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Look pretty: training the stack

I’ve been asked to write a post about training a dog to show stack, which would seem like a pretty short and simple topic, right? It’s not! Before I got Wally I thought “psh, that looks so easy!” Imagine my surprise when I realized how very complicated it is to trot a dog around a ring and have him stand for examination while looking like a winner.

First of all, what is stacking? For the intents of this article, it means that the dog is standing square, forelegs perpendicular to the ground, rear legs from hock to pastern perpendicular to the ground. Some breeds have different definitions of a proper stack but this is the most common type of stack. For most people the bulk of the issue is training foot placement. [A fine-tuned stack also involves training tail, neck, and head carriage as well as facial expression.]

The sections of leg that should be perpendicular to the ground

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Fifi stacked (GCH Protocol’s Veni Vidi Vici), photo by The Winning Image

There are two ways to stack a dog: hand stacking and free stacking. With a hand stack you physically place the dogs feet in the correct position; you often see this in the line-up. In a free stack the dog walks into the correct position on his own; you see it at the end of a gaiting pattern when the dog stops in front of the judge. Free stacking is the epitome of showmanship so it’s a necessary skill (especially when you compete for BOB, Group, or BIS), but the easiest way to train a free stack is to start by nailing down the hand stack. Once your dog understands the proper position and has practice in that position he’ll be able to walk into it more easily. Puppies especially need to be hand stacked because they have almost no body awareness!

Quite honestly I have no idea how a professional handler trains dogs to stack because I could never get one to tell me how they did it. Not that they were being secretive, but they simply don’t have a systematic method for it! From what I was told most pros train the dog in the ring or expect the owners to train the dog. I, however, am paying my own entry fees so the last thing I want to do is pay $25 for 5min of “training”! That seems a rather slow and inefficient process, not to mention a waste of money.

Although there’s a lot to know before you start training (such as breed standards, proper stacking for your breed, etc) I’m just going to focus on how to actually train your dog to stack. Ideally you would get yourself a mentor who would show you the proper stack. It’s also a great idea to join a handling class so that you and your dog become familiar with ring procedure.

Thanks to human imagination there are lots of ways to teach your dog to stack!

  1. Shaping, which is basically how old schoolers do it only they don’t call it shaping. With shaping you have an end behavior in mind and reward each tiny step that moves the dog closer to that behavior. This process works a lot faster when you use a clicker since the dog knows instantly what he’s being rewarded for, but you don’t have to use a clicker. I primarily used shaping with a clicker to train Wally to stack. Using the clicker also allowed me to specifically work on tail carriage and expression. The easiest way to understand shaping is to try the “101 Things to Do With a Box” exercise.
  2. Capturing is also an option. With capturing you simply reward the dog for doing something spontaneous that you liked. Say you’re in the kitchen making his dinner and your dog trots up to you, stopping in a perfect stack simply by accident. You would praise him and give cookies for being so unintentionally wonderful. This, of course, is a slow method of training so it would be best used in conjunction with some other method. It also helps if your dog is so structurally sound that his natural stance is a proper stack (I am fortunate that Wally is this way). I did this as a supplement to shaping.
  3.  Happy Legs are a somewhat expensive, but effective, method of training the stack. It is based on repetition and the concept of muscle memory. Each box comes with four pedestals, which you can then arrange on the magnetic surface so that your dog is in the perfect stack. I started Wally on them as an adult and found they were really helpful in perfecting his stack. A friend of mine used them with her puppy and saw great progress. With these you gradually work up to 2min of stacking, then begin the process of transferring the behavior from the box to the ground or table. I would suggest using a clicker, particularly when introducing the dog since this can be a scary procedure.
  4. Other gadgets are available that are similar to Happy Legs (such as these or these), or some people use large cans of food as blocks. If you have woodworking skills you could even make something yourself! I’ve often thought that you could also simply put colored tape on the floor to use as markers for the feet. Gadgets are, of course, not required but I personally love gadgets of all kinds and Wally has a fetish for standing on things, so Happy Legs worked for us.

Here are some resources that I referred to when training Wally:
Free Stacking by Sue Ailsby (article)
Positive Training for Show Dogs by Vickie Ronchette (book)
Various articles by Vickie Ronchette
Raising a Champion by A. Meredith John (book)
When Pigs Fly: Training Success with Impossible Dogs by Jane Killion (book)
ClickerShowDogs group on Yahoo! Groups

The key thing is to make stacking a fun game with motivating rewards. If it’s all a big game then your dog will want to go in the ring and play, which is the winning attitude all judges love to reward!

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Posted by on November 1, 2012 in Training

 

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Found a gem in Carmen Ruby

Handling classes are by far the best way to teach your dog how to handle properly, and even though Wally has already finished his CH I want to continue attending such classes. We’ve moved beyond the “please, please just stack properly for 10 seconds” and “oh lord, what the heck is he doing on this down and back”. Now that he’s finished and we’re competing for BOB we need to be polished and have a little bit of flair. We need to look like pros!

Before class we got the newspaper for Oma

The challenge is to find a handling class taught by someone with all-breed experience. Most breeds within a group are shown pretty similarly, so if you have a GSP and your instructor has a Setter you’ll probably be OK. But when someone who shows Great Danes tries to teach an Airedale handler how to show, it may not translate so well. On top of that a pro all-breed handler will know some little tricks and tips to really add some flash to your presentation, and we’re to the point where we need some flash. So what did we do? We went to a handling class with Carmen Ruby!

In addition to handling services, Carmen offers handling classes through Sound Handling in Tacoma on Tues mornings. It’s a 2 hour class for only $15, so right off the bat you’re getting more value than anywhere else I’ve seen (one place is $20 for one hour). There were also only 4-5 dogs, which meant lots of individual time with Carmen going over your dog and helping you improve. I’ve been in handling classes with upwards of 10 dogs, making it impossible to get much personal time with the instructor.

Nitty-gritty aside, how did I like it? I loved it! Carmen really does have great tips for any breed and she gave me lots of good ones for Wally. After finding out he was a finished Special she made sure to provide a couple little tricks to add some flash to our routine, especially after I told her the #1 and #2 Borders would be in Redmond this weekend. She also gave us some tips to improve our down and back, and reminded me to keep Wally’s head level (and thus my bait hand lower) in the freestack and to make sure he doesn’t lean forward too much. She was impressed with his freestack, though, reminding me to accept only good or better since he’s capable. And upon discussing his weight (she mentioned he needs more, I agreed and told her our problems), she even gave me a can of Weight Gainer to try out.

He ate it on the first try, this bodes well!

Overall I was really impressed with Carmen and will definitely be going back for more classes. She had a lot of tips, Wally got a lot of practice, and I liked her. She doesn’t handle a lot of Terriers (mostly Working and Hounds I think) but nonetheless she was a great source of information. If you can make the Tues AM class then definitely do! She also does privates. What are you waiting for?

Post-handling class naps; 1.5hr of handling is a lot of work!

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2012 in Training

 

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Happy birthday to me!

Well, yesterday anyway. :) I’m taking a quick lunch before heading back into the fray, but I thought I’d fill you in on the last couple days…

On Tues I went to Long Beach and had Taco Surf with Lauren, Brad (Lauren’s BF), Emily (Lauren’s sister), Antonio (from Croatia), and Kayla (works at Best In Show Daily). We all got along famously and had a great time. The tacos were so-so but the company was top notch, so I can’t complain. :) Kayla had to leave but we were then joined by Berto, Brad’s friend.

The plan after tacos was to go paddle boarding, but when we got there it turned out you had to get certified and blah blah blah so we just went kayaking around Naples Canal instead, drinking “lemonade” (errr, beer) as we drifted with the current. When we got back we all laid out on the beach and worked on our tans as we talked about everything and nothing.

If only my legs weren’t the same color as the sand, I wouldn’t have to wear panty hose at shows

None of us were very committed to any one idea after that, so some of us got Starbucks while others ate more food. Then we all got In N Out (yeah, the guys ate a bazillion times) and hopped into the jacuzzi. Finally I had to leave for the drive home, but only 10min from home I found an Aussie running around an overpass. So I picked her up, called her dad, and sent her on home. A long but very fun day!

Yesterday was my birthday, which was surprisingly awesome. I say surprisingly since I don’t have many friends here, all my family and long-time friends are far away, and I had no plans. First I was greeted with a dog that looked too cute to be real. He obviously used his allowance for injections of Cute-ox.

Whaaat, he’s too cute to be a real dog!

I got dozens of well wishes on Facebook, and it might sound silly but that always makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. :) Then I got flowers with a balloon from my mom and grandma, which were beautiful.

Flowers from Mom and Oma

Then I got flowers from my sister and her boyfriend, very lovely.

From Regina and Charlie

I even got a cake and card from Val! And a card from my dad too, possible more on the way from other folks. All in all a great birthday. :) Isaac couldn’t send me flowers because he spent $200 on gas last week (unwillingly) and more on parts for the various broken cars (willingly), but he did text and call. :)

Even though it was my birthday and my day off I washed three show dogs in anticipation of today being insanely busy, but to make the day a little more special I took myself out to the movies. Yeah, a movie by yourself might sound weird but it was actually pretty cool. I could see anything I wanted! I decided to see Rock of Ages, which probably nobody but me and my mom actually want to see. It was a fun movie with great music, plus I thought Tom Cruise (who is totally a weirdo in real life) did a good job.

For dinner I got ribeyes at Costco, sauteed some asparagus, and ate some cake. A very good birthday! And a big thank you hug to everyone who made it so special! Now I have to go help bath more than a dozen dogs, plus finish getting the truck ready and go buy food for some of the show dogs. An assistant’s job is never done… ;)

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Other Stuff

 

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Dream Big

Way back in the day I was totally into country music. I wore Cruel Girl jeans, Tony Lama boots, and owned the Garth Brooks boxed set. I touched Keith Urban’s muscly Australian biceps and was certain I would marry him one day, arguing the merits of Keith Urban vs Tim McGraw (duh, the guy with hair wins, sorry Timmy). At some point I discarded the whole genre in favor of hip hop and pop, but before I ditched it I came across the song “Dream Big” by Ryan Shupe & the RubberBand. Listening to it now I can see why I only remember a single lyric from the song — it’s a sap-fest of hokey country cheesiness — but that one lyric has always stuck with me:

When you dream, dream big, as big as the ocean blue. When you dream it might come true, so when you dream, dream big.

Good thing I dream big, too, because my dreams are coming true!

Dream #1: find a top notch breeder, the creme de la creme. In the past I’d made the mistake of compromising, which lead to heartbreak, so when I looked for a breeder not just any old breeder would do. They had to do all the health testing, of course, plus have dogs with amazing temperaments and, finally, have titles on several generations of dogs. On top of that they had to be willing to mentor me since I want to learn everything and succeed immediately. Through a serendipitous series of events I met Marion and Wayne, everything I ever wanted in a breeder and mentor. If finding a good mentor is like finding gold, I struck it rich!

Dream #2: get a truly great dog. Not every breeder will part with their best, and not every litter produces truly great dogs. Wally is still young so it’s hard to say if he’ll be truly great, but so far he’s been pretty sizzling. We’re off to a very promising start!

Dream #3: finish Wally from the puppy classes, entirely owner-handled. We were late on this goal by a week, but in the grand scheme of things that’s on target so BOOYAH! Not only did we finish at 1 year and 1 week, but in the process we took four majors, beat a handful of professional handlers, and took our class at the BTCA national specialty. Overall a pretty stellar track record for a puppy being handled by a complete amateur.

Dream #4: get a true foundation bitch, i.e. the building block of my entire line. I don’t have her yet, but she’s in the works! If the current Otr x Tweed litter is any indication my baby girl will be top shelf.

Dream #5: assist a professional handler in order to further my education and possibly begin a new career. Initially I thought I’d be volunteering my weekends to someone within a few hours distance, scrounging up as much info and training as possible. Ha, dream bigger my friend! Valerie Nunes-Atkinson, one of the best handlers out there, posted a want ad for an assistant and I sprung at the chance. Within two days I was hired and California bound!

Right now I’m still euphoric, hardly able to believe that this really is my life. I’m not sure what I’ll dream up next, but it’s gonna be HUGE.

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2012 in Other Stuff

 

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Are we going to an 80’s party?

Wait a sec, tomorrow is Sept 3? What do you mean it’s time for our first show already!? And that means we leave for Vegas in a week. September was this mental milestone for me, the big month where everything happens off in the distant future somewhere. Only the future is now, and suddenly here it is!

You know what this means? Today is Wally’s half birthday! Yaaaaaay!

Now it really does matter if Wally keeps his cool. Now it really will make a difference if I stack his toes a little off center. And now I have to pick out show outfits.

What the heck is with female handlers and their funky clothes? I swear they look stuck in the 80’s: big hair, shoulder pads, long skirts, bright colors. You’re supposed to look professional, not dated! The men don’t have it too bad, suits don’t change much. But the women? YIKES!

I’m going to play it safe and bring a blazer, but I’m planning to wear what I normally wear to work: slacks and a nice shirt. No power suits but it looks good and I’ll feel comfortable. The last thing I want to worry about it my clothes!

Oh, and I’ve decided no skirts ever. More than once I’ve seen female handlers unknowingly flash the goods to all onlookers. Well, I assume it’s unknowingly. You just never know for sure!  The LAST thing I want to worry about is pulling a Britney Spears. (Just to clarify, I do not go commando as does Miz Spears.)

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2011 in Shows, Wally

 

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We ain’t beggars

Doesn’t it seem like it takes forever for a show to release the schedule and entry breakdown? Until you get these things you don’t know when your class is or how many points are up for grabs. Even entering a show is a gamble since you don’t know if there will be anyone to compete against until after you’ve paid. Sometimes you will lose that $28 entry fee because it’s just not worth showing up. Like next Sunday.

We’re entered in both days of the Longview-Kelso show next weekend so Wally and I can get some ringtime before hitting the National Specialty. Based on last year’s entry I figured that if we somehow managed to win BOB we could pick up some decent points. Rose colored glasses and all that. ;)

Cool as a cucumber

This year there are even fewer Borders! Apparently on Sat there will be Wally, one other male Border, and Jazzy; no specials whatsoever. This would give us a grand total of 1 point! Nothing to brag about. Sunday is even worse since Jazzy won’t be there, so just Wally and the other dog (if they even show up) and the chance for 1 lonely point. No specials all weekend, what’s the haps Border people? Is this a crappy show or something?

Sure, a point is a point. But why spend the cash on a hotel for two nights when it’s all for one measly point per day? Are two puny points worth $160 for two nights in a hotel? Maybe if we were desperate, but we’re not beggars so we’re gonna be choosers. We’ve decided to skip out on Sun altogether and just head down Sat in the early morning. Guess we’ll have an extra $160 to play with in Vegas, woohoo!

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2011 in Shows

 

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