Behind the Scenes at the National Dog Show

Watching a dog show on TV, it all seems so effortless. All you see is the dogs at their best, happily strutting their stuff for the camera for a few minutes. For the dogs, handlers, and judges, though, there are days, months, and even years of preparation that go into getting ready for that moment in the spotlight.

Owners and Handlers

Dogs are often shown by professional handlers, rather than their owners. Handlers take their jobs seriously, and it’s their responsibility to get their dogs in perfect condition so they’ve got the best possible chance of winning. The dogs need to be in peak physical shape, which begins with putting care and energy into the best nutrition available. It also requires a healthy lifestyle, so handlers often work with their dogs on treadmills and in swimming pools to tone their muscles and make sure they’re fit. In addition, dogs need to be comfortable with the show environment, so many handlers run through their routines in practice rings to make sure everything goes smoothly on the day of the show.

Every dog needs a different amount of training. Jamie, a handler of Australian Shepherds, told us that he’s had some dogs who hardly needed training at all, while others really needed help figuring out what to do. All the dogs he shows, though, have one thing in common: they’re excited to get into the ring. “The dogs drag me to the truck when they know it’s time to go,” he says. “They know when they’re going to a show.”

Often, much of a dog’s grooming takes place several days before a show, so that when the big day arrives, the handlers just have to put the finishing touches on the dog’s look. That might mean using hairspray or mousse, and even clipping a few stray hairs, but, for some dogs, all it takes is a final brush and they’re ready to get out into the ring.

And the best part for the handlers? Presenting a fit, happy dog and having a great time. “When it all comes together, it truly becomes fun,” says one handler, “When it’s a job and you’re having fun, that’s the best.” 


Judges, who often get their start in the world of dog shows as handlers, have a tough job. Many show associations require judges to pass strict tests before they’re certified to judge even a single breed. The more breeds judges want to include in their repertoires, the more tests they have to pass. Linda, who judges two breeds, remarked on the difficulty of the process, saying, “We laugh that it’s easier to get a master’s degree than to become a judge for the herding dogs group.”

Still, once judges get past the entrance requirements and into the ring, it’s a rewarding and interesting job. There’s a lot to consider about what makes a dog the best in his category, including his appearance and behavior. Linda says she also looks for whether or not he represents his breed’s personality. Some, she says, like German Shepherd Dogs, should show bravery, while others, like Collies, should be joyful and wag their tails. It can be very difficult to pick out a winner, but judges do the best they can, relying on their extensive training to help them choose.

And when it’s all over? For some, there’s time to go home and relax. At the end of the day, both owners and handlers are dog lovers, and their dogs are part of the family. Jamie, for example, likes to let his dogs roll around in the grass, go swimming, and just “be real dogs as often as possible.” For those with a tighter schedule, it may already be time to start grooming and training for the next show, but there’s always a chance to show how much they love the pets they work with every day.

Most judges and handlers agree that both the dogs and the people who love them benefit from the show experience. For the dogs, it’s a chance to show off, get attention, and meet new people, and for animal lovers, it’s a chance to learn about new breeds, see beautiful pets in top physical condition, and be a part of an active community dedicated to their relationships with dogs.

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