I’m not entirely sure how I feel about dog shows. On the one hand, I know that they are a great way to raise public awareness about various dog breeds, and I know that a lot of people think there’s nothing better than packing up all the grooming tools and heading off to a show where they can hang out with other dog people – not just the ones who are showing their specific breed, but dog people in general. They love their dogs, and they spend a lot of time with them outside of showing.
On the other hand, I know a lot of show people whom I really don’t consider to be good dog parents. These are the people who keep their dogs in an outdoor kennel except when taking them to a show, and who think a squeaky toy isn’t good for anything more than making a dog perk up his ears prettily for a judge.
Janice and Leroy are registered Boxers from superb bloodlines, wonderful examples of their breed, and I could show them if I wanted to. I don’t want to. To me, just hanging out in the backyard with them, throwing a Frisbee around or splashing with them in the pool is more than enough fun.
Now, all that having been said, if you want to show your dog, and you’re not using showing as a substitute for other interactions, then I’m not one to stop you. There are certain things your dog will need to know, though, in order to participate in a dog show. You’ll have to do some initial training, and then you’ll have to work on the specifics that the show judges are going to require.
Start With Positive Reinforcement Training
I do go to dog shows. Mostly it’s because I love seeing other Boxers, and talking to Boxer people. But I also like observing the way that people have trained their dogs. The best dogs are, without exception, the ones that have been trained by positive reinforcement. I also wrote this week about coercive methods in The Five Most Common Dog Training Mistakes, and I’m not saying that you should never simply insist that your dog does what you want – no backing down and no quarter given. But most of the time, you will get better results with positive reinforcement. The very best dog I saw at the last show I attended had, according to his handler, been trained only using rewards, and he definitely stood out.
The thing with this dog was that it was obvious he enjoyed what he was doing. The judges recognized that, and he walked away with Best in Show. Even I, with my untrained eye, could see that there was something very special about that dog.
Practically everybody who loves dogs has been to a dog show, or at least seen one on TV. So, why do dog shows exist? The purpose originally was to give breeders a venue where their stock could be judged. Even today, a lot of breeders won’t breed a dog until he or she has achieved a championship. This is because the dogs that most closely conform to breed standards in terms of temperament and physicality are the most desirable. Most US dog shows are under the AKC umbrella, and for purebred animals only. However, if you want to show your beloved mix, you can still show at Mixed Breed Dog Club Shows. It’s fun, and a good way to get introduced to showing.
What It Takes to Win
First, you need a dog who represents the standards of his breed well. And as stated previously, it’s also important that the dog enjoys what he’s doing. You need to have a strong connection with your dog, and he needs to trust you so that he’s relaxed and feels good showing off in the ring. That’s why positive reinforcement is so important.
Now that you have all that under control, there are three basic things that your dog needs to know how to do, which will later be broken down into five show requirements. Your dog has to know how to gait, stack, and be examined. Gaiting is simply moving the right way, at the right speed, without pulling on his or her lead, so that the show judge can get a good look at the way the dog moves.
Stacking is standing in a fixed position so that the judge can evaluate the overall appearance of the dog.
And, finally, examining is just that. The dog has to stand calmly while the show judge looks him over and handles him.
Now, let’s break it down a little further, into the five things that your dog is going to have to know how to do in order to succeed at a dog show.
This might seem like a fairly simple, easy behavior, but it’s actually more complex than you might think. Gaiting is a lot more than just walking your dog on a leash. You are actually asking your dog to walk in a certain position, and at a specific speed. You don’t want him pulling on the lead, but also you don’t want him to be wandering behind you. Each breed has a certain position that the head and the tail should be in, so you also want your dog to conform to these standards. You also don’t want the dog to be gazing up at you, watching the way that you’re moving, or lagging behind you. Sniffing the ground while he’s walking is a big no-no. He has to do all of this, and also look as if he’s having the time of his life while he’s doing it. So, you’re going to have to do some training to get your dog show-ready. You’ll do this by means of clicker training.
Begin with the dog off his leash. Hold a few treats in your left hand, and the clicker in your right. Show the treats to the dog, and then walk away. If he comes with you (or even if he starts to come with you), click, and then offer him a treat from your left hand, making sure that he is facing forward. This probably sounds a lot like asking your dog to heel, but it’s a bit different, because you don’t want your dog to be looking at you – you want the judge to be able to see your dog’s profile as he moves forward.
Now, once your dog has figured out what the reward is for, and he’s moving properly beside you, put the leash on him. Transfer the treats to your right hand and the clicker to you left, and be sure to pick up the leash so that it isn’t dragging and distracting your dog. Resume walking, and if the dog goes with you, use the clicker and give him a treat. If he tries to move ahead of you, just tell him “Oops,” or “Back,” and when he gets it right, give him another treat. Make sure that you click and give him a treat frequently, before he gets the idea of pulling on the leash. Resist the temptation to yank him back – he’s not going to know what you want him to do, and he’s not going to enjoy what he’s doing, which is absolutely vital if he’s going to succeed at showing.
Now, once he’s moving beside you and not pulling, you can switch it up a bit. In other words, you’ll wait a bit before clicking and treating. If he’s pulling while you move, for instance, you might click only when he has his head in the forward position. Baby steps, okay? Don’t ask him for too much all at once, because you don’t want him to get frustrated.
There are written standards for the way in which each dog should stand, according to his breed. With free stacking, the dog is expected to find the position with little help from you. You can ask him verbally to move, but you can’t put your hands on him. With hand stacking, you can use your hands to put the dog in the desired position.
In any show, the dog will be stacked as soon as he enters the ring. Then he will be stacked before moving with the rest of the group, on his own for the judge’s examination, and finally, lined up with other dogs.
Judges will examine small dogs on a table, so this means that you will have to teach your dog how to stack not just on the ground, but on a table that is the height of a grooming table. Medium-sized and large dogs will be stacked at ground level.
To train your dog for hand stacking, you won’t want to use a clicker, simply because it’s overly easy to click immediately next to the dog’s ear, which dogs do not typically find pleasant. Additionally, you’re going to need the use of both your hands to offer treats, and to put the dog in the proper position. So, start by positioning the dog in front of you, standing sideways, with you facing his right side. Make sure that his front feet are properly positioned, so that you only have to deal with the rear feet, moving them at the hock. Don’t grab the feet – if you do, the dog will almost invariably reposition himself in undesirable ways. Smooth your hands gently over the dog, making sure that he doesn’t shift. Once he’s in the right position, give him a treat, and a bit of a break and cuddle before you try it again. Keep practicing, and pretty soon he’ll be comfortable with hand stacking.
Now, you want him to hold the position. So stack him, let him take hold of a treat, but don’t actually give it to him, and then tell him to stay. If he stays in position, tell him what a good, remarkable boy he is, and let him have the treat. Keep doing this, gradually increasing the amount of time that you expect him to stay in position, until he is comfortable doing it.
If your dog is a little too “treat happy,” you can place the treats nearby while you place him on the table. Speak gently to him as you position his front legs. Once he’s in position, give him a treat and a break, and then work on arranging his rear feet and having him stay in position while waiting for a treat.
Now, on to free stacking. As with hand stacking, you’ll get the best results if you take it slow and easy. You want your dog to stand, so get your clicker and your treats ready, and place your dog in a standing position. If he remains standing, click and give him a treat. You don’t have to expect a perfect “show stand” right at the beginning – just standing is good enough. Make sure, too, that you click and give him the treat before he has the opportunity to do anything other than stand. When the dog holds the stand without being rewarded, then you’ve got it right.
Remember that when it comes to showing, your dog has to stay calm, in one position, while the judge examines him. For small dogs, the extra challenge is that they have to do it on a table. What you want your dog to do is stand in the right position, so you’re going to want to teach him to back up and reposition his hind feet, as well as to step forward so that his front feet are both perfectly aligned.
Teaching your dog to back up is accomplished by standing slightly to the front of the dog, and rewarding any backward movement. You probably won’t get him to completely back up right away, so gently nudge him into position and reward him when he gets it even the least bit right. Say “back,” and when he gets the idea of backing up, click and give him a treat. To get him to move forward, tell him “step” and give him a treat when he moves toward you.
Free stacking looks quite a bit like a dance. If the dog fails to stack perfectly, just tell him “back” or “step” and offer a treat. When he’s in perfect position, tell him “stack” and give him a treat.
As a footnote to stacking, I might point out that a lot of show people don’t teach their dogs to sit, out of fear that they will sit when in the show ring. I disagree with this. As I pointed out in Dog Training Made Easy, sometimes when you shout out “Sit!” you can prevent your dog from running into traffic or getting into another situation that could harm him. So, teach the sit command in addition to the others that you will use in the show ring.
3. The Examination
This is where a lot of dogs fail at show. Most dogs that are socially well-adjusted and comfortable around strangers won’t object to being handled by a show judge. However, where failure occurs, it usually involves the genitalia. I suppose that shouldn’t be seen as all that unreasonable – after all, how would you like it if someone grabbed you by the ’nads, other than in the context of an intimate relationship, of course? You might also not be overly impressed if someone opened your mouth to take a look at your teeth, either.
The fact is, though, that when you show your dog, the judge is going to want to look at every aspect of your pet, in some detail. And this does mean opening the mouth, handling the ears, lifting the tail, and yes, examining the testicles. So make sure that you handle your dog everywhere, every day. Put your hands all over him. If your dog is small, then most of the time the way that the judge will examine the testicles is by lifting up the hind legs, so make sure that your dog becomes accustomed to this type of treatment as well.
You can actually get your dog used to the examination by means of verbal cues – saying “ears” before handling them, “teeth” before opening the mouth, and whatever phrase you like to refer to the testicles. It’s also useful to recruit friends to handle your dog in the way that the show judge will, so that he or she will become accustomed to people other than you conducting an examination. Of course it’s important to make sure that your friends handle your dog gently and respectfully, as the judge will.
It’s Right When It Looks Easy
If you’ve been to dog shows, you know that the dogs that succeed always look as though they’re totally at ease in the ring. This is because they’ve been well trained before the show as to what they should expect. Good dog handlers always make it look like it’s easy. And when you use positive reinforcement training methods, and your dog enjoys what’s going on, it is easy. A well-trained dog will strut into the ring confidently, and utterly captivate spectators and judges alike.
Further Thoughts on Dog Shows
Showing isn’t for everyone. You’ll find, if you decide to embrace the world of dog showing, that there will be people who will help you because they consider showing to be fun, and just one of many things that they do with their dogs, and also a great way to interact with other dog people. You will also find that there are people who are very competitive about showing, to the point that they will actually try to sabotage you. As horrible as this sounds, I actually know of an instance where an owner of a Standard Poodle actually took a set of clippers to another Poodle owner’s dog while the owner was off getting a coffee, totally ruining the dog’s cut and making him unfit for competition.
I’d like to think that this doesn’t happen often, but it does. If you’re overly sensitive, the show world might not be right for you.
The other thing about showing is that it’s expensive. I know a few people who have gotten into showing only to find that the sheer cost of going to shows, the grooming needs involved, and the entry fees ended up being cost-prohibitive. It’s not an inexpensive hobby, so if you’re not ready to lay out a fair bit of cash, it might not be for you. On the other hand, you could spend your money on worse things. If you’re passionate about dog shows, just tell the nay-sayers, “Hey, it’s not alcohol, drugs, or gambling, so back off.”
So, that’s the 411 on showing. If you can nail down the three basic things that your dog needs to know in order to show effectively, if you and your dog both enjoy showing, and if you are okay with the cost involved, then showing might very well be another way of spending quality time with your dog and making new friends as well.
Just don’t make showing an obsession. If it’s all you want to do with your dog, then you’re depriving yourself and your dog of so many other ways of spending time together. Showing can be part of a well-rounded relationship, or it can become the be-all and the end-all, and that’s not good.
As for me, well, Leroy just wandered up to me with his favorite squeaky in his mouth. So I’m going to step away from the keyboard, and stop talking with you for a bit. Leroy wants some quality time with me, and I’m going to give it to him.
See you next week with more about me, Leroy, Janice, my friends at the dog park, and our wonderful canine friends in general!