How Do I Get Started with Dog Shows?

Published: 6/9/2021

Let's face it — every pet parent is convinced their woofers are worthy of a Westminster win. Sure, we might be a little biased, but we all believe our fur-babies are the cutest in the whole world.

Of course, there's a big difference between being cute and being conformation material. Think your Chow Chow has the chops to win the purple ribbon, but not sure how to get started in dog shows? We've sniffed out some helpful tips for pet parents new to the dog show scene.

Decide what kind of show to compete in

First things first — not all dog shows are created equal. There are 2 main types of competitions: conformation shows and performance championships. Both types of shows have several subtypes, but we'll just cover the basics here.

Conformation shows, also called breed shows, are probably what you picture when you hear the term "dog show". Dogs don't compete against each other — instead, they're judged individually on their ability to meet official breed standards for appearance and temperament. To determine which dog wins Best in Show, the judges use process of elimination. Only intact purebreds recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) are eligible to compete in conformation shows in the US.

Performance championships are sports events that evaluate the athletic prowess of canine competitors. Dogs can compete in all sorts of performance championships, including agility, rally-o, scent work, herding, and field trials. Mixed breeds are welcome to compete in many performance shows, although some field trials are breed-specific.

Can your pets compete in these shows? Sure! But be aware that conformation show dogs are usually bred, raised, and trained for that purpose. Want to purchase a show-quality puppy from a breeder? Prepare to be placed on a waiting list and invest a lot of money — we're talking up to $7,000! Check out our guide on how to find a reputable breeder.

You may find it easier to enter your pet in a performance show once they have the training and certifications needed to compete.

Do your homework

Now that you've got an idea of what dog shows involve, it's time to start researching. Here are a few things you can do to get started:

  • Download a catalog of all the past conformation champions of your dog's breed. Print catalogs are sold at every AKC conformation show.

  • Watch videos of the type of show you'd like to compete in. The AKC YouTube channel has dozens of informative videos to give you an idea of what to expect.

  • Sign up for the AKC's New Exhibitor Mentor Program to connect with an experienced handler. The program is an invaluable resource for those new to dog shows.

  • Join forums or social media groups to see what other handlers are talking about. Engage with the community to pick up some tips and tricks.

  • Find a groomer with experience in grooming your dog's breed for show. Not all groomers are created equal!

  • Brush up on your dog show etiquette. Both pups and people are expected to abide by certain rules, like not approaching other dogs in the ring.

If you're looking to compete in a breed show, look up your dog's breed standard. National kennel clubs like the AKC set standards for each breed's gait, temperament, and appearance. Before entering a show, evaluate your dog to see how they measure up to those breed standards. Each standard includes "disqualifying faults" in appearance. Dogs with disqualifying faults may not qualify for a conformation championship.

Attend a local dog show

You can watch all the videos you want, but they're no substitute for attending an event in person. Once you know what kind of show you'd like to participate in, find an event near you. Bring a notebook along or take notes on your phone to capture any questions you might have. You may also have the opportunity to chat with judges, handlers, and spectators after the show's over.

Alternatively, sign up for a match show, which is sort of like a dress rehearsal. At these practice events, you can source invaluable feedback from fellow pet parents, as well as judges and professional handlers.

Schedule a vet visit

Whether your canine is competing in a conformation show or a performance trial, a health checkup is essential. To be eligible for conformation and performance events, dogs must be "in sound health" and current on their vaccinations. A health exam is especially important for dogs competing in sports shows. Your vet will be able to confirm if your dog is healthy enough to compete. They can also recommend activities, supplements, and dog foods to help enhance your pup's performance in the ring.

Join a local kennel or sports club

You've done your homework, attended an event, and visited the vet. Now it's time to get your paws dirty and dig in! If you're looking to compete in conformation shows, join a local AKC club for your breed. Likewise, if you want Sparky to show off their sports skills, join a club for that sport. Use the AKC's Club Search tool to find a club near you.

Enroll in training classes

You can't expect your woofer to win Best in Show with no formal training. No matter which type of show you're competing in, your doggo will need basic obedience and socialization training in addition to special commands. They'll also need to know how to accept being groomed and handled by strangers.

For conformation shows, your dog will need gait and stack training. Your dog's gait refers to their walking patterns and speeds. Judges award points based on how closely your dog meets the gait standards for their breed. Stacking refers to standing poses. There are 2 types of stack training: hand stacking and free stacking. Hand stacking involves manually placing a dog into the correct pose. Free stacking involves training the dog to enter the pose on their own.

For performance shows, your dog will need to learn commands relevant to the activity. For example, if you're competing in agility, your pooch must learn how to weave, change direction, walk on an A-frame, and go through a tunnel — all on cue.

Needless to say, training a dog to compete is a lot of work. The good news is, you don't have to go it alone! Enroll in a conformation class or specialist training class, or enlist the help of a dog trainer near you to cover basic commands. Your dog's training is integral to the competition, so review commands often. Remember, practice makes "pawfect"!

Take care of the paperwork

Okay, so your pooch has completed their training. It's nearly showtime! But first comes the not-so-fun part: filling out paperwork.

If your dog isn't already registered with the AKC, register them as soon as possible. Only dogs registered with the AKC can compete in club-sponsored events.

You'll also need to register for the show itself and pay an entry fee. For AKC events, submit your entry form as early as you can — the superintendent or show secretary must receive your form at least 2.5 weeks before the date of the show, or by the closing date listed on the superintendent's website. You can mail your form or submit it online via the superintendent's website.

If you're handling your dog, you'll need an AKC Junior Handler number. Contact the AKC via phone or email to obtain one.

Certain events, like obedience trials, have special regulations and procedures. Visit the AKC website to find more information on the eligibility requirements of your dog's sport.

If you're joining a club that's not affiliated with the AKC, contact the club for more information on entry forms, fees, and requirements.

Getting started in dog shows: wrapping up

If you're new to dog shows, you might think it's impossible to break into the scene. But don't fret! You'll find tons of resources online (like this one!) to ensure your first foray into the "woofderful" world of dog shows is a successful one.