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14 Behind-the-Scene Secrets from the National Dog Show

There's a lot more going on behind-the-scenes than extensive grooming. Here's what our reporter witnessed with her own two eyes when the cameras weren't rolling.

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national dog show purina Courtesy Steven Donahue/See Spot Run Photography

Behind the scenes

If you have ever witnessed a case of the zoomies in a dog, that’s the kind of excitement I had when I learned I would be attending The National Dog Show Presented by Purina. Yep, the very same dog show me and over 20 million people tune in to watch after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC since 2002. I thought I had a fairly good idea of what I would be walking into. Truth be told, I was awe-struck and surprised at what I discovered—just as you might be by these 30 fun facts you never knew about dogs.

national dog show purina Courtesy Steven Donahue/See Spot Run Photography

So many dogs!

The NDS is held at The Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, Pennsylvania. It’s huge—200,000 square feet. Yet, it barely seems enough to contain the 15,000 dog lovers, 13 breed-specific show rings, the Best in Show ring (where the broadcast is taped), 55 vendors, about 1,000 handlers and, of course, the dogs—more than 2,000 in total! That includes numerous dogs from each of the 205 AKC recognized breeds, including the newest breed, the Azawakh (pronounced oz-a-wok), a sighthound from Africa.

national dog show purina Courtesy Steven Donahue/See Spot Run Photography

What is a benched show?

As a dog lover, I was drooling over the chance to meet and greet the unique breeds I probably would never see in my own neighborhood. Anyone can buy a ticket and meet the dogs face to muzzle—you don’t have to be a member of the press. A benched show means the dogs must be present on their assigned bench from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. That sounds pretty strict, but the dogs don’t have to sit still on a bench all day, meeting their adoring public, but they aren’t allowed to leave the building during that time. Dogs can mingle with the public by standing on their benches, especially handy for smaller breeds, while other dogs were on a leash standing, sitting or lying down in their assigned area, or napping in their kennel. Find out the most popular dog breed in every state.

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Porta-potty for dogs

The AKC is pretty strict about the rules for a benched show, and enforce the rules by periodically checking to make sure the dogs are where they are supposed to be. So, if dogs aren’t allowed to leave the building, where do they do their business? There are a few designated places—orange fenced-in areas lined with sawdust-like shavings—for dogs to go potty. Handlers still have to clean up after their dog—if the dog goes. An Otterhound owner/handler I talked to said his (and other dogs) often hold their pee and poo for hours before they finally go because they don’t feel comfortable doing their business with so much commotion going on. These are 14 things you may be doing with your own pup that it secretly hates.

national dog show purina Courtesy Steven Donahue/See Spot Run Photography

Dogs are remarkably chill

With the mass amount of people, including curious and brazen little kids, I was amazed at how chill the dogs were. All the breeds were so calm amidst the onslaught of thousands of hands petting them. I even got a friendly lick from Wyatt, a handsome Bernese Mountain dog. That’s not to say the dogs were always mute. There was an adorable Basset Hound who welcomed me with his genial baying. I felt the impulse to bay back in solidarity, but decided against it, when I noticed another dog lover standing next to me. Handlers say dogs are calm because from an early age they are trained to become desensitized to noise, distractions, and strangers petting them. A dog’s tail also gives you clues if it’s calm or aggravated.

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Hands-on learning

For prospective dog parents, a benched show just might help you narrow down the choice of breeds you want to add as a new family member—or you’ll fall in love with a breed that wasn’t even on your shortlist. The point is, the NDS is far more than a prestigious dog show. It’s a rare opportunity to get the goods on any given breed because the owners are often the handler—and the breeder, too. They are eager to share everything they love about their dog—including their health, dietary, and exercise needs, personality quirks, and anything else you could ever want to know about the breed, including the eye-rolling, yet endearing weird things all dog breeds do.

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Things you don’t see on TV

If you’ve watched any televised dog show, you know how the show unfolds—each dog is introduced, the dog and handler run around the ring, and the judge gives the pup a once-over. What you don’t see is the clock ticking away while the other dogs sit patiently ringside, hoping to get called out by the judge for another run around the ring. It gets pretty toasty with all the hot arena lights, so while the dogs wait, a person from the dog’s entourage is ringside with a spray bottle to quench the pup’s thirst or to cool its feet. Some dogs stand or sit on cooling towels, and bulldogs and pugs who are more sensitive to heat are cooled down with ice packs. Be sure you know the warning signs of heatstroke in your own dog.

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Grooming galore

Breeds like the Weimaraner, Boxer, and Doberman Pinscher only require weekly brushing, but breeds like the Afghan Hound, Komondor, and Bichon Frise have higher maintenance coats that necessitate more grooming. Add the show factor, and all breeds step it up a notch, especially the higher maintenance ones. (I’m pretty sure these dogs travel with more hair products than I do.) Brushes, bows, wraps, hairdryers, grooming sheers, hair spray, etc. take up a lot of the precious square feet each dog is assigned, but rules state that all grooming must be done at the bench. Even show dogs get itchy. Here’s what makes any dog’s skin itchy.

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Handlers wear more than one hat

When we watch the NDS on TV, we see handlers trotting and presenting their dogs to the judges, so they can assess how well the dog’s physical traits conform to breed standards. As spectators, this looks fairly easy. Yet handlers are responsible for so much more than parading a dog in front of the judges. Handlers retain a skill set that involves training, conditioning, grooming, traveling, and more. Some are professional (paid) handlers and spend more time with the dogs than the owner. Two of the most prestigious certifications come via the AKC Registered Handlers Program and the Professional Handlers Program. You don’t have to be a certified handler to teach your dog these easy tricks.

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The entourage

Many dogs enter the competition with just their owner who also happens to be the handler, while other dogs arrive with an entourage—which may include the owner, handler, groomer, and designated question answerer for when the adoring public stops by. By the way, professional handlers often show more than one dog. I saw a benched area with four dogs who all had the same professional handler. Professional handlers may show different breeds at the same show or specialize in one breed. When the handler was showing a dog, a member of the entourage stayed back to sit with the dogs or helped prepped them for the show ring. Start off on the right paw with these training secrets from professional dog trainers.

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The dog show community is a global one with dogs traveling around the United States and aboard to compete for coveted championship honors. In fact, one of the largest and most prestigious is the Crufts dog show in Birmingham, England, which features 26,000 dogs! At the NDS, I met a Weimaraner named George who was born in France and knows commands in English and French. If you watched this year’s NSD, you know that Blaine, a soft-coated Wheaten Terrier from Canada, won in the hound group and the Best in Show winner was Thor, the stocky and handsome Bulldog from Peru.

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Dogs love a good intro song too

One might expect an air of formality and decorum once the dogs enter the Best of Show ring. After all, these dogs represent the crème de la creme of their breed. However, this isn’t a hands-in-your lap and closed lips affair. Instead, each breed group enters the arena with the intense enthusiasm akin to NFL players running onto the field, with cheers from the crowd and music pumping, like “Old Town Road,” for the herding group and “Hound Dog” for the hound group. They’ve got swagger and are not shy about strutting their stuff. As AKC-licensed judge Christine Erickson, who judged the hound group, tells Reader’s Digest, “These are the confident dogs. The dogs that come out of the box at four weeks old and say I’m a star.”

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He had a certain “Je ne sais quoi

How do dog show judges choose a winner when the two dogs are equally matched? Judges are looking for how close the dog conforms to his/her breed standard and of course, showmanship. The AKC breed standard lists an in-depth description of all breeds, including general appearance, and more specific things like the size and shape of head and ears, in addition to coat, gait, and temperament. So what if two dogs ace the standard, what is the tie-breaker? “It could be something that catches my eye, maybe just the condition of the dog, the ears, or movement,” says Erickson. You could say it’s the “Je ne sais quoi” that one dog has over the other. Find out the most (and least) expensive dog breeds in the world.

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Your face might hurt

“When a dog walks into the room, the energy changes,” says David Frei, a longtime expert analyst host of the NDS, and author of Angel on a Leash. He’s right. You would have to be stone-cold and heartless not to feel the good vibes a dog emanates. It’s the way they give you unconditional love, with no regard to your status in life, what you look like, or how much money you make. They bring out that warm, fuzzy feeling inside of us and smiles—oodles of smiles. So much so, my face hurt at the end of the day. You’ll have a permanent smile on your face when you look at the cutest dog breeds as puppies.

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and, among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center. Follow her on Instagram @lisamariewrites4food and Twitter @cornish_conklin.