You may be disappointed to learn I do very little puppy training for the ring. I will let another person write about that, I’m sure there are many who have great tips. What I do, as I mentioned in the last post, is handle the dogs. I teach them to listen, and I teach them to behave. So from the time they are little they understand that they get rewarded for good behavior and get various levels of negative reinforcement for unwanted behaviors.
If that all sounds a little technical, that’s what training dogs is all about. If I can give one piece of advice to new people or anyone struggling to show their dog better it is this—learn how to train. Learn how to elicit, see and reward good behavior and not to reinforce bad behavior. In the show ring is pretty simple, because let’s admit it, standing and wagging with ears up is not rocket science. And yet how often do we see people squeaking a toy or feeding non stop in the ring, or on the other hand ignoring the dog when it is standing and wagging? The dog ends up having no idea what it is supposed to do.
Let’s say you aren’t able to go to obedience class every week for ten years to learn to be a great trainer. You can read a book. I love the The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson. Or go to a trick training class, or simply watch one of the really great handlers out there. Be very selective with the handling class you attend, some are boring as can be and will do more harm than good. Learn to time your praise perfectly. When the dog is standing still four square and looking, praise it! Talk talk talk while your dog is standing and baiting. If the judge isn’t looking and it is a big class, for goodness sakes don’t keep making your dog show. Turn your back slightly, change your body posture, let it know for this moment it can relax, sniff the ground, or sit down. Dogs only have so many moments of animated attention in them, don’t use it up outside the ring.
Great handlers know a toy or food is a motivator as well as reinforcement. Use them as such. Just before you will be examined, a dull dog can be jazzed up a bit by playing with the toy. But if you then just put the toy away the dog learns nothing. Teach it play play play then work for it and you’ll get it again. Meaning tease them with the toy, have them stand back, stand still, pay attention and wag for a few second, then give them the toy briefly. Pretty soon it becomes clear to them what behavior gets the reward. Correct timing of reinforcers is very effective.
As Labrador breeders we all love the picture of a dog standing way back at the end of the leash, four-square, eyes on its handler. A dog standing right in front of you with its neck cranked up and rocked back never makes as pretty a picture. But how in the world do you teach that? Simple, really—teach your dog to back up. I’ve been taught it has to be at least a full body length or they will just be right back on top of you. I do it by walking forward and walking into them while saying back back back.
Now I spent many years in competitive obedience and to get dogs positioned perfectly we used our feet. Push them over, tuck in a foot, sit nice and straight—all done with our toes or the side of our feet. So gasp and roll your eyes if you may but I use my feet all the time in training. If a dog keeps trying to stand sideways or walk by, I push it over with the side of my foot. I frankly think that is better than dragging it around by the leash. Another good way obedience people get their dogs to move is by following food. Stick a cookie right in their nose and let them nibble while you turn them around in a circle. Stop with them in front of you, stand up and start to praise. They step into you and say EH! (I hate the word no in training) and back back back. When they get back praise again and give a cookie. Dog is trained! But what do most people do? Dog is standing back, looking good and they are dead quiet. Dog steps forward and they give them a cookie. Be aware of what you are reinforcing.
Remember how all my dogs get to run and I call them often and give them cookies? Great way to teach them to freebait. Have you ever seen a group of dogs waiting for mom to feed them that DON’T all have their ears up and tails wagging? Of course not! They are happy and keeping their eyes peeled for flying cookies. Voila. Freebaiting taught.
And while we all love the picture of a dog standing back and freebaiting with its tail wagging, I am going to defend the non-waggers. I have had a number of great show dogs who weren’t huge waggers. I am not talking tail tucked scared dogs, I’m talking confident dogs or bitches, standing and baiting with their ears up, feet four square and rock solid. I believe, without a doubt in my mind, that the backbone of my kennel is great temperaments. I love that my pet puppy buyers are often referred by trainers and vets and neighbors because of their easy to live with, sweet temperaments. I personally do not like high drive, high energy, tough dogs, and am very unlikely to keep them in my breeding program. So if sometimes that means they just stand there, sweetly and obediently waiting for their cookie, well doG love ‘em. I love that temperament and will never penalize it in the ring.
It should also be noted that a dog with good structure is easier to show than one not as sound. Correct dogs move well and stop and stand squarely, very little training is required. A leg at each corner, the horse people say. So choose the puppies that stand on the table like a rock and rarely move a leg, those are the ones that will make you look like a really good handler.
When in the ring, don’t let yourself get pinned in without enough space to make your dog look its best. If your dog doesn’t look good, you won’t win. Period. Yet it amazes me how often the whole class is all bunched up. Spread out! If someone is crowding you, ask them to move back. It is so simple and so critical to being able to properly present your dog. Pay attention to the judge. We Lab folks love to talk and laugh, but if the judge is trying to look at your dog and you aren’t paying attention, you just hurt your chances.
Groom your dog. Show it clean, wipe off its face, trim its nails. Again, all so simple yet so often overlooked. It is a dog show, there is much you can do to help your dog look its best, the people who win consistently are making the extra effort for sure and it is hard to compete with them if you aren’t willing to do so, too. Watch them, learn their methods, ask questions.
I have a poster on my tack room door of Clinton Anderson working a horse at sunset. It says: Dream Big. Work Hard. Best of luck to you all.
(Picture for attention, this is Josey at her first show, she was born a showdog, not trained to be one.)