Dogs don't technically go muzzle to muzzle to compete against each other in a dog show competition. Rather, breed experts judge dogs to see which competitor comes closest to the breed standard set by the American Kennel Club. But before they can strut their stuff in the World Series of dog competition, the Westminster Kennel Club Show, dogs must earn championship titles first. Dog breeds compete in year-round Best of Breed matches against dogs of the same breed on the road to Westminster. Only the champions of these same breed competitions face off against each other to win the coveted Best in Show title at Westminster once a year.
The AKC divides approximately 150 pedigrees into eight groups for Westminster based on what the dogs were bred to do; they include sporting dogs, hounds, working dogs, terriers, toy dogs, non-sporting dogs, herding dogs and the amorphous "miscellaneous" group.
Judges examine the dog's conformation, meaning its proportions and size, and compare it to ideal breed standards. For example, a competing Australian cattle dog from the herding group must possess a hard muscular build that conveys "the impression of great agility, strength and endurance," according to the AKC's breed standard. Judges inspect with their hands the dog's muscles for tone and strength. The cattle dog that most closely matches that standard gets higher marks than one that, while still an outstanding athlete, presents less strength and tone in its build.
A dog's height and shape can make or break a champion, even if it possesses other excellent qualities. For example, in the Rottweiler breed, a judge wants to see a dog stand between 24 inches to 27 inches, at the shoulder. Judges "fault" a Rottweiler that stands taller or shorter than the standard, meaning a deduction of points.
Eye color, shape and size play a major role in dog judging, as do the length and shape of the head and muzzle. A dog's teeth and the type of bite it possesses---scissor or level---influences its ranking. For instance, the cattle dog's teeth must grip in a scissor-bite, according to the AKC, "the lower incisors close behind and just touching the upper" set of teeth.
The difference between breed standards is enormous. For instance, the cattle dog's head and skull should be strong and broad, and must curve between the ears and flatten to a stop, according to the breed standard. The eyes must be dark brown and oval, expressing alert intelligence. Judges deduct points if the eyes bulge or are too deep-set. However, Rottweilers should feature medium deep-set eyes. This illustrates why dogs don't really compete against each other, but rather against their own breed's set of standards.
Judges evaluate a dog's intangible characteristics, as well. Qualities such as alertness, intelligence and devotion are expected in the cattle dog, while confidence earns marks for a Rottweiler in the ring. But assessing a dog's confidence is subjective.
Judges bring years of expertise; most have worked closely with a single breed, which they're assigned to assess in the ring. Keen observation of eye contact, for example, can tell a judge whether the dog is confident or fearful, as explained by the Doberman Pinscher Club of America: "So much can be seen when looking in the eyes of a Doberman. The eyes must be clear and have a confident determined look. A friendly judge will receive a friendly response with a sparkle of intelligence. A hard stare may get the sort of response that tells the judge not to push his luck!"
One dog that most closely meets the breed standard is selected from its classified group. The final phase of the Westminster Kennel Club Show comes when eight dogs compete for the title Best in Show. The dog that matches its breed standard the best takes the grand prize.
- dog show red award ribbon image by robert mobley from Fotolia.com