insightful in-depth reviews

23, Nov 2016
Hound group competition at National Dog Show

National Dog Show behind the scenes

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic


The National Dog Show, presented by the Kennel Club of Philadelphia. NBC telecast on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2016, as recorded live on November 19 & 20 at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, 100 Station Avenue, Oaks, PA.


The National Dog Show is an annual television tradition following the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The two-hour telecast is seen by 20 million viewers on NBC, sponsored by Purina and hosted by John O’Hurley.

This pure-bred competition is one of the oldest sporting events in the country, and it has a long historic connection to Philadelphia.

Philadelphia hosted a major dog event in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition, and in 1926 the City of Brotherly Love presented canine events at the Sesquicentennial International Exposition in Fairmount Park. Judges wore formal attire. Among dogs entered that year were the mysterious Afghan hounds, never before seen in this country.

For many years the Kennel Club of Philadelphia ran the National Dog Show at the Civic Center. Since 2002 the club has hosted the show on television. The contest is recorded the weekend before Thanksgiving at the Expo Center in Oaks, on Route 422 about five miles northwest of King of Prussia, and I attended this year’s event. Being at the show definitely adds to the enjoyment of watching the telecast.

Unlike the more common format (as in the movie Best of Show), this so-called “benched show” requires exhibitors to remain in the building for most of the day, affording the public a chance to meet and greet the canines. All of the backstage is open to the public.

Even more fascinating than watching the competition is wandering through the expo as the dogs are prepared for their big moment. You see owners brushing or trimming the hair from their pup. Hairsprays, pomades, powder and mousse are de rigueur. Last minute clipping of toenails is common and I saw one groomer use a flat iron  to straighten her dog’s fur.

Meeting the owners is informative and playing with the dogs is enjoyable. After a minute or two, you begin to feel like you know both the human handler and their furry friend. This makes it much more entertaining when you watch the dogs compete, as you feel a connection.

For every breed, there’s a competition similar to what’s shown on screen. Missing is the regal blue carpet; instead these canines compete on the conventional hall floor with small fences separating multiple areas. In each category, you see more than a dozen dogs that, to a non-professional, look almost identical. The judges study the intricacies of every dog to determine a winner.

As you see adorable pets prance around, you judge them subjectively, as if you are watching Dancing With The Stars or The Voice. After becoming familiar with the dogs and the process they go through with their owners, you have an even bigger appreciation for the event.

For an outsider, it looks as if grown-ups are just holding a leash and running with the dog, but it’s far more than that. Their job is to make the dog look its best and stand tall and regal. Judges also look for the attitude, which changes by breed. For example, a Standard Poodle needs to look confident and somewhat haughty. German Shepherds should show bravery, while Collies should be joyful and wag their tails.

I spoke to a couple from Denver. They have two Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers and take time off from their full time jobs to travel around the country showing their dogs. Another owner doubled as his dog’s handler. While disappointed he didn’t win, he has only been at this game for two years. He is just in the learning phases of how to handle and show dogs, and takes classes to learn how to do this.

Attendees are not allowed to bring their own dog to the show, but there are plenty of vendors who will sell gifts to take home for your pet. This included a canine treadmill, if you want to take your dog for a walk but don’t feel like going outdoors.

Below, behind-the-scenes activity: