entrance off Universal Boulevard when attending events in the North/South Concourse.
AKC National Championship Week and the Orlando Cluster
While the AKC National Championship takes place on Saturday and Sunday, the constellation of events and special attractions surrounding the show start as early as Tuesday.
From Tuesday through Friday, there’s the Orlando dog show cluster. “Cluster” is just dog-show lingo for a group of separate but consecutive shows that are held at the same venue. Starting on Tuesday is the Space Coast Kennel Club of Palm Bay, followed by the Brevard Kennel Club show on Wednesday, and the Central Florida Kennel Club show on Thursday.
While there is no all-breed show on Friday, there are a number of specialty shows, which are open to dogs of an individual breed or group. There are usually dozens of specialties scheduled for Friday, as well as group shows.
If you’re interested in seeing rare breeds up close, there are usually Miscellaneous and FSS Breeds Open shows on all of those days as well. Even though the shows are sponsored by individual breed clubs, all eligible breeds can compete, from Teddy Roosevelt Terriers to Karelian Bear Dogs.
Friday Events During AKC National Championship Week
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.
Saturday and Sunday Events During AKC National Championship Week
Arguably, the high point of the week is the AKC National Championship dog show on Saturday and Sunday. Breeds are judged during the daytime, followed by the group and Best in Show judging in the big arena in the evenings. Because of the sheer size of the show, judging takes place over two days. Sporting, Hound, Toy and Non-Sporting breeds take place on Saturday. Working, Terrier, and Herding breeds, Best Miscellaneous, and Best in Show take place on Sunday.
The show’s unmistakeable red carpeting and 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, go a bit early and hang around that ring while the previous breed is being judged. Once judging wraps up, some seats will usually become available.
Also on tap over the weekend: the AKC National Owner-Handled Series Finals, in which dogs handled in the ring by their actual owners compete together.
Other Events and Special Attractions During the Week
Conformation—or, in simpler terms, the dog show—is what we’re talking about when we say “AKC National Championship,” as the Best in Show winner earns the title of National Champion. But, while the Conformation show is taking place, other dog sports are happening in the Convention Center’s million-square-foot space.
Also on Saturday and Sunday are the AKC Agility Invitational and the AKC Obedience Classic, featuring some of the nation’s top-ranked competitors in those canine sports. The AKC Agility Invitational is a great opportunity to see breeds you might not always get to see at an Agility trial, as the top five Agility dogs of each breed are invited to come and compete.
And because Juniors are the future of every dog sport, they are encouraged to compete in AKC Juniors Classic Obedience and Rally, which take place on the weekend as well.
Dog Show Etiquette at AKC National Championship
With its intensely competitive handlers and meticulously groomed dogs, ringside can be a tricky place for a meet and greet. It’s important to ask a handler if it’s a good time to talk, and to always ask permission before interacting with or touching a dog. (After a handler and dog have finished their time in the ring is a much better time to ask to chat than right before they enter.) Don’t be surprised if handlers don’t have time to chat, as they may have another dog to prep for the ring, and might be pressed for time to do so.
Even if you can’t pet a dog that’s in the ring, you are certainly free to take photos of your favorites. Just be mindful that your flash is turned off, and that your phone’s camera “click” is silenced. Use the same guidelines on asking a handler if they can stop for a photo opportunity, and know they may not always have time right at the moment.
The Agility and Obedience events have seating for spectating, and the North America Diving Dogs pool is a great place to see some dogs enjoying a splash.
Kid-Friendly Activities at AKC National Championship
Pretty much everything about any dog show is kid-friendly, and it’s a great way to spend the day with your whole family. You can see just about any breed you can think of in the Conformation rings, and sports like Agility are fast-paced and exciting to watch. Kids can get inspired by seeing Juniors compete alongside adults in Conformation and Agility, and at Junior-specific Obedience and Rally competitions.
Shopping at AKC National Championship
No matter how much you love dogs, eventually you’ll take a break from the canine competition to visit the Vendor Village for all sorts of “dog stuff” on offer. Everything dogs need: crates, leashes, brushes, toys, agility equipment, ID tags, beds, treats, supplements, coats, massages, and more. You can also find original artwork, treat yourself to some special jewelry (dog-themed, of course), leather goods, dog-themed apparel, and more.
There’s also plenty to eat and drink at the Convention Center, and places to sit and enjoy snacks or just a moment off of your feet.
How to Watch the AKC National Championship From Home
Even if you can’t make it to Orlando in person, you can watch the week’s events live-streamed on AKCtv, or tune in to the national television broadcast of AKC National Championship dog show on ABC.
The AKC National Championship is right around the corner, and you don’t want to miss the action! Tune in to ABC on December 31 at 2 p.m. ET to see who’s crowned Best in Show.
Did you miss last year’s show? You can watch the 2022 AKC National Championship Presented by Royal Canin on demand on AKC.tv!