Many exhibitors who began showing dogs in the 1980s or earlier remember fondly the days when the puppy match was common, and fanciers gathered with other dog people for a relaxing day of what really amounted to training our puppies, and often ourselves, to the show ring. Sadly, those days are long gone, and puppy matches today happen only on rare occasions and usually after a long day at an all-breed show when everyone is really too tired to participate with any enthusiasm.

Is an all-breed show the place to train a young puppy? AKC seems to think it might be. As part of its plan to “enhance the dog show experience,” AKC has, over the past few years, introduced several new initiatives designed to bring in new exhibitors, to keep those already involved interested in the sport, and to hopefully increase entries at shows. In the summer of 2011, AKC launched a pilot program to gauge participation in one of these concepts, the 4-to-6 Month Beginner Puppy competition.

At the December 2011 quarterly meeting of the AKC delegates, then-Vice President of Show Events Robin Stansell reported that during the pilot program, “on average, clubs that offered this special attraction enjoyed a 5 percent increase in entries…Many of these were first-time exhibitors and potential new club members.” Beginning July 1, 2012, clubs can now offer the 4-to-6 Month Beginner Puppy class at their shows.

The 4-to-6 Month Beginner Puppy Competition will give both puppies and exhibitors a place to learn about dog shows. ©

Any licensed or member club, including all-breed, Group and specialty clubs, may offer this new puppy competition. If offered, it will take place in a separate ring from the regular class judging so as not to interfere or delay the regular classes. The classes will not be divided by sex; instead, all puppies of each breed will enter the ring together, and judges will select only a Best of Breed and a Best of Opposite Sex in each breed.

The new class is to be offered for AKC-recognized, Miscellaneous and Foundation Stock Service breeds. According to the regulations for the class as listed in the October 2011 Board of Directors meeting minutes, both the Miscellaneous and FSS Beginner Puppy competitions will be the “equivalent of Group competition,” so that the winner of each class will then be eligible to compete in the 4-to-6 Month Puppy Best in Show. Thus, the BIS competition will include nine total puppies: seven Group winners from Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting and Herding, plus the Miscellaneous BOB winner and the FSS BOB winner, according to AKC Event Programs Manager Bri Tesarz.

In keeping with Stansell’s assertion that some new AKC programs are “truly targeting the new exhibitors,” professional handlers will not be allowed to exhibit in Beginner Puppy classes.

Is There a Point?

Puppies competing in the 4-to-6 Month classes will compete for points toward a Certificate of Merit. To earn the title a dog must win 15 points, although for this title no major win is required in the way that a conformation championship requires two majors. Points toward this Certificate of Merit title can be earned in the 4-to-6 Month competition, Open Shows (another new offering that Best In Show Daily will report on in the next few weeks) and in the Miscellaneous class.

In each breed, entrants compete only for Best of Breed and Best of Opposite Sex. Points are awarded for Best of Breed based on the total number of dogs defeated in the 4-to-6 Month class in that breed; the Best of Opposite Sex puppy will get points based on the number of dogs defeated in their sex. The point scale is currently the same for all breeds. 

Just as in regular conformation competition, the Group winner will get the highest number of points available to any breed in its Group on the day, and the Best in Show winner will be awarded the highest number of points available in any breed at that show.

Who’s to Judge?

Any judge who is provisional or approved for at least one breed – that is, anyone who has been assigned an AKC judges number – can judge the 4-to-6 Puppy competition. They need not necessarily be approved or provisional for the breeds they will judge in the 4-to-6 classes or Groups. The class, if offered, must be listed in the premium list along with the names of the judges for the classes, Groups and Best in Show.

Judging for the new baby puppy competition will differ from regular class judging in several ways. Although based on regulations that “all entrants are to be vaccinated (including rabies) in accordance with their veterinarian’s protocol,” erring on the side of caution will be the rule of the day, and each exhibitor will be asked to open their puppy’s mouth to show the bite and/or teeth for examination. If for some reason the judge finds it necessary to open the mouth, he or she must disinfect his or her hands before examining the next puppy.

Exhibitors will be asked to show their puppy’s bite and/or teeth in the 4-to-6 Puppy classes, rather than having the judge do so. ©

In male puppies where the judge is unable to find two fully descended testicles, the puppy will not be disqualified or excused, but will not be eligible to receive Certificate of Merit points. Puppies that have breed standard disqualifications related to age – for instance, a puppy that hasn’t reached a height minimum or one whose color hasn’t yet cleared to that required by the breed standard – are permitted to receive awards. According to the guidelines, puppies that exhibit disqualifications other than those related to age “may not receive placements, but are not to be excused from the competition.”

Judges should take note that AKC’s judging conflict requirements of 30 days and 200 miles do not apply for Beginner puppy, and exhibitors will want to know that a judge change due to overload will not result in return of any entry fees, as it does with regular competition.

If clubs that offer the 4-to-6 Month Beginner Puppy competition are conscientious about who they select to judge – dog people with patience and a steady, gentle hand will be ideal – perhaps this will be an initiative that fanciers both old and new will embrace and enjoy. While this competition will never replace the independent puppy match of yore, it may be a step in the right direction for offering a place where future competitors, both canine and human, can learn the ropes and experience the fun of being in the ring.