How to win more

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At the dog show this weekend I was once again struck by the number of nice dogs out there who continually struggle to win. In speaking with their owners, they voiced their frustration. “Everyone tells us what a nice dog he is, why can’t he win?” I was at a loss to explain.

So I started thinking about it, and began to think of what separates those who win consistently, or even often, from those who struggle. I came up with a number of things that anyone can do, given enough determination and/or motivation. Those things involve grooming, conditioning, training, and presentation.

First, let me state the obvious: Nothing takes the place of great bloodlines. A well-bred dog with top notch conformation, beautiful breed type and a rock-solid temperament often walks in the ring and presents himself so well there is no way to deny him. Few outside the very top breeders are lucky enough to own that dog. And those who do have come by it after a ton of study. They have worked hard and finally bred a really good one. Kudos to them. For those with good dogs who aren’t as competitive as they would like on a regular basis, here are a few things that I think can help you to become more competitive.

Grooming: What, groom a Labrador? Yes, I think our dogs all look better groomed. I for one would never walk in the ring with an ungroomed dog. To me grooming is at some points during the year an every day thing. The second mine start to shed, if I have any desire to attend a dog show within the next couple months, I use an undercoat rake daily. What I have found is not only does it make the dog look much better as it is shedding, it makes the new coat grow in faster. So if I really work on it, I can have a shedding dog only out of the show ring for about six weeks, and looking good again in two months. It is worth the extra effort, for sure.

Nails need trimming regularly or they get too long to look good with one trim before the show. Or should I say nails on yellow dogs. My blacks and chocolates never seem to need their nails done. Strange, but true. I also bathe my dogs before every show. If you worry about the coat going soft or getting too fluffy, do it a number of days before the show. But my dogs all play outside, climb hills and stumps and swim and splash in puddles, so they are all a completely different color after a bath. I won’t skip it, and will go to the heated dog wash in the winter if I need to. But I am not going to show a dirty dog.

At the show, I spritz each dog lightly with a little water that might have some listerine or bodifier in it. I then brush any spots that need it and dab a little vaseline or oil on their nose. It’s nothing like the grooming we used to do to halter horses, but every dog looks better with a little TLC.

Conditioning: I cannot state how important this is. We all know there are breeders who either because of time or physical issues cannot do much more with their dogs than leave them in a pen. We also all know it is very difficult to win with a dog like this, and they can be spotted a mile away. I remember the late Janice Pritchard giving a 45 minute talk to us after judging PSLRA, and it was all about animal husbandry. About having a dog with whom you had a “connection.” Said she could see it in their eyes.

I know that all day every day I am concerned with my dogs’ physical AND mental well being. I hate to have them locked up. Our dogs live in big dog yards, but at least twice a day also come out and run on our entire fenced five acre farm.  The dogs run up and down hills, chase birds and bunnies, chew sticks, splash in creeks and puddles and basically run themselves ragged playing with each other. And yes, they ALL run together, boys, girls, puppies and even the older dogs.  I think the short bursts of speed are critically important for building the fast twitch muscles that are bulkier. Like a Quarter Horse. Again, I know some will think I am crazy to let the whole pack run together, but I think it makes them strong.  It keeps them physically fit and mentally happy.

They also need to get away. Going out on walks, running errands, and best yet overnight trips make a dog relaxed in lots of situations. I love to tie my dogs to the horse trailer at barrel races. YIKES you all are saying in unison, good owners should never tie a dog up. But try having a tantrum while tied up, it doesn’t get you very far. Horse trainers know this well, and tie youngsters regularly. My horse show companions tend to be very patient dogs, and well socialized. Being calm and confident is one of the most important features of a Labrador show dog. And it is very difficult to have a calm, confident dog if he isn’t well-travelled. It is possible, some are born that way and I work hard to create that relaxed temperament in my breeding program. But most need some help developing that confidence. Training and socialization are key.

While there will constantly be a debate on the proper weight of a Labrador, I do know it makes it harder to win if your dog is either too fat or too thin. And it makes it hard to know how much weight they are carrying without checking. Put your hands on your dogs. Every day during show season, if you are unsure. Look at them and decide if they need more or less to eat that day. If you wait two or three weeks and your dog gets fat or thin, it is much harder to correct. Pretty basic, I know, but again it is surprising how many people neglect this important aspect of conditioning their show dog.

Training: This is a tough one, because most people are not good dog trainers. Sorry, but it is true. Years and years of going to classes is invaluable for any exhibitor/breeder for one simple reason: You must understand the proper timing of reinforcements, both positive and negative. People struggle with dogs giving ears, standing still, not sniffing, etc. etc. yet constantly reward the wrong behavior. The only way to learn this is to go to class on a regular basis and have a good trainer teach you. I showed competitively in obedience for many many years, put Utility titles on dogs and won multiple High in Trials. That training is one of the most important things I’ve learned in my years in dogs. A well trained dog is typically a confident dog, as training teaches self control.

Now, do I do much formal training with my dogs now? Heck no. I do hardly anything, but am good with my timing and can teach most of them pretty quickly, as long as they are sound of mind and body and have been hauled a bit. (Tee hee, horse expression, but it applies.) However, recently Scott has invited friends over to do “puppy class” whenever we have a four or five month old puppy and a show coming up. It is great! They learn a ton, we learn a ton, and anyone can do it. So get together with friends and train. Or go to handling class, a good instructor is invaluable.

Presentation: Ever wonder how those really beautiful handlers do it? I mean, some people can pick up a lead and make any dog look good. It is a talent, that is for sure, but I guarantee you those really talented handlers work very hard at it. And you know what else that do? They groom, they train, and they condition, then the presentation seems to take care of itself. I’ll never forget meeting with a handler once years ago while they groomed my dog at a big all breed show, and another handler joined us, and they spent the whole time talking about what terrible handlers Labrador people were. How we basically just stood around and talked and threw food at our dogs. And they would come in and beat the pants off us, and it was like taking candy from a baby. And to some degree they were right. When I judge I am often amazed at how many exhibitors don’t even pay attention to what the judge tells them, let alone what their dog is doing. It is very hard to beat a good handler when we do almost nothing to help our dogs. Pay attention.

If you want to learn how to handle well, go to a class with a really good handler. Or just plant yourself ringside and watch someone who is really good at it. I almost named names here, but I won’t. Now, that said, you have to understand how good these people are at their timing of reinforcements in order to truly appreciate what they do. If you don’t understand that concept yet, go back to class and study. A dog is not going to stand up on his toes, totally focused, tail wagging and looking gorgeous for more than a few seconds. Many people are showing their dogs CONSTANTLY, even outside the ring. STOP. Save it for when it counts. Spend the rest of the time in the ring playing with them and making them love it, and/or totally ignoring them. Then if you have trained them, and are watching the judge, when it is your turn to be looked at you can turn and face the dog and they will give you their all—for a moment. Reward that and go back to having fun.

So what does all of this mean? In today’s super competitive Labrador ring, it takes more to win than just having a nice dog. But if you have a nice dog, and he is in great shape physically and relaxed and happy mentally, and you have him groomed and trained and can present him beautifully, there is no reason you can’t compete with the best of them. Good luck to you.