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Getting your puppy ready for the show ring

30 Jan
The Table
This is a key piece of the grooming and showing experience; life is a lot easier if your dog likes it! I start by setting Ava on the table and brushing her all over with a stiff bristle brush. Occasionally I’ll forgo the brush and give her a full body rub down instead. Either way I make sure to lift and set each leg, check the bite, press on the back, lift the tail, span the dog, and grasp the pelt. My goal is that she ends the session a little more relaxed than when we started. I don’t use any treats for this activity, just praise and petting. I also take advantage of observational learning by doing this exercise with Wally while Ava watches. She sees how much he loves it and then she asks to be put up!
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In the past few months I’ve implemented a new strategy for nail clipping that seems to be conditioning a positive response to the table. After reading an article by behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell, I now give my dogs a treat after I clip each toenail. Instead of click/treat it’s clip/treat. I prep the treats so I have five piles of four treats: one pile for each foot plus a few “good dog” treats for when we’re done. Ava lays on her back on my legs for nail clipping (and she’s never been quicked), but Wally is clipped on the table. He hates having his nails clipped and will either stand up on his back legs (for front feet) or kick them out (for back feet). Sadly I have quicked him so I don’t blame him, but it’s pretty obnoxious. After just a few sessions of this new strategy he’s significantly better about having his nails trimmed and now asks to be put up on the table.
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Ava post-strip, 6mo old

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Stacking
I happen to have a set of Happy Legs that I’m using to teach Ava to stack. You could probably make something similar yourself or simply do it on the ground (that’s how I trained Wally). I like using a platform because Ava is less likely to move around and she tends to plant her feet better after I set them. I use a clicker and a high rate of reinforcement for this activity.
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At first, I set just her front feet on the pedestals and c/t immediately after removing my hands. I stack her entire front end by lifting her chest and setting both front feet on the pedestals; not only does this work better than doing it foot by foot, in the ring I put the dog on the table front feet first. This moves on to placing each back foot with a c/t for each one. Once she is on the pedestals I use my hand as a visual target (sometimes with bait) and c/t if she stays on the pedestals while looking at my hand. As she gets more comfortable I move on to repeatedly resetting her feet and c/t each time. I practice all the same things on the pedestals that I mentioned above for table work. In just a handful of sessions Ava made a lot of progress!
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Eventually we’ll work up to her holding a stack with her tail up and her head up with ears pricked; at this point I’ll add a cue word. Once she can do this consistently on the pedestals I’ll move to stacking her on the ground and the table until we get it consistently in those locations. As she gets older and more experienced we can work on free stacking, which will be a lot easier if I can put a cue to the stack.
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Gaiting
Puppies can be tough to gait properly since they’re easily distracted and often act like they’re either a bag of cooked noodles or a vacuum. Unlike heeling, you don’t want the dog to look at you since that will mess up their movement. You can get straight movement by using a Clik Stick as a target but I prefer not to use those since I then have to fade it out (which I’m bad at). Instead we practice trotting with a show lead on and c/t for just a step or two of nice movement. Gradually you’ll increase your criteria to more steps until finally you can move down an entire side in a straight line with nice movement. Then you can practice turning both directions, which will be necessary for patterns. Finally, once your puppy is doing well on the straights and the turns, start practicing patterns. Make sure to practice some of the weirder ones, especially if you’ll be showing at specialties. See pages 4-7 of this 4H guide from Purdue for patterns and explanations.
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The final piece is to stop at the judge. This is pretty challenging! I’m actually going to experiment with using a target to teach this to Ava, but in the meantime I’ll share how I did it with Wally. Stopping at the judge is a free stack with the added complication of going from moving to stopped. Most dogs are used to free stacking with you standing in front of them, so typically you try to speed yourself up enough to get in front of the dog so you can body block them. This will slow them into a free stack before the judge. It’s kind of a messy process, which is why I want to try something different.
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Physical Conditioning
Puppies shouldn’t be rigorously conditioned like an adult dog, but after 4mo or so they should be walked 20-30min several times a week. Muscle development can make a huge difference in movement, topline, and silhouette. Practice having your puppy trot for increasing lengths of time, which will improve their gaiting speed and movement on lead.
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Behavioral Conditioning & Desensitization
Dog shows can seem like a crazy place to a puppy. Technically you’re not supposed to bring un-entered dogs to a show but people do this all the time. As long as your dog is healthy, well-behaved, and unobtrusive nobody cares, so take your puppy to local shows just to hang out and observe. Flexi leads are typically forbidden on show grounds and you can’t take dogs into bathrooms, so plan accordingly. If you have kids it’s probably best to leave them at home since you need to focus on your puppy. You can also attend some agility trials, which are an even crazier environment.
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Finally, make sure you go to handling classes so your puppy (and you!) can get used to ring procedure, the exam, gaiting patterns, and being in a ring with other dogs/people. Make sure to enter any local fun matches, although these are often few and far between, and take advantage of the 4-6mo puppy classes now offered at AKC shows.
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An amazing resource is Karen Pryor’s book “Click to Win”, which goes into great detail on how to clicker train your show dog.
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Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Shows

 

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