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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


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!


Posted by on November 1, 2012 in Training


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