How are Show Dogs Judged?

Dog shows have been around for 150 years, allowing proud owners to show off their canine companions. These dogs are judged on everything from their size to their eye color.

Jun 28, 2023By Colt Dodd
how are show dogs judged

Show dogs are generally judged based on the almighty breed standard. The American Kennel Club (AKC) reports that the breed standard describes the ideal dog with the ideal traits. These specifications range from breed to breed, and they’re highly subjective. What may appear as Best in Show to one judge may look like the average pound puppy to another.

When compared against the breed standard, show dogs are judged on many traits, including their grooming, handling, gait, and abilities. The road to becoming Best in Show isn’t a journey a dog can take overnight; it requires years of training, practice, and patience.

Judges Rate Show Dogs Based on These Categories

dog beside trophy at dog show

People spend their entire lives breeding and training dogs to compete in certain competitions. Then, the animals are judged based on nuances most can’t even begin to imagine, including:

  • Their eye colors
  • The shape of their tails
  • How tall the dog stands at the withers
  • The dog’s gait (for instance, does the dog trot or amble along?)
  • The coat’s texture, sheen, and consistency
  • The health of the dog’s teeth

Every dog breed has its own criteria. A judge wouldn’t evaluate a French bulldog the way they would a Great Dane.

Show Dogs Are Judged Based on These Categories

owners showing dogs at dog show

As noted, dogs are judged based on many categories, some of which are unique to the dog’s breed and group. The primary categories include:

The Breed Standard

Each dog breed has a blueprint that outlines that ideal dog. Some are a few hundred words, offering specific guidance with little room for confusion. Others, like the standard for the Pyrenean Shepherd, are close to 2,000 words, written in fantastic language and even describing the dog as having a flowing gait that “shaves the earth.”

Any dog that deviates from the breed’s standard will likely not win Best in Show. For instance, the breed standard for Italian greyhounds notes that any dog with a brindle coat can’t win Best in Show. Even a dog with light eyes could be immediately disqualified if the breed’s standard is a darker color.


Agility competitions measure a dog’s athletic abilities. Border collies, German shepherds, and other herding group dogs usually participate. Per the AKC, the rules for these competitions are as follows:

  • Most agility courses have 14 to 20 obstacles, including tunnels, seesaws, and hurdles.
  • The competing area generally measures more than 1,000 square feet.
  • Time matters. A dog doesn’t have all day to complete an agility course. The goal is to complete the obstacle course quickly and accurately. One AKC-approved agility course notes that for a jump course, dogs have 70 seconds to complete it.

Agility courses aren’t just about the dog’s abilities. It’s about the bond it shares with its owner. By recognizing gestures, vocalizations, and body language, a dog’s owner can guide it through the course. Communication is crucial. Otherwise, a dog might clear the course but not up to the judges’ standards.


Not all dog shows are about breed standards and obstacle courses. Some reflect an owner’s ability to properly groom their pet. Take the Groom Expo, for instance. This competition requires that participants groom their dogs on the day of the show. Then, they’re judged based on many factors, including the fur’s shine and feel.

As one can imagine, not every dog can compete in grooming expos. While the hairless Mexican dog likely won’t take first place, poodles and schnauzers frequently take home the gold.

Dog Shows Have Specifications Most People Wouldn’t Dream Of

french bulldog being judged at dog show

To illustrate what art dog shows are, here’s a hypothetical. Two Shetland sheepdogs stand side-by-side. To the untrained eye, these are two cuties just hanging out. Yet, to an AKC or Westminster show dog judge, one is a clear winner. Can you tell which one?

Consider the following:

  • One Sheltie has a tan and white coat. It has almond-shaped black eyes with an intelligent, questioning expression. Its ears are three-fourths erect (meaning they fold at the tips), and it has “a long neck to carry the head proudly.”
  • The other Sheltie is a Merle, meaning it has a “blue” coat. Like its friend, it also has black eyes and the curious, intelligent expression that Shelties wear. It has a barrel-shaped body, and its ears stand straight up like a cat’s.

Per the AKC’s breed standard, if these dogs were competing for Best in Show, the first dog is a clear winner. That’s because the ideal Sheltie (in the judges’ eyes, anyway) has slightly floppy ears. The second dog would be disqualified upon entering the ring because of its fox-like ears––cute as they are.

So, what happens if a Sheltie puppy has pointed ears? Are its days of being a show dog over before they’ve even begun? Not quite. Some dog breeders will tape back the dog’s ears during puppyhood, hoping to get the cartilage in the right shape. While some may find this cruel, others argue that if it preserves the breed’s standard, it’s worth it.

Controversies Behind Dog Shows

english bulldogs being judged at dog show

There’s a dark underbelly to dog shows that many don’t like to talk about. Some criticisms include:

  • Inbreeding: Dog breeders want to breed for desirable traits. For instance, to get a Merle coat (which is a recessive gene), some unscrupulous dog breeders will have fathers mate with their offspring. While this may achieve the desired result, the smaller a dog’s gene pool, the more health problems it could have.
  • Cruelty: Some organizations, like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), believe that dog shows are cruel. They note that dogs in their natural states aren’t meant to endure hours of training and grooming. It compares the practice to circuses and roadside zoos.
  • The ideology: The ideology behind dog shows is that there are desirable and undesirable traits. Some people take issue with this, even going as far to say that kennel clubs and other organizations impose unrealistic standards.

Dog Shows Are Popular and Going Strong

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Want to learn more about dog shows, breed standards, and agility courses? The AKC has its Meet the Breeds Expo in New York City every year. Here, dog lovers can meet some of the AKC’s most reputable dog breeders and coaches––and their pets, of course.

Colt Dodd
By Colt Dodd

Colt Dodd is a sighthound enthusiast with three years of freelance writing experience. He has an Italian greyhound/Shetland sheepdog mix named Homer. In his spare time, he enjoys going to dog parks and writing fiction.