In the United States, the organization responsible for the greatest number of dog shows is the American Kennel Club. Among its many functions, the AKC maintains a list of recognized dog breeds (separated into seven groups: terriers, hounds, sporting, non-sporting, working, herding and toy) , and a standard for each of these breeds. The standard for each breed describes in detail the traits of an ideal specimen of that breed. Typically, the standard for a breed will describe many attributes that the ideal specimen will possess – size, weight, color, temperament, structure, shape, the correct dental structure, how the dog should move (walk/run) etc.

The AKC is in fact the parent organization of many other smaller organizations. The AKC and its member organizations are organized more or less hierarchically. The AKC itself forms the first tier, while the national breed club for each of the dog breeds recognized by the AKC form the second tier. In the third tier, under each of the national breed clubs are the state level clubs for that breed. Finally, under each state level club are a number of local clubs for the chosen breed. In addition, there are a number of all-breed kennel clubs that are also members of the AKC. The most famous of these is the Westminster Kennel Club which organizes the Westminster Dog Show, part of which is broadcast each year by the USA cable network.

There are actually many different types of competitive dog events – these range from events in which the dogs are competing in obedience, in hunting ability, agility, herding etc. However, the type of event usually meant when the term ‘dog show’ is used is a conformation event. In conformation events, each dog is evaluated in terms of how closely he/she matches (conforms to) the ideal specimen of their breed.

The purpose of a conformation event is to evaluate the participating dogs' worthiness as breeding stock – that is, the participating dogs are being evaluated on their ability to produce quality puppies. As such, only unaltered dogs are allowed to compete - dogs that have been spayed or neutered are not allowed to compete as they cannot be bred.

Types of Conformation Events

There are three types of conformation events recognized by the AKC: specialty shows, group shows and all-breed shows. In a specialty show, only dogs of one specific breed are eligible to compete. In a group show, only dogs whose breed belongs to one of the seven AKC groups compete (i.e. In a group show for hounds, only dogs of the breeds considered to be part of the hound group are allowed to compete). Finally, in an all-breed show, any dog whose breed is recognized by the AKC may compete. In some respects, a group show is a collection of several specialty shows where there is an additional competition among the winners of each specialty show, while an all-breed show is a collection of group shows where there is an additional competition among the winners of the group shows. This will become clearer later in this write-up.

The Competition

Regardless of the type of show, each dog first competes against the other dogs of his/her breed. Within the breed, all of the dogs that are not yet champions are divided into (generally) six classes: Puppy (6-12 months), 12-18 months, Novice (dogs 6 months or older who have not yet won a point toward their championship, and in general have never won at a show before), Bred by Exhibitor (the dog’s handler in the show ring is also the dogs breeder), American Bred (dogs born and bred in the United States), and Open (any dog over 6 months of age). Depending on the breed and the show, the classes may be slightly different - for example Great Danes come in many different colors and at some shows the classes for Great Danes are broken down by these colors. Note that because the criteria for the various classes in many cases overlap, the same dog can in fact be entered in several classes at the same show. Within each class, the dogs are also split by gender. The dogs within each gender within the class are judged and then ranked, and the top dog (i.e. the top male puppy, the top female puppy, the top male novice, the top female novice…) from each of these groups advances to the next round.

The next round involves selecting the Winners Dog and the Winners Bitch for the breed. All the remaining dogs are evaluated and one from each gender is selected as the top dog of that gender within the breed. Both of these dogs are awarded points toward their championship and both of these dogs advance to the next round. After the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch have been chosen, the Reserve Dog (i.e. second place dog) is chosen by selecting the best of the remaining male dogs (including the second place dog from the Winners Dog's class). The same method is used to determine the Reserve Bitch from amoung the other females.

In the third and final round within the breed, the Winners Dog, Winners Bitch and other dogs from the breed who are already champions compete. Note that this is the first round of the show in which dogs who are already champions compete. In this round, either the Winners Dog or the Winners Bitch is selected as the Best of Winners. Also, one of the dogs participating in this round is selected Best of Breed, the highest award within the breed competition. Finally, a dog opposite in sex to the Best of Breed winner is selected as Best of Opposite Sex. Although not extremily common, in this round the judge may elect to present an Award Of Merit to a dog that does not win Best Of Breed, but is none-the-less an excellent example of the breed.

A specialty show is concluded at this point. However, at a group show, and at an all-breed show, all of the dogs who won Best Of Breed advance to compete in the group competition for the group to which their breed belongs. Within each group, the top four dogs are selected and ranked. At an all-breed show, the first place dog from each of the seven groups competes in one last round to be selected as Best in Show.

It is important to remember that in the group rounds and the Best in Show round, each dog is being judged in terms of how well he/she matches the standard for his/her own breed. The judge is not free to choose, for example, the Cocker Spaniel because he/she believes Cocker Spaniels to be cuter than, say, German Shepherds. If the judge believes that the German Shepard matches the standard for a German Shepard more closely than the Cocker Spaniel matches the standard for Cocker Spaniels, the judge is required to choose the German Shepard.

It is also worth noting that most televised dog shows, such as Westminster, are all-breed shows. However, for the sake of time only the group and best in show portions are typically broadcast, as a major televised all-breed show often has over 3000 participating dogs in over 100 breeds, with many rounds of judging occurring concurrently, and would be a bit too much to broadcast in its entirety.

Showing a Dog

Of course, dogs do not simply go into the show ring, run around, and show themselves. Each dog is handled by a person, known as the dog's handler. The handler's job / objective is to present his/her dog in the best possible manner to the judge. To do this, the handler often positions the dog in the correct stance when the dog is stationary before the judge (for example, re-arranging the dogs legs into the most optimal position while the dog is standing prone), guides the dog around the ring in a manner designed to highlight the positive traits of the dog's movement, and even will dress in a suit or other fancy attire in order to present a positive image to the judge.

In some instances, the handler is chosen for physical features that he/she may have that might compliment the dog - for example, if the dog being shown may be slightly on the short or small side, often a short handler will be used in order to make the dog look bigger. Often, the handler is the dog's owner, or a friend of the dog's owner. Other times, the dog will be handled in the ring by his/her breeder. In other instances, the owner of the dog may elect to hire a paid, professional handler.

In fact, handling is considered as a skill and most dog shows feature a Junior Showmanship competition in which the competitors (all under 18) compete with their dog in a competition not to determine the best dog, but to determine which junior handler does the best job displaying the dog to his/her best advantage.

Judging the Dogs

Typically, each breed at a dog show is judged by a different judge. The judge for the breed is usually very experienced with the breed - often the judge is a current or former breeder of this type of dog.

Again, the judge evaluates each dog for conformity to the ideal specimen of his/her breed, as defined by the AKC standard for that breed. This involves everything from inspecting the dog's teeth and eyes, to watching the dog's "movement", that is, watching the dog as he/she walks, trots, or runs around the show ring. However, the exact aspects that the judge will be looking for in each dog depends upon the breed being judged (as the standard for each breed is different, as are the aspects defined in each of the breed standards as being the most important), as well as the judge him/herself (being that the breed standards do not always clearly define the most important aspects of each breed, leaving it to the individual preference of the judge). In addition, a requirement common to all breeds is that male dogs must have two fully descended testicles. The judge has the, er, uh, interesting duty of feeling each male dog "down there" to ensure that he does not have an undescended testicle (the dog, not the judge). Male dogs who do not have two fully descended testicles will be disqualified. In addition, disqualification can occur due to a variety of other factors. The dog may possess a physical trait that is defined in the breed standard as grounds for disqualification, or the dog may display aggression towards the judge or the other dogs in the competition. If a dog, during his/her showing career, is disqualified three times for the same fault, he or she is permanently disqualified from all conformation shows and no longer eligable to compete.

Becoming a Champion

To become a champion under the AKC rules, a dog must accumulate 15 championship points. The number of championship points awarded to the Winners Dog and the Winners Bitch at a dog show is determined by the AKC’s schedule of points, with a maximum of 5 points allowed for any given show. The schedule of points breaks the United States down into 13 geographical divisions. For each division, the schedule of points determines how many championship points will be awarded to the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch, based on how many dogs of that breed and of that gender are entered in the show.

The schedule of points is re-compiled each year based on the number of entries for each breed at the shows held within each region during the past year. The schedule is formulated such that, within each region, 1, 2, and 3 point shows are more commonplace whereas 4 and 5 point shows are more infrequent. Due to the fact that more populous areas of the country tend to have more entries in each show, the schedule of points is, then, indirectly based on the population of each division, as well as the popularity of each breed.

The number of points that the Winners Dog or Winners Bitch receives at a given show may be augmented under several circumstances. If the Winners Bitch receives two points based on the number of bitches in her breed at the show, the Winners Dog receives 3 points based on the number of dogs in his breed at the show, but the Winners Bitch is named Best of Winners, then she receives 3 points as well, by virtue of the fact that she has defeated the winners dog who won 3 points that day. The Winners Dog / Winners Bitch's points can also be further augmented by winning some of the other higher honors mentioned in this writeup, however the exact formula for determining the number of points awarded in these cases is a bit too lengthy to get into here.

In addition to accumulating 15 championship points, a dog must also be awarded championship points at two major events. Furthermore, the points at the two major events must be awarded by two seperate separate judges – if a dog wins two major events judged by the same judge, the dog still receives the championhip points but will not be recognized as a champion until he/she wins another major event under a different judge. In addition, if a dog has accumulated 15 championship points but has not met the requirement for winning two different major events under two different judges, the dog must first meet the major event requirement before the AKC will recognize him/her as a champion. A major event is one at which the winning dog receives 3-5 championship points. Finally, in addition to winning two major events under two different judges, the dog must win at least one other event (major or minor) under a third judge. The purpose of these rules are two fold: a) a dog should not become a champion unless judged to be superior by multiple judges, to eliminate bias and/or personal preference and b) a dog should not become a champion unless it can demonstrate an ability to emerge the winner from a large field of competitors as found at the major events, rather than simply beating one or two other dogs several times over.