Training a Show Dog: A Beginner’s Guide

Do you have a pooch you feel would excel competing in a dog show but have no idea what it entails or how to get started? If this is you, we’re here to help guide you through the basic process.

We’ll discuss the different types of dog shows, how to train a dog for a dog show, how to get into a dog show, dog classes, and other valuable information regarding dog conformation and dog showing for beginners 1. Let’s begin!


What Is Conformation Anyway?

Conformation is the official term for dog shows, which is the act of conforming. This means that dogs entered into dog shows are measured by how they conform to their breed’s standards. For example, the American Kennel Club (AKC) describes breed standards for any purebred dog, such as acceptable breed colors, markings, anatomy, etc. The purpose is to establish a guideline describing a dog breed’s ideal characteristics, appearance, and temperament and to evaluate breeding stock.

Dogs entered into dog shows are not compared to the other dogs in the show; they are measured by how well they conform to their breed’s standards. But why is this necessary? The reason is to ensure future offspring will meet the breed’s standards—this is why you’ll never see mixed or hybrid dogs registered under the AKC, nor will you see them in dog shows.

Four dachshunds on the dog show
Image Credit: StockphotoVideo, Shutterstock

What Are the Different Types of Dog Shows?

There are three different types of dog shows. They are as follows:

1. All-Breed Shows

All-breed shows are the ones many people are familiar with that are shown on television. These shows provide competition for more than 175 dog breeds and various dogs recognized by the AKC.

corgi dogs and handlers at the dog show
Image Credit: Mostovyi Sergii Igorevich, Shutterstock

2. Specialty Shows

Specialty shows only allow specific breeds or varieties of specific breeds. For example, the Boston Terrier Club of America is for Boston Terriers only, and the Poodle Club of America allows different varieties of the Poodle: mini, toy, and standard.

3. Group Shows

Group shows only allow dogs that belong to one of the seven groups recognized by the AKC:

  • Hound Group: Dog breeds bred to hunt by sight or scent (Greyhounds, Beagles, Bassets, Dachshunds)
  • Herding Group: Dog breeds bred to herd livestock (Collie, Old English Sheepdog)
  • Toy Group: Dog breeds bred for household companionship (Pug, Chihuahua, Pomeranian, Maltese)
  • Non-Sporting Group: Diverse group varying in size and function, with many considered champion dogs (Dalmatian, Chow Chow, Bulldog, Poodle)
  • Sporting Group: Dog breeds bred to hunt game birds on land and in water (Pointers, Setters, Retrievers, Spaniels)
  • Terrier Group: Dogs breeds bred to hunt vermin, such as rats and mice (Cairn Terrier, Scottish Terrier, Airedale)
  • Working Group: Dog breeds bred for pulling carts, performing search and rescue missions, and guarding property (Doberman Pinscher, Saint Bernard, Boxer, Akita)
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What Is Best In Show?

Best In Show is selected from the dogs that have won in their particular group, which is one of the seven groups mentioned above. Best In Show is the highest award your dog can achieve in a dog show, and dogs can compete for the coveted award by process of elimination in all-breed shows and limited-breed shows.

While Best In Show is the highest award, other titles are also involved, such as Grand Champion, Select Dog, Select Bitch, and others, along with a new series called the AKC Owner-Handled Series. This series is a non-titled competition for dogs shown by their handlers who are not professional handlers. In other words, this new event allows owners to handle and show their dogs in shows to compete against other non-professional handlers/owners. In this event, one has the opportunity to win at Breed, Group, and Best In Show levels. 

Irish terrier at dog show
Image By: LRuss, Pixabay

How Does a Dog Show Work?

Each dog is handled (or exhibited) by a professional handler to a judge. Most dogs are competing for points toward their AKC championships. In order to become an American Kennel Club “Champion of Record,” a dog must gain 15 points, which must include two major wins awarded by three different judges. The maximum number of points awarded to a dog in any show is five points. The number of points awarded in a show depends on how many males and females of a particular breed there are in a show; the larger the entry, the greater number of points each sex can win.

Dog Classes

Each male and female compete separately within their individual breed in seven regular classes:

  • Puppy
  • 12–15 Months
  • Novice
  • Amateur-Owner-Handler
  • Bred by Exhibitor
  • American-Bred
  • Open

Essentially, dog shows operate by process of elimination, with judges selecting a first-place winner in each class; think of it as climbing down a ladder—the more first prizes in each class, the further the dog moves in the dog show under the different titles with the chance of competing in Best In Show.

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female owner showing hand signal to her havanese dog
Image By: michaelheim, Shutterstock

divider-dog paw

How to Train a Dog for a Dog Show

While watching a dog show, the process may seem easy; all the dogs have to do is stand still, let the judges touch them all over, look into their mouths, and prance around the ring. Seems simple enough, right? Most people don’t realize that quite a bit of training is involved in getting the dog to be still and walk/trot appropriately in the ring. Let’s examine the steps for success.

1. Touching

The first step is to get your dog acclimated to being touched all over—males will have their testicles handled by the judges to ensure they have descended, so getting your dog used to this seemingly uncomfortable act will go a long way.

Your dog’s mouth will be examined, so getting your dog used to having the lips raised and mouth opened is something you don’t want to skip during training.

You should have other people touch your dog to get your dog used to different hands, such as at dog parks or other local places. Remember that different judges will be touching your dog all over.

rhodesian ridgeback dog giving paw in training
Image Credit By: Ivan4es, Shutterstock

2. Stacking and Baiting

Stacking and baiting are important terms to know before even considering entering a dog show. We’ve all seen the handler giving the dog treats as the judge touches and examines the dogs, which is called baiting. Most dogs expect a reward for doing something right, and a dog in a dog show is no exception.

Stacking is the term used for the pose a dog holds on his own without the help of the handler while a judge examines, touches, and observes. The dog must stand squarely and still on a table and the ground. Training classes will teach the methods of teaching your dog how to stack.

3. Lead Training and Gaiting

The dog must be trained to walk with an appropriate gait on a lead. The lead will be on the dog’s neck rather than a harness. Training classes will show you tips and tricks on how to get your dog to learn multiple gaiting patterns and show ring procedures.

Girl with a big black dog walks through the park
Image Credit: slexp880, Shutterstock

4. Grooming

Depending on the coat, some dogs do not require as much grooming as others. Some dogs can do fine with a quick brush, but others may need a more involved grooming session before entering the ring, such as dogs with longhaired coats. The breeder from which you acquired your dog or a mentor can give you advice on grooming tips.

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Keep in mind that the teeth should be in tip-top shape, and the nails should be trimmed, so getting your dog acclimated to having the teeth brushed and nails trimmed is a necessary factor in keeping your dog looking acceptable for a dog show.

How to Get Started in Dog Shows

You’ve completed all the training, and you feel your purebred dog would do well in a dog show, but how in the world do you get your precious pooch in one?

For starters, your dog must be registered with the AKC under the respective breed. Your dog must also be 6 months of age or older, be a breed recognized under a class offered in a show, and meet eligibility requirements laid out by the breed standard. Note that spayed or neutered dogs are not allowed to enter because the purpose of the shows is to evaluate breeding stock.

After you’ve completed the steps, the first recommended form of action is to join a local club specific to your dog’s breed for tips and information on training classes. You can check out the AKC’s website and search local clubs by state.

Another recommended step is to get involved in the AKC New Exhibitor Mentor Program, which connects experienced handlers or breeders with newcomers to AKC sporting events. If you don’t want to handle your dog yourself, you can hire a professional handler for a fee.

It can be intimidating at first when you’re a newcomer, but joining the mentor program can be beneficial and is an excellent resource to learn the ins and outs of the shows and rules.divider-dog


For newcomers, dog shows can be a little intimidating at first, as you’ll see more experienced handlers around you, but everyone is a beginner at some point. Dog shows should be enjoyable, and if you decide to handle your dog yourself, you and your pooch will gain a unique bonding experience during the training process.

If you are a newcomer and get eliminated early on, stick around and watch the rest of the show; in doing so, you’ll learn even more tips and tricks by watching experienced handlers work their magic.

Featured Image Credit: LRuss, Pixabay

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