Think you and your dog might have what it takes?

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past National Dog Show winners excited after being awarded Best in Show
Credit: Mark Makela / Getty

If you're not in the dog show universe, it's pretty difficult to tell what traits or characteristics make excellent show dogs—the ones who win their breeds, their groups, or Best in Show trophies.

Heck, I didn't know either, so I went to the 2021 National Dog Show presented by Purina and asked the people who do: handlers, owners, commentators, a behavior expert, and the Best in Show Judge.  

Here's what they said the best show dogs need in order to stand out from the competition: 

1. Socialization

Annie Valuska is a pet behavior scientist at Purina and not a dog show expert. In fact, the National Dog Show was the first she'd ever attended. But she did notice something: All the dogs there were "extremely well-socialized." 

They had to be. It was very loud at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, with dogs barking and hundreds of conversations trying to be heard over the din of running hair dryers. Plus, there were delicious smells coming from the concession stands and plenty of people ogling all the dogs. It was organized chaos.  

Oh, and when the dogs are in the ring, the judges will closely inspect their mouths and genitals, so the pups have to be OK with hands in uncomfortable places.

"And these dogs are kind of bomb-proof in that they are handling all of it extremely well," Valuska tells Daily Paws. "They're not distracted; they're staying focused on their handlers, so that's really cool to see." 

So yeah, you'll want to make sure your puppy is well socialized before embarking on a show-dog career. 

2. Fitting the Breed Standard

The most successful show dogs also adhere to their breeds' standards, the written set of physical measurements and descriptions the dogs should meet based on their original purpose. Here's the breed standard for the whippet, for reference. Dog shows, at the basic level, are a contest to see which dog meets their breed's standards better than all the other pups.

"That's what you're looking for: that balance within the requirements of the breed standard," says Jeffery Pepper, the Best in Show judge at the 2021 National Dog Show. "It's always the breed standard first." 

But there is wiggle room. Take the whippet's standard: the height of the dogs is within a range; the length of the dog is equal or "slightly greater" than their height. Where does "slightly greater" turn into "greater"? That's where the judges come in for interpretation, Pepper says.

Similarly, Karen Mammano, who's been a dog show handler since she was 6, says a successful show dog is a dog who would excel in their original "jobs." Golden retrievers who could hunt ducks, Australian shepherds who could herd cattle, and Newfoundlands who could tow carts. 

"I want them to be really good representatives of their breed, not just really good show dogs," she tells Daily Paws.  

3. Enthusiasm and Confidence in the Ring

Show dogs have to want to be there. You might have the dog who meets all of her breed's standards perfectly, but if she doesn't like showing, "forget it." So says Jennifer McLaughlin, a breeder and handler who brought two Dalmatians to the National Dog Show. 

"They've got to have the right attitude in the ring. They've absolutely got to have that show-me attitude," she tells Daily Paws. 

It means having fun, showing personality, and moving freely in the ring while working in tandem with the handler. When that happens, you might have a leg up on your competition. 

"An old dog show judge once told me: 'It's a dog show and you gotta show.' And when you get down to the end and the final seven dogs, you're looking at seven great specimens and it's going to come down to these other things like showmanship and character and charisma," says David Frei, who's served on the NBC broadcast team for the show's 20 years.   

4. Humans Need to Be in the Zone, Too

Several handlers who spoke with Daily Paws used a version of the phrase "travels down the lead." It means the dogs can sense a handlers' actions or feelings, so the humans need to be on their best behavior when they're in the ring. 

Take Beverly Oliver, the owner of Candy the Saint Bernard. She's not an eager handler, so she was nervous when she first showed Candy. Under inspection, the dog turned to nip the judge, mortifying Oliver. When she talked to another Saint Bernard expert, he seemed to figure it out. 

"You're nervous. You're making her nervous right down the lead. Don't touch the dog," he told Oliver. Now, she keeps from touching Candy in the ring and chews mint gum to hopefully disguise any nerves Candy could smell. 

The bond between humans and dogs is deeper than ever, Valuska says. So the dogs, with their superior hearing and smell, might know when the handler's voice sounds different or when they smell a little stressed. So you'll need your happy voice and confident stride to take advantage of that special bond.

"I'm not familiar with anything that comes close to it in the animal kingdom," she says.

5. The Right Judge

Each judge has their own tendencies. Ask Pepper how many times he's seen a dog win Best in Show and then not make it out of their breed's group the next day. It happens. He's even been the judge to choose a different dog over the day before's winner.

"We each have our own opinion, and that's why we have dog shows days in a row because the same dog doesn't necessarily win," he says.

Oliver sees it from the owner's perspective. Sometimes, she'll wonder how Candy managed to win her breed or group. Other times, she'll look around the ring and wonder how her dog didn't win. That trial and error has helped her formulate which judges are best for Candy.   

"If the judge today is looking for a big and massive Saint Bernard, it's not going to be her," she says. "She's petite, but she's correct. There's very few Saint Bernards that can move like she does, so if it's a movement judge, we're golden."  

But hey, you're not doing this for the judge. Hopefully you're showing because it's a fun experience for you and your pup.