Updated 05/26/07

The Making of a Champion

Story and Photos by Julie Reardon

Reproduced as published in the Old Town Crier; written by Julie Reardon

Picture: "The Judge surveys a large class of Chesapeake Bay Retrievers"

The Judge surveys a large class of Chesapeake Bay Retrievers"My dog would have been a champion if he'd been shown." How many times have we all heard (or maybe even said this) about purebred dogs? We all think our dogs are champions, which is a good thing. But the sport of showing purebred dogs is not as easy as it seems, as anyone who has ventured in the ring can attest. For a dog to be recognized as a Champion of Record by the country's largest breed registry, the American Kennel Club, it must earn points in shows based on the number of other dogs it defeats of its breed. For popular breeds this might mean a large number indeed.

Almost every day of the year, the AKC sanctions a dog show somewhere; over 8,000 are held annually. The shows are put on by AKC member clubs. Locally, the Old Dominion, Rock Creek, Middleburg and Warrenton Kennel Club host one or two annual shows. In addition to being the number one family participation sport in the country, dog shows are also one of the oldest forms of organized sports.

Showing dogs is also one of the few sports where the novice must also compete on equal footing with the professional. While at a glance just trotting a good looking dog around a show ring and standing it squarely for the judge to examine doesn't seem too hard, for a dog to be shown at its best takes lots of practice. And of course, certain of the coated breeds require hours of expert preparation time to get their coats show ring ready.

For purposes of showing, the AKC divides dogs into seven groups - sporting, hound, working, terrier, nonsporting, toy and herding. Most shows are all-breed shows, with classes for each breed of dog entered. Breed classes are divided into regular and best of breed classes. The best of breed winners next go to the group classes, where they show against each other for Best in Group for each of the seven AKC dog groups. Next, the group winners go on to the Best in Show competition. Most shows also have junior handler and obedience trial classes as well, and sometimes non-regular classes for stud dogs, brood bitches, and sweepstakes for older dogs, and puppies.

Regular classes are the starting point for a purebred dog's show career. Here, the dogs compete against others of the same age and sex and variety, if it is offered for that breed. Some of the more popular breeds that are further divided into variety include Dachshunds, which are divided into longhaired, smooth, or wirehaired varieties, and American Cocker Spaniels, split by the colors black, parti-colored, and any solid color other than black (ASCOB).

To enter regular classes, dogs must be registered with the AKC and at least 6 months of age, and it must be intact (not spayed or neutered). To earn points, it is not enough for the dog to win its class - it must then go on to be judged best over all the class winners of its same sex. Separate classes offered include puppy divisions (six to nine months, nine to 12, and 12 to 18 for some breeds); novice classes (for dogs and handlers that have never won three blue ribbons), owner/breeder classes called bred by exhibitor, American-bred classes and open classes.

The bitch and dog class winners of these regular classes show against each other to be judged for the best bitch and the best dog, called Winner's Bitch and Winner's Dog. Only by advancing to this stage is the animal eligible for points based on the number of dogs it defeats. These winners go on to the Best of Breed competition, which is where all the dogs of both sexes who have already earned their AKC championship are shown. A dog that has won the requisite number of points to earn this designation is said to have "finished."

Dogs showing in the regular classes to earn points toward the Champion title are called class dogs; those that are "finished" dogs, also known as "specials." Specials earn points just as the class dogs do, but the aim is to garner best of breed or group wins or placings, possibly even best in show, to qualify for year end high point awards for their breed or group.

Dog show classes for individual breeds always have the same progression. Males, or dogs, are shown first - puppy, novice, bred by exhibitor, American-bred and open, in that order. Dog class winners then go in for the judge to pick the best to be awarded the Winner's Dog prize; a reserve is also selected. Next are the bitch classes, also divided into puppy, novice, bred-by, Am-Bred, and open; followed by the Winner's Bitch judging.

The winner's dog and winner's bitch then go in the best of breed competition, held after the completion of all the regular dog and bitch classes. In the best of breed class, the judge will pick either the winner's dog or the winner's bitch for the Best of Winners award. The best of breed completion is also where the judge pins what he thinks is the most exemplary of the standard for best of breed. While it could be a dog from the regular classes, more often this winner comes form the ranks of the specials. In addition to best of breed, the judge will select the best opposite sex to best of breed. The best of breed dog then goes on to show against the other best of breed dogs in its group for Best of Group.

The AKC sets the number of points for all breeds of dogs and for shows in the different geographic regions. To earn the designation Champion, a dog must earn 15 points under at least 3 different judges, and at least two of the wins must be "majors." A major is a win of three points or more, with the maximum number of points that can be earned at one show being five points. While theoretically a dog could earn its champion designation from 3 shows if it earned three, five-point majors, in actuality, this rarely happens.

Earning points depends on the number of dogs defeated en route to a winner's bitch or winner's dog victory. Let’s use the Dachshund as an example. For this area, division 3, the point scale for smooth haired Dachshund bitches is as follows: 2 dogs defeated equals 1 point; 6 defeated equals 2 points; 10 defeated equals 3 points; 13 defeated equals 4 points, and for the maximum allowed 5 points, our sample smooth haired Dachshund bitch must defeat 19 others. When 3 or more points are earned from one win, it is called a major, and the dog need two majors out of its 15 points to become a Champion; (More information on the point scale for the different breeds can be found on the AKC website www.akc.org)

Let's further say our Dachshund example is an 11 month old puppy bitch entered in the class for Dachshund puppy bitches, 9 -12 months. There is one other puppy in this class. Our girl wins the class, then goes on to show against the winners of the other classes. At this show there are 5 other class bitches entered, our puppy and the one she beat in her class, plus two bred by exhibitors, and two open bitches. So she goes into the Winners Bitch class against the open and bred by winners, in which she also gets the nod from the judge earning Winners Bitch. How many points is this worth? One or two? If you guessed one you’d be correct - this bitch defeated five others so she earned one point.

The more popular the breed, the more dogs an individual must defeat to gain points. This is where professional handlers have the edge. Even with an outstanding example of the breed, it's hard for the novice to know how to make their entry stand out in a ring packed with dozens of dogs. Professionals, on the other hand, are less affected by nerves, and know all the tricks of the trade to make a good dog catch the judge's eye, and how to minimize flaws. Then too, many of the judges at today's shows were once professional handlers. The more a handler is known, the more a judge will assume (rightly or wrongly) that that professional will be the one with the quality in the ring.

So, can the average person take Fido into the ring and ever hope to win? The answer-and the reason the shows attract so many new people each year - is, if you do your homework, yes! Provided your dog is registered, meets the breed standard, and has no disqualifying characteristics, it can win in the ring. However, it's harder to win with the more popular breeds where the rinks are dominated by the professional handlers, and with the rare breeds, yours might be the only one at the show.

For the beginner, the best way to start is to take show handling at your local kennel club. If you want to start with a puppy, find a breeder who also shows, and explain that you want a show quality puppy. Many breeders are happy to mentor you, and are delighted to have offspring of their stud dogs and brood bitches go to show homes. Local clubs (you can find a list on the AKC's website) also hold match shows, which are a good place to get your dog used to the show ring and practice your handling skills.

Webmaster's note: This article originally appeared in "The Blueridge" section of the Old Town Crier, page 33, July 2003. Reproduced as published with permission of the publisher, Dave Underwood.