Anatomy of a Dog ShowPublished December 15, 2008
Chances are, if you're not into watching football on TV, you'll be watching NBC's telecast of the National Dog Show on Thanksgiving Day. And if you're like most dog lovers, you'll enjoy seeing the canine contestants strut their stuff--without necessarily understanding what's going on and why. For many people, dog shows may appear to be the canine versions of human beauty contests like Miss America or Miss Universe. But they're not.
Breeder Dave Helming, treasurer of the Kennel Club of Philadelphia, which sponsors the show, explains that "dog shows are a sport of competition and they're also designed to be educational. You get a chance to see dogs in many breeds and learn about those breeds."
That's because at a dog show, the judges aren't assessing which dog is the best-looking. Instead, a judge closely examines each and every dog that competes--and at the National Dog Show, that means some 2,000 dogs--to see how closely that dog conforms to a breed standard, which is a written description of the way the ideal dog of a given breed is supposed to look, move and act.
Different breeds have different standards--and different degrees of specificity. For example, the Giant Schnauzer breed standard calls for the dog to cut "a bold and valiant figure" while the standard for the Shetland Sheepdog (Sheltie) requires that a dog be between 13 and 16 inches tall at the shoulder.
But not every judge has to know every breed. Each show starts with competitions within each breed. At this initial level, judges compare Labrador Retrievers with other Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds with other German Shepherds, and so on. Once the winners of each breed are determined though, the judging gets more complicated.
That's because the American Kennel Club divides the 170 breeds it recognizes into eight different groups, seven of which will be seen at the National Dog Show: the Sporting Group, the Hound Group, the Terrier Group, the Toy Group, the Working Group, the Non-Sporting Group and the Herding Group. Within each of these groups, one judge determines which dog best meets its breed's standard even though the dogs often look very different from each other.
For example, in the Hound Group, a judge needs to determine whether a low-to-the-ground Dachshund meets its breed standard more precisely than the long-legged Scottish Deerhound does. The winners of each group then compete against each other for the ultimate title at a dog show: Best in Show.
But suppose that Dachshund meets his standard just as well as the Deerhound does? Then, very often, the dog who's got a little something extra will win the day. Long-time dog handler and dog show judge Peter Green of Bowmanville, Pa. says, "a dog who's really keen and on his toes ... who is full of his own importance and is showing off his best characteristics" can win over a judge when the competition is between two dogs who meet their breed standards equally well. In short, says Green, "the dog needs to show how beautiful he is."
The NBC telecast of the National Dog Show will include the Group competitions and the Best in Show competition. But you don't need to know each competing dog's breed standard to enjoy the telecast. Just cheer on your favorite breed--and maybe have some sympathy for the tough job a dog show judge has!