A Beginner's Guide to Dog Shows

This is the AKC

The American Kennel Club was established in 1884 to promote the study, breeding, exhibiting and advancement of purebred dogs. It is the largest not-for-profit purebred dog registry in the nation.
The AKC approves and maintains the official records of over 15,000 sanctioned and licensed events each year.
The AKC has approximately 500 member clubs and over 4,000 affiliated clubs. These clubs are more than show-giving entities. They are public service; educational organizations whose activities benefit their entire community. Some AKC club activities include public education through presentations at schools, fairs, libraries, shelters, hospitals, rescue leagues, scouts and 4-H; training classes; and health clinics.
AKC registration means a dog, its parents, and its ancestors are purebred. It does not indicate health or quality. Dogs registered with the AKC can have their offspring registered and compete in AKC events. 

The World of Dog Shows

Showing dogs is a great sport where the thrill of competition is combined with the joy of seeing beautiful dogs. Dog shows are one of many types of AKC dog events in which AKC-registered dogs can compete. These events, which draw nearly two million entries annually, include dog shows and tests of instinct and trainability, such as obedience trials, Canine Good Citizen tests, field trials, agility trials, lure coursing, rally, hunting tests, herding trials, tracking tests, coonhound and earth dog events.
Dog shows (conformation events) are intended to evaluate breeding stock. The size of these events ranges from large all-breed shows, with over 3,000 dogs entered, to small local specialty club shows, featuring a specific breed. The dog's conformation (overall appearance and structure), an indication of the dog's ability to produce quality puppies, is judged.

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Types of Conformation Dog Shows

There are three types of conformation dog shows: 

All-breed shows offer competitions for over 150 breeds and varieties of dogs recognized by the AKC. All-breed shows are the type often shown on television.

Specialty shows are restricted to dogs of a specific breed or to varieties of one breed. For example, the Bulldog Club of America Specialty is for Bulldogs only, but the Poodle Club of America's specialty show includes the three varieties of the Poodle - Standard, Miniature and Toy. 

Group shows are limited to dogs belonging to one of the seven groups. For example, the Potomac Hound Group show features only breeds belonging to the Hound group.

Which Dogs May Participate

To be eligible to compete, a dog must:

  • be individually registered with the American Kennel Club
  • be 6 months of age or older
  • be a breed for which classes are offered at a show
  • meet any eligibility requirements in the written standard for its breed 

Spayed or neutered dogs are not eligible to compete in conformation classes at a dog show, because the purpose of a dog show is to evaluate breeding stock.

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The Role of the Judge

Judges examine the dogs, then give awards according to how closely each dog compares to the judge's mental image of the "perfect" dog described in the breed's official standard. 

The standard describes the characteristics that allow the breed to perform the function for which it was bred. These standards include specifications for structure, temperament and movement. 

The official written standard for each breed is maintained by the breed's national club and is included in the The Complete Dog Book published by the AKC. 

The judges are experts on the breeds they are judging. They examine ("go over") each dog with their hands to see if the teeth, muscles, bones and coat texture conform to the breed's standard. They view each dog in profile for overall balance, and watch each dog gait ("move") to see how all of those features fit together in action.

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How a Dog Show Works

Each dog presented to a judge is exhibited ("handled") by its owner, breeder or a hired professional. The role of a handler is similar to that of a jockey who rides a horse around the track and, hopefully, into the winner's circle. Most dogs in competition at conformation shows are competing for points toward their AKC championships. It takes fifteen points, including two majors (wins of three, four or five points) awarded by at least three different judges, to become an American Kennel Club "Champion of Record."

The number of championship points awarded at a show depends on the number of males ("dogs") and females ("bitches") of the breed actually in competition. The larger the entry, the greater the number of points a male or a female can win. The maximum number of points awarded to a dog at any show is 5 points.

Males and females compete separately within their respective breeds, in six regular classes. The following classes are offered, and are divided by sex:

Puppy - For dogs between six and twelve months of age, that are not yet champions.

Twelve-To-Eighteen Months - For dogs twelve to eighteen months of age, that are not yet champions.

Novice - For dogs six months of age and over, which have not, prior to the date of closing of entries, won three first prizes in the Novice Class, a first prize in Bred-by-Exhibitor, American-bred, or Open Classes, nor one or more points toward their championship.

Bred By Exhibitor - For dogs that are exhibited by their owner and breeder, that are not yet champions.

American-Bred - For dogs born in the United States from a mating which took place in the United States, that are not yet champions. 

Open - For any dog of the breed, at least 6 months of age. 

After these classes are judged, all the dogs that won first place in a class compete again to see who is the best of the winning dogs. Males and females are judged separately. Only the best male (Winners Dog) and the best female (Winners Bitch) receive championship points. The Winners Dog and Winners Bitch then compete with the champions for the Best of Breed award.

At the end of the Best of Breed Competition, three awards are usually given:

Best of Breed - the dog judged as the best in its breed category.

Best of Winners - the dog judged as the better of the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch.

Best of Opposite Sex - the best dog that is the opposite sex to the Best of Breed winner.

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The Road to Best in Show

Dog shows are a process of elimination, with one dog being named Best in Show at the end of the show.

Only the Best of Breed winners advance to compete in the Group competitions. Each AKC-recognized breed falls into one of seven group classifications. The seven groups are Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting and Herding. Four placements are awarded in each group, but only the first-place winner advances to the Best In Show competition.


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The Seven Groups in All-Breed Shows

Sporting - These dogs were bred to hunt game birds both on land and in the water. The breeds in this group include Pointers, Retrievers, Setters and Spaniels. 

Hounds - These breeds were bred for hunting other game by sight or scent. These breeds include such dogs as Beagles, Bassets, Dachshunds and Greyhounds.

Working - These dogs were bred to pull carts, guard property and perform search and rescue services. Among the breeds in this group are the Akita, Boxer, Doberman Pinscher and St. Bernard. 

Terrier - This group includes breeds such as the Airedale, Cairn Terrier and Scottish Terrier. Terriers were bred to rid property of vermin such as rats.

Toy - These dogs were bred to be household companions. This group includes little dogs such as the Chihuahua, Maltese, Pomeranian and Pug.

Non-Sporting - This diverse group includes the Chow Chow, Bulldog, Dalmatian and Poodle. These dogs vary in size and function and share attributes; but don’t fit into the mold of other dog groups.

Herding - These dogs were bred to help shepherds and ranchers herd their livestock. The Briard, Collie, German Shepherd Dog and Old English Sheepdog are some of the breeds in this group.

Finally, the seven group winners are brought into the ring where they compete for Best In Show, the highest award at a dog show.

To learn more about the different breeds of dogs and which group they are in, visit the American Kennel Club (AKC) at AKC Dog Breeds.

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Each dog that receives an award is given a ribbon by the judge. The color of the ribbon indicates the type of award the dog has won. 

Blue - awarded for first place in any regular class. Also awarded to the winner of each group competition, usually in the form of a "rosette". 

Red - awarded for second place in each class. Also awarded for second place in each group competition, usually in the form of a "rosette". 

Yellow - awarded for third place in each class. Also awarded for third place in each group competition, usually in the form of a "rosette". 

White - awarded for fourth place in each class. Also awarded for fourth place of each group competition, usually in the form of a "rosette". 

Purple - awarded to the winners of the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch classes. Since these are the classes in which championship points are earned, these ribbons are highly coveted. 

Purple and White - awarded to the Reserve Winners; that is, the runners-up to the winner of the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch classes. 

Blue and White - awarded to the dog that wins Best of Winners; that is, the better of the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch winners. 

Purple and Gold - awarded to the dog judged "Best of Breed" in each breed competition. This is highly coveted because it allows advancement to the Group competition. 

Red and White - awarded to the Best of Opposite Sex. This means the best dog of the breed that is the opposite sex of the Best of Breed winner.

Red, White and Blue - only one of these is awarded, at the end of each show. It is given to the ultimate award winner, the Best In Show. 

Light Blue and White - Select

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How Do I Get Started Showing My Dog?

The best place to start is by joining a local kennel club, whether an all-breed kennel club or a breed-specific specialty club. A listing of clubs by state can be found on our AKC Club Search page or through our customer service department by calling (919) 233-9767. 

Local clubs will have information on training classes for the show ring, and for obedience and agility classes. Even if the show ring is not your ultimate goal, the relationship that training forms between you and your dog will be very rewarding to you both. Local clubs also have "Fun Matches" where you and your dog can test your skill in the ring. 

Handling your dog is an exceptional and enjoyable experience. From the grooming table to the show ring, you and your dog will develop a bond. While training classes offer the best hands-on way to practice for the show ring, attending shows and observing your breed is also a great way to gain understanding of what judges and other competitors do.

If you do not wish to handle your dog yourself, or have a friend or family member do it, you may contact a professional handler who charges a fee for showing your dog.

You're on your way! You are entering a sport that will bring many hours of enjoyment and education to every member of your family. You will make many friends in the sport, and will enjoy your dog and your new hobby for many years to come.

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Junior Showmanship

The AKC offers youngsters 10 to 18 years of age the opportunity to compete with others their own age at various AKC events. Juniors competing in conformation events are judged on how they present their dogs. 

Tips for the First-Time Exhibitor

  • Make sure your dog is registered with the AKC. 
  • Be sure your dog is current on all inoculations. 
  • Learn the proper techniques for grooming and for presenting your dog in the ring. 
  • Join your breed's Parent Club, or a Local Specialty and/or All-Breed club in your area. 
  • Become familiar with the AKC rules and regulations for dog shows. 
  • Attend some dog shows to observe your breed being judged and how others present your breed. Get a Judging Program at the show to find out ring number and judging time.   

    Use the knowledge of your breeder.

    Don't be afraid to ask questions.  

    Attend handling classes with your dog. 

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Dog Show Terms

DOG: A two-fold word. This word is generic when it refers, for example, to the number of animals entered at the show. In reference to the sex of an animal, a “dog” is a male.

BITCH: A female canine.

CLUB: The membership is comprised of like-minded people whose primary interest is in dogs and their welfare, promoting pure-bred dogs, and the competition in the ring. When you see the words “kennel club” or “dog club” or “dog fanciers’ association” in a club name it usually denotes an interest in conformation. When you see the words “training club” or “obedience trial club” or “agility” in a club’s name it usually denotes members with an interest in Obedience or Agility.

AKC DOG SHOW: This is an event Licensed or Sanctioned by the American Kennel Club. A kennel club must have their event approved by AKC in order to be able to award AKC points toward a dog’s championship.

SUPERINTENDENT: These individuals/organizations are in business to help clubs produce and manage their events. They are the club’s agent in the production of the club’s dog show.

RING: The area where you will exhibit your dog. This area is reserved strictly for the actual showing of your dog. It is NOT a practice area. You may see an empty ring during the day. This may not indicate that judging is over for that ring, it may be because the judge is having a lunch break, or it may be a ring that will be used at the time the Groups are to be judged.

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AKC CHAMPION: In order to become an AKC Champion of Record a dog must obtain 15 points. Within the 15 points there must be two “major” wins under two different judges.

POINTS: In order to become a breed Champion your dog must amass a certain number points. Points are figured on the number of dogs/bitches entered that actually compete on that day and how many you have defeated with your win.  There are also requirements for “major” wins under two separate judges. Points are awarded at the Winners level. The point schedule for each division is listed in the show catalog.

FINISHED: When you hear someone say their dog has just “finished” this usually means that with their win that day the dog has completed the requirements for its Championship.

TITLE: There are a number of titles offered in the various AKC events, each indicating the dog’s achievement at various levels.

JUDGING PROGRAM: In the judging program you will see numbers in parentheses
after the breed names. These numbers are translated as follows: If you see, for example, Boxers (10-14-4-3) this means there are 10 dogs, 14 bitches, 4 dog specials (champions) and 3 bitch specials (champions). Exhibitors use this information to help them determine whether there will be points within their entry.

Since judging programs are written immediately after the entries close, before any proofing or corrections are done, the numbers in the schedule could have some discrepancies between the time the program is written and the catalog is produced. If you are looking for an elusive point or a major and the totals are borderline you may call the superintendent’s office a few days before the show to verify the total number of dogs or bitches. You are not permitted to find out, however, how many dogs or bitches are in your specific class.

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WINNERS: The first-place winners in each of the regular classes compete for Winners. At the end of the dog classes Winners Dog and Reserve Winners Dog are chosen. At the end of the bitch classes Winners Bitch and Reserve Winners Bitch are chosen. The Winners Dog and Winners Bitch compete in the Best of Breed Competition for that breed at that show and compete against each other to determine the Best of Winners award. Championship points are awarded at the Winners level. If one goes Best of Winners or if it goes Best of Breed or Best of Opposite Sex from the classes, it could affect the number of points it may get.

CATALOG: Each club must produce a show catalog. This book contains information about the show giving club, a copy of the judging schedule and championship point schedule for that area and specific information about each dog entered and an index of the owners’ addresses in the back of the catalog. Some catalogs feature the owners’ addresses with the entry information. They are usually available at the club tables; sometimes the club also sells them at the admittance gates.

JUNIOR SHOWMANSHIP: This is a way for youngsters ages 9-18 to participate and compete against each other. In Junior Showmanship the handling abilities of the junior handler are judged, not the merits of the dog.

CLASSES: Another two-fold word. You enter your dog in one of the classes in order to be judged. For example, if you have a puppy, you may want to enter it in the Puppy Class. Puppy Classes are sometimes divided by age (6 months and under 9 months; 9 months and under 12 months). Once a dog has reached 12 months of age it is no longer considered a puppy. Classes may refer to the regular or non-regular offerings at the show. The “regular” classes that may be offered at a show are: Puppy, 12-18, Novice, Bred-by-Exhibitor, American-Bred, Open.  Sometimes the word refers those judged prior to Best of Breed.

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OBEDIENCE: These are classes that demonstrate a dog’s ability to take commands and perform certain exercises or patterns. The beginner classes are done with the dog on lead. The more advanced classes are done off lead. There are a number of titles Obedience dogs may obtain as they progress through the 11 classes at each level of experience and training.

RALLY: This is Obedience with a twist. The dog and handler must complete a course designed by the Rally judge. There are designated stations that provide instructions regarding the skill to be performed. Scoring is not as stringent as traditional obedience. And, unlike Obedience, handlers may talk to their dogs and encourage their dogs in a variety of ways. Teamwork is the key in Rally.

MATCH SHOW: There are no points available at these events. Clubs are required to have matches on their way to being approved. These types of matches are run like a point show and demonstrate the club’s ability to perform the duties required of a point show. A fun match is simply that: fun. Matches are good practice for you and your dog as well. This is an excellent way for you to understand judging procedure and your dog to be in a show situation. At a match you usually enter your dog that day and get your armband at the entry desk.

GAIT: The way a dog moves; movement is a good indicator of structure, temperament and condition.

PEDIGREE: The written record of a dog's family tree of three generations or more.

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