If there’s anything more fascinating in the world of dog shows than a really great National Specialty, I don’t know what that would be. When a large number of like-minded people get together for the single purpose of celebrating a breed they all love, the atmosphere that’s created is something you can’t experience anywhere else. To an outsider, the nearly religious fervor of some of the participants may seem a little extreme, but this is an event that only occurs once a year, and most exhibitors travel long distances and seldom see each other except on this one occasion, so the enthusiasm can be contagious. It’s really a gathering of the clans, a sort of extended family get-together, time to catch up with long-lost friends and make new ones you’d only heard of before. Sure, the degree of excitement varies with the breed, the club and the excellence of the arrangements, but National Specialties are usually so much fun I’d attend any of them rather than most all-breed shows.

When dog shows were initially created, it was for the purpose of comparing breeding stock, and that noble aim is where the National Specialty shows really excel. Nothing against all-rounders, Best in Show competition and Group judging. It’s all good fun, and it’s part of the engine that’s driving the big, national dog show machine. But what’s happening at most of the over 1,400 all-breed dog shows held each year in the U.S. isn’t always of that much importance to many of us. (Did you know there were exactly 1,437 AKC all-breed shows in 2012? And did you know that the average entry at these shows is now 806 dogs? How much real breed competition can there be under such circumstances?)

Of course, a National Specialty is by definition an event that’s aimed primarily at those who love a particular breed, but I don’t think I’m the only one who’s happy to attend the National for any breed. It really doesn’t matter which one; just give me a large number of dogs, a judge with experience and an informed opinion, and I’ll happily sit back and watch for hours.

A National Specialty is by definition an event aimed primarily at those who love a particular breed. Photo by Dan Sayers.

The Best Anywhere?
If the above sounds a little too over-the-top enthusiastic, the reason is that I recently attended, for the first time in many years, what’s generally acknowledged to be one of the best – if not the best – single-breed specialty show anywhere. It was exactly as inspiring as I had hoped. I don’t get goose-bumps easily these days, but when you see large numbers of high quality dogs in class after class, perfectly presented and judged by breed specialists, it would take a much more jaded spectator than I am to not feel a surge of adrenaline…

Results and photos from the Poodle Club of America’s 81st National Specialty, held in Salisbury, Md., on April 19-26, 2013, have been published by Best In Show Daily. Obviously anyone who loves Poodles should have been there and it seems they were, from all over the world, but it’s worth reiterating that this is also a show that everyone who wants to learn how to organize a top class specialty show ought to attend. PCA President Dennis McCoy, National Show Chair Barbara Furbush and their large team of helpers could teach a lot of us much about how to put on a good show. They are part of a tradition of excellence that started in 1932, when 23 Poodles (Standards and Miniatures only; no Toys in those days) were entered at the first PCA specialty in Mount Kisco, N.Y. Entries increased in the 1950s and ‘60s, and in the breed’s heyday nearly 800 Poodles were competing on several occasions. Figures are still high, but the 754 dogs entered this year included large entries in obedience and rally, as well as 130 Toys, 113 Miniatures and 310 Standards, judged over three days of conformation judging: all the class dogs on the first day, the bitches on the second, with specials only the last day.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the characteristics of this show. You may want to see how your breed’s National Specialty stacks up by comparison.

Most everyone who loves Poodles was in Salisbury, Md., last month for the Poodle Club of America’s 81st National Specialty. Photo by Dan Sayers.

A One-of-a-Kind Event
First of all, like all the best National Specialties, this is a one-of-a-kind event, held just once every year. Surprisingly, that’s not necessarily something you can always take for granted. Some breeds blur the distinctions by having both a National and a “regional National,” which sounds like a contradiction in terms to me, or sometimes a “rotating National” Specialty. PCA hosts one regional specialty each year, in addition to the National, but there’s no question which one is the major event. Some clubs until recent years didn’t even designate a particular show as their National, although AKC these days requests them to do so. A few parent clubs hold more than just a few annual specialties, for example, the Gordon Setter Club of America hosted 13 specialties and the Bulldog Club of America, 17 specialties, last year. All the most successful parent clubs, however, make a point of emphasizing that just one of their events is the big one, the National, the one you should attend if you possibly can and if you care about that breed.

By the way, it’s almost, but not always, true that it’s the AKC designated parent club that holds a breed’s biggest show of the year. The Labrador Retriever Club of the Potomac once again held what was the country’s biggest specialty for any single breed last year, with 762 dogs present and competing in the official classes at their show in Frederick, Md. That’s a hundred more dogs than any other breed club show could muster, and four times as many as the parent club.
As mentioned above, conformation judging occupies three days at PCA, but one secret to the big National Specialties’ success is that they cater to very diverse interests. PCA started several days before the regular “beauty contest.” Here’s a list of activities that took place:

  • Tracking and retriever hunting tests
  • PCA’s own working tests
  • The Purina hunt dinner
  • A national agility trial
  • Health tests (heart screening for atrial septal defects in standards and blood draw for Optigen PRCD-PRA testing)
  • A fundraiser auction
  • One parade of rescue dogs and another of AKC chompanion and performance titleholders
  • The Canine Good Citizen test
  • Judges’ education (not nearly as well attended as it ought to have been)
  • The PCA Affiliate Club Council Meeting
  • Veteran Sweepstakes and 4-6 Puppy classes and:
  • The popular “Chuck A Duck” contest, which benefits Take the Lead and allowed everyone making a donation to try tossing a plastic duck into a small “pond” in the middle of the ring… Great fun for a good cause; Janet Lange Moses won, then generously donated the winnings back to Take the Lead.

If you think attending all of this sounds exhausting, imagine the work involved in organizing it. However, it’s a common denominator I have found at other big National Specialties – they cater to as many diverse aspects of the breed involved as possible. My own parent club, the American Whippet Club, excels at this, and, in spite of much lower registration figures than Poodles, our National was in fact almost as large as PCA last year.

PCA transforms the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center into a virtual arboretum, with banners of prominent Poodle fanciers displayed throughout the arena. Photo by Dan Sayers.

Choosing the Right Time, Place and Venue
The time of year that a National Specialty is held is vitally important. There’s a reason that spring and to a lesser degree, fall, is when most of the big specialties are held: it’s neither too cold nor too hot to fly with dogs at that time. Nobody has made a study of the figures that I know of, but there’s no question that most of the big National Specialties rely on a high percentage of long distance exhibitors.

The location of a specialty show is one of the most important – and in many breeds most hotly debated – questions. Some clubs feel that to live up to the designation of being a “national” event, and presumably to be fair to as many exhibitors as possible, a new location in a different part of the country should host the National each year. Others, and PCA is among them, feel that when you’ve found a good venue you should stick to it. After returning to the same place for a couple of years, it feels almost like coming home, even for long distance visitors: you know the showground, the hotels, the restaurants – and the show officials have much better opportunities to smooth out any kinks in the arrangements.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that PCA has found such a great venue: a civic center and sports arena that allows for not only huge rings and plenty of seating (both at ringside and in the bleachers), and of course lots of grooming space, which is vital for Poodles more than most other breeds. In addition, PCA spends what must be a small fortune on bringing in turf, a velvety lawn of real, close-mown grass that covers the entire judging arena – and the flower decorations were spectacular!

One disadvantage with such a venue, of course, is that it’s not immediately adjacent to a host hotel, which means that exhibitors and dogs have to drive back and forth every day. The convenience of a convention center-hotel combination that allows the judging to take place in the ballroom – so you can literally walk from your room to the ring – has to be weighed against the extra space available at, for example, PCA’s showground. Some exhibitors no doubt may even prefer their dogs to be judged outdoors, although personally I think an air-conditioned building like this one is nearly perfect.

PCA has succeeded extremely well in the important endeavor of making sure the locals are aware of all the benefits that accrue to the local economy when several hundred (or a couple of thousand?) people spend several days staying in hotels, shopping and going to restaurants. It was encouraging to see all the nearby hotels post large signs saying “WELCOME POODLE CLUB OF AMERICA!” That’s not something one sees often enough. All clubs – single-breed or not – should be as good as PCA about explaining to the local chamber of commerce that dog shows can be good for business.

The PCA judges this year, including Best of Breed judge Jack MacGilliivray, pictured with National Specialty winner Ch. Aleph American Idol and handler Lotta Sandell, were all of the kind that exhibitors treasure a win under. Photo by Dan Sayers.

The Judges – a Big Drawing Card?
Finally, the judges. They may or may not be a big drawing card, and they may or may not be the most important factor of a specialty’s success. On the one hand a lot of people attend their National regardless of who’s judging, simply because they want to see what other breeders are producing, and they may show their dogs as much for their peers as for the judge. On the other hand no breed wins are more important, memorable or dreamed-about than those at a big National Specialty – and there’s usually a large pool of truly experienced specialist judges to choose from. These are the kinds of judges that have such a long and deep involvement in this particular breed that you allow them the right to their opinion, even if you don’t necessarily agree with their placements – which is probably the highest form of compliment you can pay any judge.

The PCA judges this year can be placed in different categories, although all are of the kind that you would treasure a win under. Toys were judged by Doris Cozart, who started as a successful Poodle breeder, now judges three whole Groups and often officiates at AKC all-breed shows. The Miniature judge was Scott Wolfe, a successful breeder and exhibitor (including BOV with a Miniature here in 1990) before taking a 10-year hiatus from dogs, returning to start judging just a few years ago and, I believe, beginning to add additional breeds. Standards were judged by James Reynolds from Canada, who is one of North America’s top all-rounders, judged BIS at Westminster in 2006 and has officiated at National Specialties for more breeds than most. The Best of Breed judge at PCA this year was Jack MacGillivray, who has judged Poodles at the highest level for 15 years including PCA several times, but is one of that rare breed of specialists who appear uninterested in branching out to any other breed.

Christi McDonald has written about the winners.  It was an exciting finale, and I wish all breeds had a National Specialty show of the same caliber as this one!

Best of Breed at the 2013 PCA National Specialty, Ch. Aleph American Idol. Photo by Ashbey.

The Top Specialty Shows 2012
Following is a list from AKC’s Events Statistics of the 20 largest single-breed specialty shows held in the U.S. during 2012, followed by the number of dogs exhibited that year, then by 2011’s class entry. Note that AKC counts only dogs present and competing in the official classes; the number of entries, including absentees, futurity, sweepstakes, etc., may easily be twice as large.
1. Labrador Retriever Club of the Potomac: 762, 752;
2. Golden Retriever Club of America: 661, 624;
3. Collie Club of America: 633, 645;
4. Poodle Club of America: 459, 467;
5. American Whippet Club: 439, 503;
6. American Shetland Sheepdog Association: 435, 571;
7. Flat-Coated Retriever Club of America: 430, 381;
8. American Boxer Club: 430, 477;
9. Vizsla Club of America: 427, 213;
10. Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America: 408, 211;
11. Great Dane Club of America: 401, 325;
12. Dachshund Club of America: 369, n/a;
13. Dachshund Club of Metropolitan Atlanta: 357, n/a;
14. Samoyed Club of America: 357, 271;
15. Portuguese Water Dog Club of America: 329, n/a;
16. Newfoundland Club of America: 326, 333;
17. Doberman Pinscher Club of America: 314, 257;
18. United States Australian Shepherd Association: 308, 254;
19. Irish Setter Club of America: 307, 209;
20. Siberian Husky Club of America: 299, 338.