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Showing dogs – the formal term for it is “conformation” – is a sport, and, like any football game or tennis match, dog shows have rules, too. But folks who sit on the sidelines can easily become bewildered if they don’t understand how guidelines apply to the game at hand.

Whether you’re taking aim at a fastball or trotting with a terrier, no one becomes an expert overnight. It takes time, exposure and research to really understand the subtleties of any sport. So the best way to get involved in dog shows is to just go to one. Don’t be self-conscious about being a novice.

Yes, the bustle and drama of dog shows can be a bit intimidating, for some, and it can take time to find people who are willing to educate you, but your persistence will be rewarded with an ever-deepening knowledge of your dog and his breed. Don’t forget a resource you already have: your breeder! And most dog shows offer new exhibitor tours.

Even if you don’t plan on showing your current puppy, learning the ins and outs of dog shows will come in handy for any other four-leggers who might join your family down the line. And if you have children in the family, competing in Pee Wee competitions and, later, junior handling can teach them responsibility and good sportsmanship.

So, in the spirit of every journey starting with a single step, here’s a beginner’s guide for new puppy owners who are interested in learning more about dog shows.

What is a Breed Standard?

The point of dog shows is summed up in that fancy word, “conformation.” When they are evaluating dogs in the ring, judges are determining how closely each dog conforms to the written description of the breed, or its standard. Each breed is its own universe, and what is correct for one – think height, or color, or eye shape, or temperament — might not be for another. But reading the standard isn’t enough: You also have to know how to interpret it, and how to prioritize its many demands. The best person to help you with that is your dog’s breeder, who can also tell you whether your puppy is a potential contender for the show ring.

dog show dalmatians

Understanding the Order of Dog Shows

Dog shows are structured like an inverted pyramid, with the greatest number of dogs first competing among their own breed.

Within those initial breed competitions, a judge sorts through the non-champion dogs first (in what are informally called “the classes,” or class competition), selecting the best male (called Winners Dog) and then best female (Winners Bitch, and you’ll need to get used to that word, which is used without self-consciousness in the sport to rely its intended meaning – a female dog). Depending on the number of dogs they defeat, Winners Dog and Winners Bitch can earn points toward their championships. (The judge also selects runners-up – Reserve Winners Dog and Reserve Winners Bitch.)

There are other ribbons awarded by the judge, but the most important is Best of Breed. In that competition, all the champion dogs, as well as the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch, compete for the purple and gold ribbon, and the chance to compete at the group level. The American Kennel Club recognizes seven groups with breeds classified according to function: Sporting (bird dogs, including pointers, retrievers, setters and spaniels); Hound (dogs that hunt fur-bearing game, often independently); Working (protection and draft dogs); Terrier (dogs that hunt vermin and game that goes to ground); Toy (dogs bred purely for companionship); Herding (dogs that tend livestock) and Non-Sporting (sort of the catch-all for breeds that don’t quite fit anywhere else).

In the show’s ever-narrowing progression, the judges for each of the groups select their top winners, placing them one through four. Then the first-place winners from the seven groups move to the very tip of the pyramid, competing in the Best in Show ring for that top ribbon, as well as the runner-up slot, Reserve Best in Show.

Watching Your First Show

Dog shows are a spectator sport: Handlers and dogs are certainly there to be watched, by the gallery as much as the judge. But there are some unspoken ground rules: Ask permission before petting or greeting a dog, and don’t approach handlers to talk before they are about to go into the ring.

Take a seat ringside and watch the goings-on. Typically, handlers enter the ring when their armband number is called, line up with their dog, trot as a group around the ring, then await their turn to “stack,” or pose their dog for the judge. Once that individual exam is complete, the judge will usually ask the handler to trot the dog in a straight line to a corner of the ring and return (“down and back”), then trot around the ring to the end of the line. After all the dogs have been examined, the judge then makes their placements. Every judge has a slightly different procedure, but watching carefully will help you pick out the patterns that are commonly followed in the ring.

Resources for New Exhibitors

Many dog shows offer new-exhibitor tours: A knowledgeable fancier or AKC representative will take a group of newcomers around the show to provide an overview of just what’s happening, and why. In addition, the American Kennel Club also offers a New Exhibitor Mentor program that will pair you with an experienced fancier who can fill you in on things you didn’t even know you were supposed to know, like how to request your dog’s armband number (ask the ring steward), or what to do if your dog takes second place in his class. (You need to stick around, in case the first-place dog wins – then you are called back in the ring to compete for reserve.)

Becoming an Expert

There’s a wealth of dog-show knowledge to be found on AKC.org, including a list of conformation resources that explain everything from how to count championship points to how to fill out a dog-show entry form.

If you’d like an in-depth understanding of your breed and its standard, the American Kennel Club’s Canine College website has a growing list of breed courses to educate judges and fanciers alike. And even if you’re not a breeder, the Canine College’s free breeder-education courses on anatomy are a terrific way to learn the difference between a pastern and a stifle. (That’s the dog’s wrist and knee, respectively.)

Before the Six-Month Mark

The sooner you get started with any kind of socialization and training with your puppy, the better for both of you. Even a basic puppy kindergarten class will expose your puppy to new stimuli, get him used to the presence of other dogs, and teach him the value of working with you to get rewards – all valuable lessons for the future. One great choice is the AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy Program.

While dogs cannot officially compete in AKC shows for champion points until they are six months of age, they can enter a 4-6 Month Beginner Puppy Competition. These competitions are very relaxed and low key, and are a great place for both you and your dog to get accustomed to the sights and sounds of a real dog show. Wins earned in this special competition count toward the AKC’s Puppy of Achievement certificate. And if you segue into formal conformation dog show competition with your puppy, wins earned in puppy classes up until 12 months of age count, too.

staffordshire bull terrier puppy

Where to Practice

When it comes to the show ring, just how complicated could running your dog around in a circle be? Actually, handlers make what they do look deceptively easy. Since you and your dog are both novices, your first stop should be a handling class. There, you’ll learn the basics of stacking (positioning your dog for the judge’s exam) and gaiting (that aforementioned running in a circle). Dogs of any age can attend these classes; just make sure your puppy is up to date on shots.

Ask your breeder for help in locating a nearby class; alternatively, inquire with a local kennel club. And while you’re at it, ask for a membership application: By attending club meetings and volunteering at events, you’ll expand your dog-show network. Someone who doesn’t own the same breed as you can still provide valuable insight, especially since it comes from a different vantage point.

Compete in a Match Show

Once you’ve gotten your feet wet at handling class, it’s time to put what you’ve learned to the test. Match shows are low-key, informal competitions that don’t count for “real” points, but you’ll perform the same patterns and routines that you would at an “official” show.

You can find sanctioned AKC match shows on akc.org.

2017 AKC/Royal Canin National All-Breed Puppy & Junior Stakes
The AKC National Championship includes a Puppy & Junior Stakes competition.

Find a Specialty Show

Every breed has a national specialty – a large, widely attended annual show in which only dogs of that breed are permitted to be shown. Depending on a breed’s popularity, some national specialties can be week-long events, encompassing not just conformation, but often Obedience, Rally, Agility, breed-specific performance events such as Lure Coursing for Sighthounds or Field Trials for Sporting dogs, and a host of social events, including ice breakers and dinners.

Most clubs post information about their national specialty on their website, along with a comprehensive schedule. If your breeder is active in the sport, chances are she will attend this show; while you don’t want to monopolize all her time, see if you can dedicate some time to watching a segment of the show together, so you can pick her brain about handling, presenting, grooming and general breed knowledge.

Continue Learning

If there’s one truism in dog shows, as in life, it’s that things are always changing. Keep in touch with your breeder and let her know how your dog is developing. Some lines mature early; others, not until four or even five years of age. Listen to what your breeder says about the best time to show your dog, and whether he is competitive.

Insist on complete candor from your breeder – and in turn, be willing to acknowledge things you might otherwise not be happy to hear. An ugly-duckling puppy can very well transform into a beautiful swan, but the opposite happens, too. Breeders aren’t issued crystal balls, and it’s quite possible that your once-promising show prospect might fizzle out with time.

It might be disappointing to give up your pursuit of fancy rosettes and win shots on a podium but remember to put things in perspective: Your dog is still the lovable, valued family member that you took home as a roly-poly puppy.

Dog Shows Should be Fun

No matter what you do, remember that winning shouldn’t be your main goal: Instead, it’s having a positive, enjoyable experience for both you and your dog. After all, even the fanciest ribbons fade with time, but memories are forever.

If conformation isn’t for you, there are many other ways to bond with and socialize your dog, including over a dozen other dog sports, from Obedience to Agility. There are also official competitions that let your puppy show off the skills needed for doing the job his breed was created to do, from Field Trials for Sporting dogs to Lure Coursing competitions for Sighthounds. Even if your breeder isn’t actively involved in competitions such as, say, Scent Work or Flyball, she can point you to people who are. The goal, as with anything with your dog, is to have fun and continue building your lifelong bond.

Need more help finding the right sport for you and your dog? Take this quiz.

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