What are Dog Shows? [Learn in 5 Minutes]

Published: 6/17/2021

What’s the first image that comes to mind when you hear the phrase “dog show”? If you immediately think of a pampered pooch strutting around a show ring, you’re probably not alone.

But how much do you actually know about what goes on at a dog show? What do dogs need to do to compete, and how do the judges decide which four-legged contestant is the winner?

To find out, let’s take a closer look at how dog shows work and the process judges must go through before choosing the Best in Show.

What is a dog show?

Dog shows have a reputation as being a beauty pageant for dogs, but there’s more to it than that. Also known as a conformation show, a dog show is an event where purebred dogs are judged on how they conform to the official standard for their breed.

But the aim isn’t simply to find the prettiest dog or the one that looks most at home strutting their stuff in front of a crowd. On a much more basic level, a dog show is about evaluating how suitable a dog will be for a breeding program — whether that dog has all the essential characteristics of the breed that need to be passed on to the next generation of puppies.

Of course, there’s also a lot to be said for the excitement of competition and the thrill of taking out the top prize.

How are dogs judged?

Each breed that’s officially recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) has its own breed standard. This standard sets out the optimum characteristics and physical qualities for the breed, such as size, general appearance, head shape, forequarters and hindquarters, coat type and length, coat color, and gait.

The standard also lists any disqualifying faults. For example, in the official Labrador breed standard, the following disqualifications are listed:

  • Dogs that don’t fit in the height range specified in the standard

  • A pink nose or a nose without pigment

  • Eye rims without pigment

  • Tail docking (or altering the length or carriage of the tail)

  • Any color or color combination other than black, yellow, or chocolate

Dogs are judged on how well they match up to the standard for their breed. Of course, breed standards vary widely from one breed to the next — not just in terms of the way a dog is meant to look, but also depending on what they were bred to do. The physical requirements of a working breed such as the Australian Cattle Dog, for example, are quite different to those of a toy breed like the Pekingese, which was developed as a lap dog.

Which dogs can compete?

Dog shows are designed for purebred dogs only. To compete in an AKC Conformation Show, a dog must also meet the following eligibility requirements:

  • Must be 6 months or older

  • Must be an AKC recognized breed

  • Must be registered with the AKC

  • Must not be spayed or neutered

  • Must not have any disqualifying faults outlined in the breed standard

  • Must be healthy and have up-to-date vaccinations

However, the breeds that can compete may vary depending on the show in question. The biggest shows, such as the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, are all-breed shows, but other shows are only for certain breeds or groups of breeds.

The AKC categorizes dog breeds into the following 7 categories:

How is the Best in Show chosen?

Everyone’s heard of the “Best in Show” title at a dog show, but how do the judges actually pick the number-one dog out of the hundreds or even thousands of pooches competing?

There’s a common misconception that each dog is compared directly against the other dogs in the show ring, but that’s not the case. Instead, each dog is compared against the relevant breed standard, so the dog that's the best example of the standard for their breed will be the winner.

At an all-breeds show, a dog will also have to come through multiple elimination rounds to be crowned Best in Show:

  • First, they must be named Best of Breed

  • Then they must be named first in their group 

  • Finally, they’ll compete against all the other group winners to be named Best in Show

I want to enter my dog in a dog show — what should I do?

If you think showing your dog sounds interesting, exciting, challenging, or simply like a bit of fun, where should you start?

The AKC recommends attending a show in person to get a feel for how it works, then signing up for classes at your local AKC club — head to the AKC website to search for your nearest club

You’ll then be able to learn what it takes to compete at a dog show, and how to get your pup ready for their first taste of the show ring. You can also find plenty more useful information in our guide to getting started in dog shows.