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Dog Shows Explained

Updated on December 23, 2021
From the 2013 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
From the 2013 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show | Source

Dogs shows are like a different world

You turn on the tv, flip through a few channels and spot some dogs. You love dogs, so you decide to stay there and watch for a while.

The problem is - you can't figure out what the heck is going on!

You saw a couple of dogs running, jumping and doing fun stuff, then there's just a bunch of people walking around, looking like they're doing some sort of weird dance with their arms waving around.

Or you see a bunch of the same kind of dogs all lined up, then each one walks up to a judge, gets "felt up," walks back and forth, then goes to the end of the line.

What are you watching? How many different kinds of dog shows are there?

Dog Shows - a quickstart guide

  • Conformation Shows - the "beauty pageants" of the dog world. The dogs are separated by breed and each is examined by a judge. The dog (in that judge's opinion) closest to the breed's written guidelines (standard) wins. The winners in each breed then compete in a "Group" (the American Kennel Club separates the dog world into seven groups). The seven group winners then compete for "Best in Show."
  • Obedience Trials - dog and handler teams compete in exercises demonstrating the dog's ability to heel, retrieve, and obey commands. All teams achieving the required number of points for performance of the exercises "qualify" - the dogs do not compete against each other.
  • Rally Trials - dog and handler teams follow a series of signs laid out in a "course" by the judge. Each sign has an exercise the team must perform to achieve a qualifying score. Rally events are timed and, should multiple teams achieve the same score, the winner is decided by time.
  • Agility Trials - This is the "steeplechase" event of dog sports. A judge designs a course with jumping, climbing, weaving and tunnel obstacles that the dog and handler team must perform in a set order. Dogs compete based on their height at the "withers" (shoulder blades). All dogs who complete the course successfully, within the set "course time" qualify. First through fourth places are determined by time in each height class.

There are other types of dogs shows (tracking tests, lure-coursing, nosework, etc.) but these are the four most common.

Conformation - Basset Hound Regional Specialty, 2012

Conformation is the best way to "meet the breeds"

Dog lovers run in my family. From the time I was a little girl, my mother took us to the International Kennel Club Dog Show every year. It was (and is, still) one of the few conformation shows in the country that is "benched," meaning that the dogs have assigned spaces and, when they're not competing, must be at their "benches."

This allows the public to "visit" all of the dogs, talk to their owners or handlers, and get to know more about the individual breeds. If you're thinking about getting a dog, meeting the people who know and love the breeds you're interested in will give you a better idea whether it's the right breed for you.

There are over 150 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. Each of the breeds has a parent "club" in the U.S. that establishes a "standard" for judging its breed. The dogs in a conformation show are compared to that standard by the judge, who selects the dog closest to his/her idea of the standard.

Judging schedules are usually published ahead of time, so you can be sure to see the breeds you're interested in being judged. The judging is split into classes and dogs are judged separately from bitches in the classes, except for Best of Breed.

Obedience - 2013 AKC National Obedience Championship

Obedience is a subtle joy for spectators

I've been a member of an obedience club for many years and train and show my dogs in the sport. I love watching the dog and handler teams at obedience trials, but I understand that for people who aren't familiar with the sport it can be like watching grass grow. It's not loud, it's not fast, and, for the most part, dogs just seem to be walking around with their owners.

That "walking around" is heeling, and the dog must stay in position at the handler's left side through all of the twists and turns of a heeling pattern. It's a precise exercise that takes hours of practice, but the end result probably doesn't look like anything special.

There are three levels of standard obedience competition: Novice, Open, and Utility. Watching the Utility competitors at trials is one of the most impressive expressions of teamwork you'll see, once you know what you're watching. Each level has specific exercises the teams must complete.

Each team is judged on its performance, and all teams that achieve a point score of 170 or above "qualify." Placements are awarded for the highest-scoring teams at each level, but the dogs don't compete against each other.

Rally - French Bulldog National Specialty, 2010

Rally is fun for dogs and people

Rally Obedience is a less formal dog event that was designed to be accessible to everybody and their dogs.

Dog and handler teams follow a "course" that has a series of signs with exercises the team must perform at each station. The signs can say things like "Halt, Dog Sits, Handler walks around dog," or "Back up three steps." The judge designs the course and judges the team's performance of each sign. Rally Obedience is a scored event, each team starts with 100 points and the judge deducts points for variance from perfect performance. A score of 70 is "qualifying." Rally is also timed - in the event of a tie, the team with the best time wins. There are three levels in Rally competition: Novice, Advance, and Excellent.

In Rally, unlike Obedience, the handler is allowed to talk to the dog and encourage it through the course. The handler is also allowed to move her hands and arms freely, rather than the precise positioning in Obedience. Rally may once have been a stepping-stone to Obedience, it has become an event in its own right with many devotees.

Agility - the 2013 AKC Champion - 8 inch class

Not your typical "sport" dog

This is my dog, Teddy (French Bulldog) competing in Agility.
This is my dog, Teddy (French Bulldog) competing in Agility.

Agility is the fun-to-watch dog sport

Agility is the newest of these dog sports and the one most people enjoy watching - even if they're not familiar with its esoteric rules.

Agility dogs compete at four levels: Novice, Open, Excellent, and Masters. All agility games have "courses" designed by the judges at the competition. Agility is timed and the dog and handler teams strive to complete each of the obstacles on the course in the shortest amount of time. Agility is separated into height classes, from 4 inches up to 26 inches. Dogs' heights are determined at their "withers" (shoulder blades).

This is the sport that dogs jump, climb, run through tunnels and weave through poles. Each obstacle has rules for correct completion and there is a maximum amount of time allowed for each course. Agility is also scored, with a maximum score of 100. To qualify at the Excellent and Masters levels, dogs must achieve perfect scores.

Do you love dog shows?

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Agility walk-through

Agility walk through

To familiarize themselves with the Agility course, the handlers have eight minutes at the start of the competition to do a "walk through" and plan their strategies for guiding their dogs through the course correctly.

If you don't know what's going on, it can look a bit odd.

© 2014 HopeS


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