In just 12 short years, the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship has become an institution on the American dog show scene. Since the first show was held in Orlando, Fla., in 2001, AENC has grown to become a celebration of dogs unlike any other.

The 2012 show was the largest conformation event held in the U.S. this year. At this multi-discipline event, dogs and their handlers competed in conformation, obedience and agility championships while young competitors demonstrated their skills in the junior agility, obedience and Junior Showmanship competitions.

Attendees came from all over North America and beyond, making this event both a family affair and an international exhibition. Dogs were entered from all 50 states as well as dozens of foreign countries, including Norway, Taiwan and Brazil. Nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere can you hear people say, “Look at that dog!” in so many languages.

AENC is truly a phenomenon, and here’s a top 10 list of reasons why I think this is so.

The Orange County Convention Center is a major league facility with plenty of room to accommodate thousands of spectators, exhibitors and their dogs. Photos by Dan Sayers.

1. The Venue

The Orange County Convention Center is a beautiful facility that is more than capable of accommodating an event the size of AENC. More than 2 million square feet allow for plenty of room to set up multiple large rings and spacious grooming areas. Exhibitions, meetings, presentations and parties are all able to take place simultaneously, and every modern amenity is conveniently located. Water and electric hook-ups are available in the parking lots, Wi-Fi Internet connection is accessible in the buildings, and various dining options are open throughout the day. OCCC’s location is close to any number of hotels, and Orlando’s world famous theme parks are nearby should visitors wish to plan an extended vacation.

The Eukanuba World Challenge is perhaps the most colorful reason to attend the AENC.

2. International Competition

The Eukanuba World Challenge is a unique event held in conjunction with AENC, and this year’s visiting purebreds did not disappoint the American audience. The presence of so many outstanding dogs from around the world gives U.S. breeders and exhibitors a chance to see some of the dogs that have triumphed at Crufts and the World Dog Show. Only a trip to a European, Asian or South American show would be more international in scope.

Spending quality time with a good friend is a big reason to go to AENC.

3. Good Friends

The promise of seeing so many great dogs under one roof attracts dog people from all walks of life, from the very young to the young at heart. One of the reasons to go to a marquee show such as AENC is to see old friends and make new ones. A stroll through the exhibition halls is as likely to result in a tearful reunion, as it is an introduction to any one of nearly 200 different dog breeds.

Rick Beauchamp judges Bulldogs at the 2012 AKC/Eukanuba National Championship.

4. Great Judges

Of course, passing judgment on a quality entry of purebreds is what dog shows are all about, and the judging panel at AENC attracts top tier competitors from far and wide. This year’s judges came to Florida from across the U.S., as well as from Canada, Ireland, the U.K., Japan, Russia, Portugal, Chile, Finland and Romania. The sizable entry of 3,347 dogs of 198 breeds and varieties seems to indicate that many exhibitors are grateful for a chance to compete under foreign judges in addition to well-known breed specialists.

Wire Fox Terrier GCh. Afterall Painting The Sky is this year’s AKC/Eukanuba winner and one of the top-winning dogs of 2012.

5. Great Dogs

Most, if not all, of America’s top dogs generally compete at AENC; however, the 2012 ratings race encouraged several of this year’s big winners to skip the event for a chance to earn more points elsewhere. Although the number one and two dogs were in town only for Wednesday’s all-breed show, their absence at the big dance did not diminish the show’s luster. The capacity crowd sitting in the stands at the convention center on Sunday night witnessed one of the strongest Best in Show lineups of the season.

More than a dozen Miscellaneous and FSS breeds were in attendance at AENC this year, including the Grand Basset Griffon Vendeen.

6. Rare Breeds

It’s not at every show that a dyed-in-the-wool dog person can get up close and personal with a Coton de Tulear, a Peruvian Inca Orchid and a Cirneco dell’Etna. But at this year’s AENC, the rare breeds definitely came out to play. More than a dozen Miscellaneous and Foundation Service Stock breeds competed in the ring of Japan’s Hiroshi Kamisato, and throngs of spectators, including many AKC judges and professional handlers, came to watch. And breeds even more rare in the U.S., from Russian Toys to Grand Basset Griffon Vendeens, waited to greet visitors at Meet the Breeds.

Meet the Breeds is a fun and educational aspect of AENC where many breed booths are fully outfitted, including this Wizard of Oz themed exhibit for the Cairn Terrier.

7. Meet the Breeds

The dog-loving public is a big part of what makes AENC a success, and Meet the Breeds is one of the event’s biggest attractions. Although it takes an awful lot to draw visitors away from Orlando’s family-oriented theme parks, the chance to meet and greet real live dogs from all around the world is simply too hard to resist. Like a living, breathing Epcot Center, guests can travel from the mountains of Tibet to the Pampas of Argentina with our canine companions as their guides. At Meet the Breeds, it really is a small world after all!

Stella, the French Bulldog from ABC’s “Modern Family,” greeted visitors from her director’s chair at AENC this year.

8. Celebrity Sightings

Nearly everybody loves dogs, including A-list celebrities and 15-minute Hall of Famers. Bill Cosby, Martha Stewart and Greg Louganis are just a few of the famous names that have connections to the dog show world. But what is less common is the dog that becomes a legitimate celebrity in its own right. At this year’s AENC, one of the stars of ABC’s award-winning sitcom “Modern Family” was on hand to greet the press and shake paws with her fans. The cute and cuddly bat-eared entertainer’s agency, Good Dog Animals, is a California company that rescues and then trains animals for the television and film industry. Though unlikely to win an AKC grand championship, Stella could well be nominated for an Emmy award one day instead.

AENC Event Manager Michael Canalizo takes time out from his duties for a photo-op with Best In Show Daily’s Kayla Bertagnolli and Dog Show Poop’s Billy Wheeler.

9. Michael Canalizo

The enormity of putting on an event like AENC would intimidate the most organized of minds, however it’s all in a day’s work for AKC’s Michael Canalizo and his hard-working staff. In the week leading up to the show and throughout the two-day event itself, Michael can be seen rolling from exhibit hall to exhibit hall on his trusty Segway. The self-balancing personal transport must certainly save time and energy for the man who spent years running around the show ring following the Grandeur Afghan Hounds. No detail is too small for Michael, and his careful manner seems to ensure that a worry-free experience is enjoyed by one and all.

The AKC/Eukanuba National Championship is truly a celebration of dogs and a great place to find out what dogs and dog people are all about.

10. Next Year

The only thing better than this year’s AENC will be next year’s event. I hope we’ll see you there!