Americans love their dogs. Perhaps the best evidence of just how much they love their dogs is in the popularity of competitive dog showing, a sport that traces its beginnings back well over two hundred years when the first conformation shows were a place for sportsmen to gather and show off their bird dogs. In the following years, dog shows expanded to include breeds beyond the sporting dogs and, in 1884, the American Kennel Club was born. Today the AKC recognizes 189 breeds, has affiliation with over 5,000 breed clubs, and sanctions more than 20,000 events each year, the majority of those being confirmation events. These impressive numbers illustrate the desire to produce dogdom’s next champion, but also begs the question…what really makes a champion?
For every breed recognized by the AKC, there is an official breed standard, and it is by this standard that every dog is judged. The standard, a written blueprint, illustrates what the perfect specimen of each breed should be, from size and color to disposition and gait. Dogs are not judged so much against one another, but against the standard for their breed. Those that are the closest to mirroring the standard, in the judge’s mind, will take the win and the accompanying points. Obviously, a dog that is nearly flawless will stand a better chance at becoming a champion than one who isn’t, but it’s not enough to be just a pretty face. Like they say - ya gotta have heart!
Every pup that ever strutted its stuff around Madison Square Garden in dogdom’s most prestigious event, the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show, has more than just good looks. There’s a twinkle in the eye, a swagger in their gait, that personality that as much as demands huge ribbon and silver bowl. Some of it is genetics, some of it is the chemistry between the dog and their handler, but most of it is that some dogs, like some people, just enjoy the spotlight.
Manhattan, the great German Shepherd that took the Westminster cup in 1987, had the audience on their feet every time he circled the ring, always nearly three strides out in front of his handler and obviously eating up every second. And then there was Prince, the four pound Pomeranian, whose prancing profile loomed larger than life in 1987 to beat out six other dogs that towered several feet above his diminutive frame. In 1989, Indy, a show-stopping Doberman Pinscher, who won the top honor at Westminster only days after being rushed to emergency treatment for bloat, a potentially fatal condition. And who can forget Uno, the handsome Beagle who took time out of his busy day job as a therapy dog in 2008 to show the world he could be both a philanthropist and a showman?
The truth is, folks, just like their human athlete counterparts, really great show dogs are more than just striking physical bodies with talent inside. Sure, there’s a lot of breeding and training and conditioning that goes into the making of a show dog, but all of that means nothing if there’s nothing below the surface. The best of the best have that special air, that spark, that thing that separates them from the rest of the field – they have the heart of a champion.