Only dogs who receive a special invitation will participate in the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship on January 15 and 16 in Tampa, FL.
Dogs ranked in the top 25 of their breed received an invite. Apparently, lots of dogs know how to read their mail because a record entry of nearly 2,500 dogs will compete. Also, elite foreign hounds from 17 countries received a special invite; including dogs from Finland, Peru, Thailand, and the UK.
The show will be broadcast live on both Animal Planet and Discovery, starting 8 p.m. (ET) both nights. According to one recent survey conducted by both the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the IAMS pet food company, 88 percent of dog owners said they are more likely to watch a dog show on TV today than compared to a decade ago. Last year's telecast garnered the highest ratings ever for a dog show on Animal Planet. Millions will be watching.
"Oh my, I better look good then," says Michele Billings, of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, who will be the Best in Show judge. "Of course, I've been on TV before and you don't want to look terminally ill, so I've learned TV makeup is a good idea."
Does that also go for the dogs? "No," she laughs.
But that's not to say many dogs aren't primped backstage so they look their best. While lucky Labs need only a quick once-over with a brush, poodles, the Maltese, Yorkshire terrier and assorted other breeds get an entire spa treatment before they enter the ring. Groomers are clipping faster than you think fingers can move; the dogs are blow dried, fluffed and puffed. Every hair is in just the right place before they enter the ring.
For all dogs, from primped poodles to come as you are pugs, judges inspect the dogs to determine how close they come to matching the written breed standard.
Billings has been judging since 1972, and she's judged shows all over the world, in all hundreds, and – so far – she says, "I have yet to judge the perfect dog. If you look hard enough, there's always something isn't there?"
Billings says her job is to look - that's exactly what the judges are doing at dog shows, a lot of looking. Small dogs are placed up on a table so the judges can get a closer look (and it saves wear and tear on their backs).
Judges open the dogs' mouths, not to check for minty fresh breath, but rather to make certain all the teeth are there.
They watch the way dogs move. A Brittany is known for a kind of prancing gate. Those long legs (by comparison to their medium build) were developed for following a hunter's game birds into marshes. A lumbering Newfoundland just kind of plods along; the intent border collie won't move the same as the greyhound which nearly looks as if it's walking on air. Individual breeds do move differently, their form follows the function for what they were bred to do.
Aside from looking at the dogs, the judges often feel them. They place their hands on the canines to feel for muscle tone. In a little Yorkie having muscle isn't an issue listed in the breed standard. Malamutes and Alaskan huskies, for example, were bred to haul heavy loads over ice and snow. "To this day, general conditioning and muscle matters in the standard of those breeds," Billings says.
Billings says judges consider temperament, or at least they should. "A winner should really have a temperament that's an ideal representative of that breed," she says. Of course, in theory, a dog with an ill-suited attitude won't make it as far as the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship in the first place.
And finally, there's showmanship - the one quality not mentioned in a single breed standard. Most judges maintain they exclusively stick to what's in writing, judging based on a standard, and they don't consider an individual dog's enthusiasm or the resulting applause from the crowd. But not Billings. "It's like judging a beauty contest," she says. "Two can be equally as beautiful, so what it comes down to is attitude and heart. Let's say you're judging a beauty contest, and two are equally as beautiful, but only one smiles. Naturally, the judge – being human – will choose the one who smiles. Of course, a dog who wants to win might just have an edge. I don't know that I believe the dogs actually want to win, but I do believe some dogs can really turn on the personality. And I'm judging the seven dogs at that very moment, not from how they did last month, last week or even a few hours ago."
What you don't see on TV are the dogs shown in conformation within their respective breeds. One dog is named the best within each breed. Then, the pooches on prime time then partake in Group competition. Each breed falls into one of seven groups: Herding, Hound, Non-Sporting, Sporting, Terrier, Toy and Working.
Herding dogs, for example, include German shepherds and Australian cattle dogs. For each group, a judge will name the best. In the Herding Group, the judge doesn't compare the German shepherd with the Australian cattle dog with the other dogs in the group. Instead, the judge compares each individual dog against the breed standard for its own breed.
Now, finally, there are seven dogs left standing (one for each group), and they compete in the coveted Best in Show. The Best in Show judge is sequestered off-site until the seven appear on live TV.
The AKC/Eukanuba Championship offers the winner big time bucks, at least by dog show standards with prizes totaling more than $225,000. the Best in Show winner gets $50,000.
In addition to the conformation (or beauty contest) for Best in Show, the AKC National Agility Championship and the AKC National Obedience Invitational are being held concurrently with a combined total of another 1,000 or so dog/handler teams.
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