Becoming a Show Dog: Getting Started

Requirements for Beginners

Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates

Are you proud of your beautiful puppy?  Have you considered showing your puppy in a dog show?  The purpose of a dog show is to evaluate breeding stock. It is important that you are willing to accept the honest opinion of people who have experience with your breed!  I remember that I thought my first Golden Retriever, Shelly, was so beautiful that surely she would win Best In Show at the Westminster Kennel Club.

I certainly had my feelings hurt as I was told over and over that I was looking at my puppy through an adoring mother’s eyes! After thirty years of attending dog shows and meeting pups of almost every breed, I like to think that I am wiser now. My dogs are still beautiful to me, but I can also point out their conformation faults to you. Study your breed standard. Research the current top winning dogs of your breed online. Do you still think you want to show your puppy? Great! Welcome to the world of dog shows.

In this article, I am using the American Kennel Club as my model. There are also other clubs that also hold dog shows, such as the Continental Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club. I am using the American Kennel Club as my model since I have shown my dogs in AKC shows for years. Dog shows are one of nine types of AKC dog events in which AKC-registered dogs can compete. Other AKC events include tests of instinct and trainability, such as field trials or herding tests.

The dog’s conformation is an indication of the dog’s ability to produce quality purebred puppies, and that is what is being judged in the ring. These standards include qualifications for structure, temperament and movement (characteristics that allow the breed to perform the function for which it was bred).

 AKC Canine Partners allows mixed breed dogs and non-eligible AKC registered dogs to participate and earn titles in dog sports such as Agility, Obedience, Rally, Tracking and Coursing Ability.

Getting Started

There is much more to showing your puppy then just showing up at the show!  Your first step is to register your puppy with the AKC.  Your puppy’s breeder should have given you a puppy litter registration form.  If your pup’s litter papers are marked as limited registration you will need to talk to your breeder about changing the papers to full registration.  Many breeders use the limited registration option as a way to discourage the breeding of “pet” quality pups.  The breeder will probably want to see your puppy before changing her status.  Many breeders charge more for “show quality” pups so don’t be surprised if you are asked to pay an additional fee.

There are three core behaviors that a show dog must learn to do well. She must be able to “gait,” “stack,” and be examined. Your conformation classes will help your pup learn to gait and stack, but the best exercise for being examined is for you to do exactly that. These resources will help your dog learn to accept handling and gentle restraint, such as what she will experience in the show ring:

1. Article: Handling Your Puppy and Gentle Restraint

At the vet or groomer, it is often not pain or discomfort that causes a dog to become aggressive - it is restraint. Here's how to make your pup comfortable.

2. Podcast: Accepting Handling and Gentle Restraint, Part 1

It is a fact of life for our dogs that we must handle or gently restrain them from time to time. Whether it is a vet visit, to dry their paws off, give a pill, or trim their nails. Here are the steps to test and document any issues your dog may have. 

3. Podcast: Accepting Handling and Gentle Restraint, Part 2

Here are the steps to take to improve any issues you found during last week's test, from trimming your dog's nails, to brushing your dog, to giving them a big hug!

4. Article: Building a Solid Relationship with Your Puppy

Your dog’s relationship with her handler is extremely important in the world of dog shows!

Conformation Classes

Contact a kennel club near you to inquire about conformation classes.  These classes teach you how to present your puppy in the show ring.  Each breed has a well-defined breed standard.  The dog show judge will be comparing your puppy to her breed standard.   Of course, there is no perfect puppy that completely matches her breed standard!  Take the time to compare your puppy to the breed standard.  The purpose of conformation handling classes is to teach you how to minimize your pup’s faults while maximizing her qualities.

At your confirmation classes and in your online research, you are likely to hear complaints that dog shows have become political.  People may try to tell you that only the top handlers win because the judge favors professional handlers.  A professional handler is someone that makes their living showing dogs around the world for a fee.  It is my personal opinion that professional handlers tend to win because it is in their best interest to only accept superior puppies to show.  The handler makes it her business to train this puppy, groom her to perfection, and present her to judges that she knows prefers the size and style of the puppy.  Can you win with your puppy competing with a professional handler?  Yes, you can!  Make it your goal to train, handle, groom, and present your puppy like a pro!

Classes, Breeds, and Groups

The next question to ask yourself is what is the best class to enter your puppy in.  Puppy class is divided into six to nine months, nine to twelve months old and twelve months to eighteen months.  At the class level, males, referred to as dogs, compete with dogs; while females, referred to as bitches, compete with bitches.   Enter your puppy in the class appropriate to her age and sex.

There are several classes available besides puppy class.  I recommend you show at the puppy level while you can!  Here is a list of other classes that may be available:

1.     Novice

2.     Amateur-Owner-Handled

3.     Bred-By-Exhibitor

4.     American-bred

5.     Open

The winner of each of these classes will compete for "Winners Dog" and "Winners Bitch".  The winner of this round receives points towards a "Breed Championship".   Point values are determined by the region of the country that you are showing in, as well as the number of dogs or bitches exhibiting in the breed at the time of the show.  You can find this information at akc.org.

The winners dog and winners bitch will compete with any champions of records entered in the Best of Breed competition.  The winner of this class will then go on to compete in the Group Ring.  There are seven groups recognized by the American Kennel Club:

1.     Toy

2.     Hound

3.     Sporting

4.     Non-sporting

5.     Working

6.     Terriers

7.     Herding

The winner of each group then competes against each other for Best In Show.  It is important to note that in the group and best in show rings, the judge is comparing each dog to its breed standard.  The dog that best matches the standard, in the judges' opinion, will win.  Consider it a great honor and compliment to advance to the group ring from the breed judging!

Since there are many breeds in each AKC group, there will be many dogs in the group ring.  The judge will examine each dog in detail and then observe the way the dog moves.  After initially examining the large group, the judge usually selects six to eight dogs to judge again.  In dog show jargon, if your dog is selected for this smaller group, it is called, “making the cut’.  From this smaller group, the judge will choose four dogs.  In a big group, it is almost as exciting for your dog to “make the cut” as it is to place!

Championships

At this point, you may be wondering how your puppy earns her Championship.  Remember that the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch earns points towards becoming a champion.  It takes fifteen points to become a champion.  This is not as simple or straightforward as it appears!   Your puppy can earn one to five points by winning.  One or two point wins are referred to as “singles’.  Three to five point wins are “majors'.  Your puppy has to win at least two “majors” in her fifteen points to become a champion.  This rule is to prevent "mediocre" dogs from choosing small shows for easy wins.  Eventually, you have to compete against enough dogs at one time to earn “majors’.

Once your puppy has earned her Champion title you have the right to use the letters "Ch." in front of her registered name.   You can still show your Champion in dog shows, you simply skip the classes and compete at the best of breed level.  There is now a Grand Champion title to compete for!  It takes twenty-five points to earn a Grand Champion title.  You then have the right to use the letters "Gch." in front of your pup’s name.

Showtime

The American Kennel Club sanctions match shows with your local kennel club.  A match show is a dress rehearsal before going to your first real show.   You are wise to attend as many match shows as you can.  Each time that you take your puppy into the breed ring you learn something new and valuable!  Check with local clubs and training groups to ask about fun matches.  Fun matches are play shows that are not sanctioned by the AKC.   Once you have attended match shows you are ready for a real dog show.

You can find information about upcoming shows at akc.org.  You will probably be directed to a dog show superintendent.  This is a group that sends out information on shows and registration forms.  Keep in mind that dog show entries typically close two to three weeks before the date of the show.

It is interesting to note that dog shows are divided into two types – benched and unbenched.  Most shows these days are unbenched.  This means that you find the time your puppy will show and the ring number in your judging schedule.  You can arrive at the show in time to groom your puppy and allow her to relax.  Once you are finished showing, you can go home or choose to stay to watch the group and best in show judging.  At a benched show, you are required to have your puppy at her “bench spot” from the start to the end of the show on the day she is judged.  The Westminster Kennel Club show in New York City is a benched dog show.  The only time that your puppy can leave her bench is for potty breaks and to be shown.  This can make for a long and tiring day!

Etiquette

It is crucial that you understand “dog show etiquette."  Keep control of your puppy at all times.  Do not allow her to approach other dogs at the show!  Ask before you approach or pet another dog.  My two sons grew up going to dog shows.  They often learned “etiquette” the hard way by being yelled at by others showing their dogs.  Please keep your children under control and do not allow them to approach other dogs.  It will not be appreciated if your child ruffles a dog’s fur just before she is due in the ring.  Some breeds take hours to prepare for the show ring and you can’t blame the handler for being angry if her long work is quickly “undone."

Keep in mind that the judge is simply offering his or her professional opinion of how well your puppy compares to her breed standard.  You can choose to agree or disagree, but remember to be polite to the judge!  There will be judges who love your puppy and ones that are not impressed.  In the dog show world, you simply learn which judges to show your puppy to!  If you don’t have fun with the dog show game, then simply don’t show your puppy. (Your other option is to hire a professional handler to show your puppy!)  The dog show world is a unique and fun world, but certainly not for everyone. The most important thing to consider is whether or not you and your pup are having fun.