More Than Just Cute: Understanding Dog Show Judging Criteria

dog show judging criteria

Dog shows are a platform where dog owners can showcase their dogs’ unique characteristics, breed-specific traits, and overall quality.

The judging process is a critical aspect of dog shows, as it determines the winner of each class and ultimately the Best in the Show.

Judges evaluate dogs based on their physical attributes, movement, temperament, and presentation.

In this article, we’ll delve into the judging criteria used in dog shows and provide insights into what judges look for in a winning dog.

Different Levels of Dog Shows

Dog shows are tiered events with varying levels of competition and prestige.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of the most common levels:

Local shows


Local shows provide a relaxed environment for dog owners to showcase their pets and socialize with other dog enthusiasts.

These events may not be limited to purebred dogs, allowing a diverse range of participants.


The competition at local shows is often less intense, emphasizing participation and enjoyment.

Classes might be organized based on factors such as age, breed (if applicable), or fun categories like “waggiest tail” or “best costume.”


Local shows are an excellent starting point for new dog show participants.

They offer valuable experience in a low-pressure setting, helping both dogs and handlers become accustomed to the show environment.

Regional Shows


Regional shows are more competitive than local shows and attract breeders and exhibitors from a wider region.

These events are a step up in terms of competition and prestige.


  • Specialty shows: Focus on a single breed or a variety within a breed, allowing enthusiasts to see and compare many examples of the same breed.
  • Group shows: Dogs compete within their designated breed group (e.g., Sporting, Hound, Terrier). Winners from each group may advance to compete for the Best in Show title.


Regional shows provide opportunities for participants to earn championship points and qualify for higher-level competitions.

Success at these shows indicates high-quality breeding and handling skills.

National shows


National shows are the most prestigious and competitive level of dog shows.

They attract top breeders, handlers, and dogs from across the country.


  • Breed competition: Open to all recognized purebred dogs. Dogs compete within their breed for Best of Breed titles.
  • Group competition: Winners from each breed advance to compete within their group (e.g., Working, Toy, Herding).
  • Best in show: Group winners then compete for the coveted Best in Show title, the highest honor in a dog show.


Winning at a national show is a significant achievement, showcasing exceptional breeding, training, and handling skills.

National titles are highly respected within the dog show community.

Additional levels

Independent shows

These shows are run by non-profit organizations or breed clubs and follow similar structures as regional or national shows.

They offer additional opportunities for dogs to compete and earn titles.

International shows

Held in various countries, international shows adhere to international kennel club regulations.

Winning at an international show is a pinnacle achievement, reflecting the highest standards of breed excellence and global competition.


Concept of Breed Standards

Breed standards are detailed guidelines that describe the ideal characteristics of a specific dog breed.

These standards are created by kennel clubs or breed clubs and serve as a reference for judges during dog shows.

Here’s a more detailed explanation of breed standards:

Components of breed standards

Physical attributes

  • Size: This includes the height and weight range for the breed.
  • Coat: Describes the type, texture, length, and color of the dog’s fur.
  • Head shape: Details the shape and proportions of the head, including the skull, muzzle, and ears.
  • Body structure: Specifies the proportions and build of the dog, including the chest, back, and legs.
  • Tail: Describes the tail’s length, shape, and carriage.


Breed standards outline the ideal temperament and behavior, such as friendliness, aggression levels, and energy levels.

This helps ensure the breed’s suitability for various roles, whether as a working dog or a family pet.


The standards describe the ideal gait and movement of the dog.

This includes how the dog should move when walking or running, highlighting the desired fluidity and efficiency of motion.


Key Aspects that Judges Evaluate During a Dog Show

Judges at dog shows focus on three main aspects when evaluating the dogs: conformation, temperament, and presentation and gait.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of what each aspect entails:


Conformation refers to the physical characteristics of the dog.

Judges assess how closely a dog’s physical traits match the breed standards.

The key elements include:

  • Size and proportion: Judges look at the dog’s size and body proportions to ensure they align with the breed standard. This includes factors such as height, weight, leg length, and body depth.
  • Bone structure: The strength and development of the dog’s bones are examined. Proper bone structure is essential for supporting the dog’s size and movement.
  • Head type: Each breed has specific standards for these features, and judges look for how well a dog meets these criteria.
  • Coat: Judges look for a healthy, well-maintained coat that complements the dog’s overall appearance and matches the breed standard.
  • Movement: The dog’s gait, or way of moving, is crucial. Judges observe the dog’s movement for fluidity, balance, and power. 


Temperament refers to the dog’s personality and behavior.

Judges look for traits that align with the breed’s typical temperament. Key points include:

  • Confidence: The dog should show confidence and composure while being handled and judged. A confident dog is attentive and cooperative in the ring.
  • Alertness: Judges expect show dogs to be alert and responsive to their handlers and surroundings. Alertness indicates a healthy, engaged animal.
  • Stability: Emotional stability is critical. Judges watch for signs of fearfulness or aggression, ensuring the dog remains calm and steady under scrutiny.

Presentation and gait

Presentation and gait focus on how the dog is groomed and handled, as well as its movement:

  • Presentation: The dog should be clean, well-groomed, and presented in a way that highlights its best features. 
  • Gait: The dog’s movement is observed again, but this time with an emphasis on presentation.


Dog shows are unique and exciting event where dog owners can showcase their beloved pets.

The judging process is critical in determining the winner, and it’s essential to understand the criteria that judges use to evaluate the dogs.

By understanding the different levels of dog shows, the concept of breed standards, and the key aspects that judges evaluate during a dog show, you can gain a deeper appreciation for the art of dog shows.


How do judges evaluate a dog’s temperament?

Judges observe a dog’s demeanor in the ring, seeking confidence, alertness, and good sportsmanship.

What is the role of the handler in a dog show?

The handler is responsible for presenting the dog in the ring, ensuring the dog is well-groomed and well-behaved.

What is the most prestigious dog show?

The most prestigious dog show is the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, held annually in New York City

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