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As you look down at the Best in Show judging from your seat in the nosebleed section at Madison Square Garden (or from your own couch), you might be inclined to offer your own take on which dog is worthy of the top honor at Westminster.

“That pug is the cutest dog in the ring,” you might say. “He should win Best in Show. Why, he’s just as cute as my Mr. Tubbs.”

Clearly, you’re a novice spectator at Westminster.

Cuteness isn’t a breed standard. And judges examine each competitor on the basis of its breed standard, a written description of the ideal Pug, Poodle, Pekingese, or any of the other purebred dogs. The standards were written by breed clubs, organizations of dog owners devoted to their breeds.

A breed standard relates not only to the dog’s form, from tail to muzzle, but also to the purpose for which it is bred. For example, the breed standard for the Basset Hound notes that ideally its ears are “velvety in texture, hanging in loose folds with the ends curling slightly inward.” It also states that the Basset Hound should look like it’s capable of following a trail over difficult terrain—so the standard leaves a bit of room for a judge’s impressions.

As a dog show spectator, it’s also important to understand that the different breeds are not competing against each other. You might insist that an impish French Bulldog could never be judged a better breed than the sleek Afghan Hound. But that’s not how it works. The judge will select the dog that best represents the ideal of its breed—from the finalists that have already been chosen as the best of their breed in their particular group.

Yes, the breeds are divided into groups. Otherwise, nearly 200 finalists would crowd the ring to be judged for Best In Show. Instead, a Best of Breed from each of seven groups competes for the top honor. The groups are basically categories of function: Working, Herding, Sporting, Terriers, Hounds, Toys, and Non-Sporting. 

So loudly applaud and cheer for your favorite dogs at Westminster, but keep in mind that the competition is all about breed standards and the winner must be a standard bearer.

Perhaps it was best, though, awkwardly said by Dr. Theodore W. Millbank III, the fictional president of the Mayflower Kennel Club, in the mockumentary “Best In Show”:

“And really, I think what we’re talking about is standards, basically, very, very specific, rigid, you could say. But in this world, where would we be without them, I think. And notice where we are.”

More like this: 

“Why No Mixed-Breeds?” and Other Questions About Dog Shows

Heard ‘Round the Ring: Common Dog Show Terms
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