As shiny, bouncy golden retrievers and perfectly coiffed poodles take to the ring at New York’s Madison Square Garden for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, judges consider far more than beautiful looks when it comes to choosing Best in Show.
Gail Miller Bisher, who has shown dogs since her childhood and is the Fox Sports 1 television analyst for the famed competition, shared with PEOPLE the secrets of what it takes to get your dog show ready. Yes, it involves looking gorgeous with proper grooming — but there’s also a hefty dose of dog-human bonding, obedience training, lots of mental stimulation and proper nutrition.
And it’s not just for pure breeds, with the show’s agility and obedience categories allowing mixed breed dogs to compete too — even rescue pups can compete in these groups.
Read on for Miller Bisher’s advice on how to make your pup a bit more professional.
Socialization from an early age. This is key for a dog that’s going into the show ring, where judges touch their ears and examine their rib cages and body to make sure there’s no extra fat.
“Start with puppy training to make sure they’re used to having someone handle them,” Miller Bisher says. “Take your puppy to places where there’s lots of people and have people touch the dog so they’re really well socialized.”
Socialization helps dogs with another key aspect of entering shows — one many a dog dreads: grooming. Make sure to use a gentle shampoo, to ease brushing your pup out and ensure their coat doesn’t break.
“All that handling at the beginning really helps with that,” says Miller Bisher, who started showing her parents’ bearded collies at the Westminster Dog Show as a teenager. Brush your dog regularly, too.
Exercise your pup to ensure good muscle tone, with regular trotting and running and play, and feed your canine nutritious food to create healthy skin, coat, digestion and a trim figure.
“All those types of things are very helpful for keeping him fit, and very important to the dog’s overall health,” the pro says.
Obedience training creates a wonderful bond between you and your dog, as obedience is the “foundation” of every successful show dog, she says.
“I know everyone still has trouble sometimes making their dogs behave,” she says, “but we all keep trying and something to strive for is getting your dogs to listen to you.”
Miller Bisher suggests positive training methods “using whatever motivates that dog. You can teach them anything.”
“I think most people that trained dogs will agree that the exciting part for us is learning what makes that particular dog tick,” she says. “What is it that gets them excited? What gets them to do what you want? Learning about their thinking pattern and trying to work together as a team based on what you learned is the really fun part, because each dog is unique.”
Keep your dog mentally stimulated through training. Miller Bisher, who lives in Darien, Connecticut, has a Vizsla and an English Cocker Spaniel. “They need mental activity,” she says, adding she is keeping her English Cocker, who she’s already shown in the ring, in top mental shape with obedience training.
“Once we’ve competed and gotten our basic obedience titles, I’m probably gonna do nose work,” she says, referring to training her dogs how to sniff out different scents, like police dogs trained to sniff out drugs and bombs.
“It’s a simulation where they can test their sniff ability and how good they can discern different scents and find them,” she says. “And it’s really just something to keep their mind thinking.”
To get started, you can join a local dog club — whether for obedience training, agility or for dog show prep.
Check out AKC.org to find an all-breed or breed-specific club in your area. These clubs have information on training classes for the show ring, and for obedience and agility classes. Says Miller Bisher: “I think all of it is really fun.”
The Westminster Dog Show will air live on FS1 on Tuesday, Feb. 11 starting at 7 p.m.