hhpMany of us who live with a cat or dog have no doubt that ours is the smartest, most beautiful, or most talented cat or dog in the world. In fact, this belief is so common among pet owners that it has given rise to a massive show circuit where people compare their pets and compete for titles.

I have to confess I’ve never entered a cat or dog of my own in a show – not because my animal friends are anything less than perfect in my book, but because I’ve just never gone beyond my own book. I do remember, though, how I coveted a little plastic loving cup my big sister won with our dog Cookie at an amateur dog show when we were kids. It came with a beautiful blue ribbon and six cans of dog food.

Who goes in for shows with their pets and why? When I asked pet owners these questions, I was met with a tremendous variety of answers. For many people, dog and cat shows are social occasions. The show circuit is a network where animal owners make new friends and connect with old ones who share their passion for their pets. Some are drawn by the thrill of competition, the buzz of anticipation, the prospect of winning. For still others, there may be a business angle. Pets that win big – and their descendants – are highly prized among breeders and their customers.

The experiences of show animals vary, too. Some act as willing partners with their owners in the competition. They may get to spend more time with their owners than the typical stay-at-home pet and many soak up the attention like royalty. Some dogs, on the other hand, are managed by handlers other than their owners and may be more performer than companion.

Beyond debate is the fact that show business is booming. On any given weekend, you can find a dozen cat shows and more than a hundred dog shows in the United States. Most cat and dog shows are sponsored by local clubs affiliated with either the American Kennel Club or the Cat Fancier’s Assn. (See “How to Get in the Act” on page 149.) These two umbrella groups keep track of local competitions, standardize the judging of animals, and register the winners. They can also refer you to your nearest club and offer tips for beginners.

hhcJust what is required for an animal to compete varies among breeds, among clubs, and among categories within a single competition. Apart from the few amateur Frisbee-chasing contests I’ve come across, dogs must be registered purebreds to compete. That means both their parents must be registered purebreds. Many cat shows, on the other hand, have a “household pet” category where people can show off their mixed-breed or unregistered cats. Dogs are also more likely to undergo surgical alterations in order to compete. Tail docking and ear cropping have traditionally been required for such breeds as Dobermans and boxers. There are basically two kinds of competition for dogs: performance events and shows. Cats participate only in shows.

At performance events, registered pedigreed dogs show off how well they do the job for which they were bred. These may begin with basic obedience trials where a dog responds to simple commands. After these follow herding trials for collies, hunting trials for hounds, and earth dog tests for terriers that were bred to follow their prey through underground tunnels. Dogs are judged on their agility, persistence, and cleverness in addition to how well they respond to and perform their owners’ commands.

Performance events always leave me filled with awe for the talents of our canine companions. I’m partial to events that grow out of an activity that the dog and its human companion clearly play at for the fun of it. Some of these skills come from instincts so strong that dogs will act them out whether or not they are trained to compete. I’ve known border collies that tend to round up children when they don’t get enough exercise herding animals.

Shows are the more common dog competition and the only competition for cats. In these, animals are judged primarily on their appearance. Judges look for how closely they conform to the ideal standards for the breed. They evaluate each animal’s bone structure, profile, and overall appearance. Grooming and temperament are also factors in this type of competition.

Standards for judging cats and dogs have sparked controversial debates and a number of changes over the years. Critics complain that standards based on physical beauty may neglect the well-being of the animal and encourage bad breeding practices. Breeding for form can increase the risks of hereditary maladies that occur among certain breeds.

Officials argue that standards of health as well as beauty figure into the competition. For instance, judges pay attention to an animal’s gums – an indicator of nutrition, care, and general health. Temperament, a reflection of both breeding and handling, is also key to a show animal’s success. One bred strictly for looks may lack the temperament to show well.

It’s important to think of the whole animal, says Dr. Leslie Sinclair, of the Humane Society of the United States. Dogs and cats may spend a decade or more as a companion animal after their show days are past, so consider their well-being off the show circuit as well as on.

Whatever their accomplishments on the show circuit, our animal companions’ greatest gift to us is, in the end, the pleasure of their company. The people who enjoy their pets the most seem to be those for whom shows are simply one of many activities they share with their loyal friends. Our cats and dogs can keep first place in our hearts whether they win, lose, or draw in the ring.

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