How Dog Shows Work

By: Jane McGrath  | 
show dog posing
Thousands of dogs compete in local and nation-wide dog shows every year. See more dog pictures.
Colin Hawkins/Getty Images

Have you ever run across a dog show as you channel-surfed the TV? If so, you might have wondered what the heck was going on. People in blazers and slacks are jogging dogs around a fully-packed arena in a dignified procession. Over here is a droopy-faced bloodhound, over there a meticulously groomed prancing poodle, and in between a small Maltese dog that your untrained eye almost mistook for a mop. How can judges possibly compare dogs that seem so fundamentally different?

Dog shows, specifically conformation shows, are events in which purebred dogs compete against each other based on their breeds' standards. The American Kennel Club runs Westminster, the most famous show in the U.S., while the U.K. is home to the largest dog show, Crufts. The term conformation refers to a dog's physical attributes, including appearance and body structure [source: AKC]. Conformation shows are popular among dog enthusiasts and those who promote pure breeding of dogs. Many dog shows, including the prestigious Westminster, don't offer big  prizes to the winners. In fact, the dog show process can be quite expensive for dog handlers, considering the costs of dog care and travel. But after more than a century, dog shows remain a popular tradition. In 2008, about 3.4 million people watched thousands of dogs compete for Best in Show at Westminster [source: Sandomir].


­So what exactly transpires at a dog show, and why do some critics so vehemently oppose these competitions? Keep reading to learn how Fido becomes a champion dog.

Criteria Used for Judging Show Dogs

dog show judging
Dog show judge examining Dachshund's teeth
Sean Murphy/Getty Images

In a dog conformation show, judges aren't merely comparing the dogs to each other. Rather, they judge each dog against the parameters of the idealized version of its breed. In other words, when the judge looks at your poodle, Fluffy, he is comparing Fluffy to the written standards of the ideal poodle. The standards address various body parts and attributes, including:

  • Balance: overall appropriate proportions in size
  • Weight
  • Size
  • Eyes: color, size, shape
  • Ears: shape, length, position
  • Head: shape
  • Muzzle: shape, length
  • Whiskers: thickness
  • Teeth: kind of bite (e.g. level or scissors bites)
  • Tail: how it arches and sets (e.g. how high or low)
  • Shoulders: bone, muscle
  • Legs: muscles, stance, proportionality
  • Coat: texture, length
  • Color: accepted breed colors

A judge will use his hands to inspect the dog's body, including its bones and muscles. In addition to assessing physical characteristics like these, judges assess the dog's walk (gait) and attitude. For instance, criteria might require that the dog's attitude be cheerful, as for the beagle, or proud, as for the poodle. The American Kennel Club (AKC) has assembled these criteria for each of their recognized breeds. It gathers this information from the clubs and organizations that specialize in those breeds. The dog that the judges think matches its breed's criteria the best wins the competition.


Now that we know what judges look for, let's take a peek behind the scenes of these shows and find out what the road to Westminster is like.

Dog Show Awards: Becoming a Champion and Best of Breed

dog at a dog show
Dogs compete in local dog shows before going on to large events like Westminster
China Photos/Getty Images

If you're new to the dog show process, it can seem confusing. But after going over the steps in order, it will make more sense. 

To become designated a champion, a dog must win a certain number of points, which it can earn from different dog show competitions. A dog becomes a champion after it gains at least 15 points from three different judges and gains at least two major wins from separate judges. A major win is one in which the dog earns three, four or five points. Reaching the level of champion offers the dog the privilege of attaching the prefix "ch." to its name.


So how exactly do dogs go about earning these points? The process begins with specialty shows that focus on a particular breed. Specialty competitions separate the dogs into male and female groups and then separate them into six different classes:

  • Puppy: Dogs between six and 12 months old are eligible for this class. (Those under six months may not enter.)
  • 12-to-18-Month-Old: Those that fall in this age-range are eligible.
  • Novice: Those over six months old are eligible as long as they: have not won any points yet, have not yet won three first place prizes in this class and have not won first prizes in the Bred-by-exhibitor, American-bred or Open classes.
  • Bred-by-exhibitor: As the name implies, these dogs' breeders are also their exhibitors.
  • American-bred: This class is reserved for those dogs conceived in the U.S.
  • Open: Any dog that is over six months old can enter into this class. Champions are not allowed in any of the other classes and are only permitted to enter this class.

With the males going first, the judges inspect each of these classes individually, and award ribbons for first through fourth place. At this stage, first-place winners do not get any points. First-place winners from the male classes then come together to compete for Winners Dog. Females then go through this same process and then compete for Winners Bitch. The Reserve Winners Award goes to the runners up for Winners Dog and Winners Bitch. Only Winners Dog and Winners Bitch get points. However, the number of points awarded varies and depends on how many dogs of its sex competed in the show. This means that the more dogs it defeated, the greater the point-reward (with five being the highest).

But wait; the competition doesn't stop there. Next comes the award for Best of Breed. Dogs that have earned the points necessary to be champions can enter this race with the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch. After judges award Best of Breed, they give out an award for Best of Winners, which is only between the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch. Finally, the judges determine the Best of Opposite Sex, which is for the best dog of the opposite sex of the Best of Breed. A dog can actually earn extra points during these awards, depending on the number of dogs of its sex and champions that were competing against it.

Afterwards, the Best of Breed winner can advance to a group show. Next, we'll talk about what those groups shows are and learn about the Super Bowl of U.S. dog shows, Westminster.

The Road to Best in Show

dogs compete for best in show at westminster
Prize Canines Vie For Glory at Westminster dog show
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Out of several hundred distinct dog breeds that exist, the AKC only recognizes a little more than 150 [source: AKC]. The AKC then separates these breeds into groups that loosely distinguish them based on what they were bred to do. These groups are:

  • Sporting dogs: People breed these dogs for sporting purposes, such as hunting. This group includes pointers, retrievers, setters and spaniels.
  • Hounds: Hounds, such as beagles, bloodhounds and dachshunds, often have exceptional senses of smell or physical endurance that can make them effective hunters.
  • Working dogs: With large sizes and great strength, the dogs in this group make great assets in practical tasks such as search-and-rescue and guarding your home. Examples include Great Danes, rottweilers and Saint Bernards.
  • Terriers: This group includes all terriers, who are known for their unique and energetic personalities. Examples include bull terriers, Scottish terriers, and miniature schnauzers.
  • Toy dogs: This group includes small dogs, such as the Chihuahua that you'll often see Paris Hilton carrying around. Toy dogs include shih tzus, poodles, and pugs.
  • Non-sporting dogs: This is a catch-all category for breeds that don't have any unifying characteristics. It includes the bulldog, dalmation, and American Eskimo dog.
  • Herding dogs: As the name implies, people breed these dogs to herd animals such as sheep and cows. Breeds in this group include collies, Australian shepherds, and briards.
  • Miscellaneous: As part of the process of recognition, the AKC allows breeds into this group that have generated popularity and interest over a wide area. Breeds in this group, however, cannot earn championship points in conformation shows. If the breeding activity grows for a breed in this class, the AKC might recognize it in one of the other groups.

[source: AKC]


Best of Breeds in each group compete against each other in group shows. If a dog wins first prize at its group show, then it goes on to compete in an All-Breed show, like Westminster. In an All-Breed show, before dogs compete against other groups, they must defeat other first-prize winners in their group. Finally, after the judges have narrowed it down to seven winners from the seven different groups (the miscellaneous group cannot compete), they award Best in Show, the highest prize, to the best dog.

The meticulous judging process and heated competition explains why people get so passionate about their show dogs, despite the fact that there is no significant  prize at the end of the road. But, is this system ultimately bad for dogs? Find out on the next page what critics say about dog shows.

Criticism of Dog Shows

border collie
The border collie was originally bred on the Scottish/English border, as the name implies.
Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

At first glance, conformation competitions seem like innocent fun generated by people with a genuine love and enthusiasm for dogs. However, some critics have lodged impassioned complaints or even disapprove of the whole system. What is it about dog shows that have these critics up in arms?

Particularly, the shows' insistence on exclusively purebred dogs and dogs' aesthetic qualities has brought up issues about the ethics of breeding. To produce winning show dogs, breeders try to breed dogs with these specific physical attributes, which means narrowing the gene pool for those kinds of dogs. In this way, breeding for physical attributes can lead to inbreeding and consequently, dogs with weaker immune systems and birth defects [source: Pitcairn]. Many border collie groups, such as the American Border Collie Association (ABCA), felt so strongly about the potential for unethical breeding that they did not want the AKC to recognize their breed. Despite these efforts, the AKC elevated border collies to the herding group in 1995. [source: Devine]. Now, before owners can register show dogs with the ABCA, the dogs must pass a working test [source: Devine].


People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have also held issue with aspects of the Westminster show. Particularly, they object to the practice of tail-docking, or amputation, which is done to adhere to some breeds' standards. PETA filed an official complaint against the Westminster Kennel Club in 2004, claiming that its support of tail-docking violated New York state laws against inhumane procedures on dogs [source: PETA].

Writer Jonah Goldberg argues that the popularity of dog breeding helped spur the eugenics movement of the early 20th century and he notes the ethical problems with both breeding and eugenics [source: Goldberg]. Goldberg goes on to point out how conformation shows like Westminster are merely shallow beauty pageants in which only aesthetic standards matter. To show a genuine appreciation of the breeds, he suggests, dogs would compete by carrying out the practical duties their breeds were developed to do. For instance, if a hound wants to demonstrate that he is the best example of his breed, he would have to prove his hunting skills.

On the other hand, some critics believe shows like the U.K.'s Crufts, which has brought an agility competition into its show, have departed from the original purpose and need to bring the focus back to the traditional roots of conformation. Paul Keevil was a press officer for the British & Irish Dog Breeds Preservation Trust until he spoke about his disapproval of how Crufts has changed [source: Lyall]. Though flashy dog events, such as agility, fly ball and obedience competitions, draw a bigger audience, Keevil expressed his wish that Crufts retreat back to an emphasis on simple conformation competitions.

Of course, if these prestigious conformation shows aren't exactly your cup of tea and you seek more performance-based competitions, there are many out there to choose from. On the next page, we'll learn about what's involved in agility and obedience trials.

Other Kinds of Dog Shows

agility show with dog jumping over poles
Terrier competing in an agility show
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

When most people think of dog shows, they think of conformation shows, like Westminster. But there are many other kinds of dog shows besides conformation competitions, though they might not get as much media attention. Two of the most common are agility trials and obedience trials.

Agility trials involve several obstacles in which the dog performs various tasks, including jumping over poles, running through tunnels and weaving through posts. Judges decide what order the dogs must go through each task and show the handlers in advance. Then, without a leash, the handler leads the dog through the course, letting it know where to go next. Meanwhile, the judges time how long it takes the dogs to complete the trial and deduct points for any faults. The judge marks a fault for every second the dog takes in excess of the standard course time or for committing a course penalty. Without faults, a dog will score a perfect 100. Dogs compete in agility trials to advance and earn various titles. Like conformations, these competitions can be specialty, group or all-breed trials [source: AKC].


In obedience trials, dogs must follow exercises by taking commands from their handlers. The AKC regulates these exercises and judges award points based on those regulations. The difficulty of these tasks depends on the level at which the dog is competing. Levels include novice, open and utility. For instance, a dog must be able to follow beside its handler while keeping the same speed, as well as stand and sit for extended periods. More advanced exercises include performing jumps, retrieving items and distinguishing its handler's scent on items. In another task, the dog must obediently follow its handler's hand signals without any verbal cues. Obedience competitions include all-breed obedience trials and specialty trials, and dogs can aspire to various championship titles, the highest being National Obedience Champion [source: AKC].

The AKC also regulates various other kinds of dog competitions, including field tests, lure coursing, hunting tests and herding tests, among others.

Perhaps now that you know more about dog shows, you can impress your friends during the next Westminster show with comments like "That dog is an excellent specimen of the clumber spaniel" and "Did you notice the graceful gait of that Finnish spitz?" To learn more about dogs, including those dog heroes charged with search-and-rescue, guiding and policing duties, investigate the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

­More Great Links


  • "A Beginner's Guide to Agility." American Kennel Club. (March 13, 2008)
  • "A Beginner's Guide to Dog Shows." American Kennel Club. (March 13, 2008)
  • "About Dog Shows." The Westminster Kennel Club. (March 13, 2008)
  • "AKC/Eukanuba National Championship." American Kennel Club. (March 13, 2008)
  • "Best in Show Records." The Westminster Kennel Club. (March 13, 2008)
  • "Breeds." American Kennel Club. (March 13, 2008)
  • "Getting Started in Obedience." American Kennel Club. (March 13, 2008)
  • "PETA Files Legal Complaint Against Westminster Tail-Docking." (March 13, 2008)
  • "Scruffts." The Kennel Club. (March 13, 2008)
  • "The Colorful History of America's Dog Show." The Westminster Kennel Club. (March 13, 2008)
  • Devine, Michael. "Border Collies." Barron's Educational Series, 1997. (March 13, 2008)
  • Goldberg, Jonah. "Westminster Eugenics Show." National Review Online. Feb. 13, 2002. (March 17, 2008)
  • Lyall, Sarah. "Tradition or Fluff? A Dog Show Wrestles With Its Image." New York Times. March 7, 2008. (March 13, 2008)
  • Pitcairn, Richard H. "Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats." Rodale, 2005. (March 13, 2008)
  • Sandomir, Richard. "Sports Briefing | Dog Show; Westminster Pulls In Viewers." Feb. 15, 2008.
  • Sandomir, Richard. "Top Dogs Live On, and On, in Progeny." New York Times. Feb. 11, 2008. (March 13, 2008)
  • Stifel, William F. "The Dog Show: 125 Years of Westminster." Globe Pegout, 2003. (March 13, 2008),+125+Years+of+Westminster&source=gbs_summary_s&cad=0