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What it takes to win the Westminster Dog Show

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The 2020 Westminster Dog Show has arrived, the Super Bowl for pet lovers.

In a few days, more than 2,600 furry friends from 20 different countries will put their best paw forward for the three-day spectacular, held again in the Big Apple.

This year's show will be a historic one for the organization. In its 144th year, this year's competition will feature 204 breeds and mark the introduction of the Azawakh, a slender sighthound to be represented by 6 different hopefuls.

Dachshunds, Poodles and Golden Retrievers are the most popular breeds taking the floor this year, with Bernese Mountain Dogs, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, French Bulldogs and Labrador Retrievers following in suit. 

"Each breed has a written standard...a blueprint for that breed," described Westminster Kennel Club's canine expert Gail Miller Bisher. The standard is determined by the breed's parent club, which is then used by the judges to examine and rank the dogs.

Of course, there's much more than merely a silky coat and agility that makes a dog a show dog. We caught up with Bisher about what it takes to win a prestigious and historic competition like Westminster.

"In that written standard, it talks about the height, it talks about the coat texture, the eye shape, the ear length, the nose color, the length of the muzzle, the length of the head, the shape of the skull..." Bisher explained. "The judges have been judging for a very long time, are very experienced and know exactly what they're looking for." 

The judge first looks at a dog's profile and will continue down its body from there.

"The judge would look at the dog's top of its head, the arch of his neck, his top line; they would look at the angle of the rear, bend in the stifle [joint]," she lists. "They're going to look at the coat, of course... they come to the front, they look at the expression --obviously in a cocker [spaniel] the eyes are so important because they have that beautiful melting expression -- they look at the face, they look at the teeth, the bite," she continued.

"They feel to see if its bone structure conforms to the written standard. So, that means the thickness of the bone...where the angles of the shoulder blades are placed, the spring of the ribcage, the length of the loin. All of these are elements that the judges are checking." 

Those physical characteristics are evaluated based on the original purpose of the dog's breeding and then compared to another dog of the same breed that is also competing. Herding breeds and sporting breeds, for example, will be assessed differently based on their function. 

"What they're actually trying to evaluate is breeding stock. Dog shows are the evaluation of breeding stock. Which dog should be used to produce the next generation?" 

For almost all of the dogs of the kennel club's caliber, training begins at puppyhood in the forms of socialization and handling. 

"To get a dog ready for the ring, first they're trained to be handled quite a bit because when they're in a dog show, they're on a table with different judges examining them every day," Bisher maintained. "That's where you'd start with puppy training, just making sure they're used to having someone handle them."

"Socialization is also key for a dog that's going to be in the ring. Preservation breeders are also careful to make sure that their puppies are taken to places where there is lots of people, lots of activity and they want people to touch the dogs to make sure they're really well socialized."

Another imperative part of training is ensuring the dog is comfortable with contact. Because the canines' coats can be misleading, judges don't just look, they touch. The experts are examining everything from the quality of the pup's teeth to the expression on their faces, and how it lines up to the written standard. 

Once the dog is older (dogs can start competing in Westminster at six months) and already trained on a show lead, they need to be trained in the ring. Each breed has a different gait and thus has different expectations from the judges.

"They have to be in good physical condition with good muscle tone, so regular trotting and running and playing are very helpful for keeping them fit," explained Bisher. Pristine, frequent grooming is also a necessity for the competitors -- but it's as physical as it is aesthetic.

"Of course, nutrition is a big part of making sure your dog is healthy," she continued. "Whether it's the skin, the coat, their digestion, their weight -- all of those are things that are very important to the dog's overall health and of course how they're going to appear in the ring."

12 out of the 13 past best-in-show champions were on a Purina Pro Plan diet (the dog food is also a presenting sponsor at the show).

While proper training pulls its weight in the ring, proper breeding can mean everything for a best in show. 

"It all starts also with [a] proper breeding program -- making sure you get a dog from a responsible preservation breeder that does health screenings before breeding their dogs and makes sure that they socialize their puppies and all those other aspects that are important."

Tune in to the three-hour broadcast of Best in Show on Feb. 11 on Fox Sports 1.