I read a great post this morning on Kelley's Dog Blog (which I love!) and ended up with such a long winded comment back to her about it that I thought I would put together a series of posts on my experiences training my dogs for competition in the dog show world as a total amateur.
I've trained both my dogs Biddy and Tristan, and have put Championships (and more on Biddy) on them both. As an amateur new to showing dogs, and with an untrained, young dog, it can get very discouraging when you are competing against professional handlers, long time breeders and Jr. handlers that know it all. Don't get discouraged, practice and do your homework with your dog.
The reality is, that in the face of all that, practice and preparation and your own confidence level will take you and your dog a long way. We are capping off the end of Biddy's show career for now by exhibiting at the Westminster Kennel Club in February (yes, it is possible, you've gotta believe!!!) A lot of these things are spins on basic skills that all dogs can benefit from, whether you are training for the show ring, other performance events or just with your totally awesome canine companion. My belief is that training is about patience, practice and asking your dog to give behaviors that they CAN do, rather than trying to prevent them from doing something you don't want them to do.
I think it is a lot easier to regularly ask for a behavior that you want than to negatively reinforce a behavior you don't want by saying NO or other corrective techniques. So when you shift into that mind set...you are ready to train. Whether it is the show ring, a performance event or a trip downtown to hang out in public, you are asking your dog to be on their best behavior in the face of a lot of distractions. A key to getting your dog back on track and balanced when they get distracted, stressed or otherwise wound up is to get them re-focused on you and/or the task at hand if they are performing.
A simple "Watch Me" or a "Touch" command can often do this quickly and easily. In the show ring, a dog with excellent focus skills is half the battle and without these...well, it can make for a frustrating day. Getting focus at a high level requires you to consistently practice those basic skills and focus exercises every day. This doesn't have to be a big "official training exercise" but really works best if you can incorporate it in as part of a daily routine. You are more apt to stick with it too.
I am a coffee time trainer. I know with a high degree of certainty that I will drink at least two cups of coffee everyday while sitting in my kitchen in my pjs. It is during this time that I practice basic skills with my dogs. I believe you have to have the core basics down before you can add all the finishing touches. For the show ring...you need to take the basics up a notch.
First Things First FOCUS - Before you can really do anything, your dog needs to be able to focus on you. Not just look towards you, but eye to eye contact. Focus skills are great for all dogs, not just show dogs. On your command, your dog should be locked in on you, waiting for instruction. To teach this is pretty simple, the catch is practicing it all the time, not just in the beginning when you are trying to teach it. My command for focus is "Watch Me". I can whisper this command and my dogs will come racing over and lock eyes with me. You can use any other expression you choose, just be consistent with it. I know people that say "watch", "focus" etc. I would avoid saying "look" as sometimes you want your dog to look at something or in another direction...so you want to save that word for something later!
"Watch Me" - using a treat, say the command and either point to your eyes or hold the treat near your eyes so that your puppy is required to make eye contact. You want to reward the instant you get eye contact (not looking at the treat - but direct eye contact). So when practicing this, especially in the beginning, use a clicker to mark the correct behavior or a well timed verbal cue - "YES!!" in a high voice, said in the same cadence each time. You will need to be treating constantly in the beginning - so a good practice is to pull out a portion of daily kibble and use that, or find a low calorie treat that your dog likes. If I use cheese, I cut the chunks to about the size of my pinkie nail. I know, that sounds so stingy, but they will be getting a LOT of them, and they add up fast.
Your dog will learn to make eye contact right away. They key to making this pay off is to do two things: 1. Practice, practice, practice - in the morning, or when you are watching TV at night - do a "watch me" round when the commercials come on. Your dog is relaxed and not expecting the command. How long does it take before he locks eyes with you? Is he looking in your eyes or looking at the treat? What happens when you say the command, but don't show the treat? 2. Hold the command - Over time, gradually make your puppy hold the eye contact for longer and longer periods of time before you reward. Can your dog hold for 5 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute?
Focus is a critical factor for ring success. The truth is, your dog hardly ever goes out in the ring and just "does it". It takes some coaching from you. "Watch Me" for an extended period of time needs to be something that is ingrained in your dog's behavior pattern when you say it, even at a whisper. At the show there are a lot of distractions. Dogs barking, equipment clanging, people making noise, and the judge touching your dog. A well practiced "Watch Me" and focus routine will allow you to keep your dog on track, reel him in from distractions and get in "the zone".
So back to the idea of giving your dog something that they CAN do, rather than getting into a battle or tug of war (or in the case of Biddy a war of the wills). When your dog starts moving, flailing, or otherwise carrying on in the ring...the "Watch Me" command can bring them back into focus right away. Daily practice, practice, practice is what will give them the confidence to follow your lead when you give this command.
They may not be in perfect position, but they will be still and on balance again. The photos are from Biddy's very first dog show at 6 months old. She jumped up while gaiting to bite at my skirt, she wouldn't stay still for the exam, the judge wasn't super friendly and basically scolded me to get control of my dog and I cried on the way home. It was in September and she didn't get any points until January. When I look at these pictures now, I can see she didn't know what I wanted her to do. She was nervous and so was I. I wasn't able to give her something that she could successfully do.
So, practice like CRAZY at home. Be able to just whisper the command and have your dog come flying over and zero in on you. Hold the watch. Then...have the presence of mind to remember to use the command when you are in the ring. That is the hard part for a Dog Mom Handler.
"I tried my best mom." Tough first day all around, but I love my girl....
Next up...teaching a rock solid STAND, STAY - which is the building block for a killer free stack. Biddy has rocked this one out...I'll try to get some action photos/video of her walking into a free stack. How do you get your dog to focus on you? How long can your dog focus without being distracted?
A quick update to this post...all of these photos were taken on our VERY FIRST day in the show ring. We had practiced and practiced, attended classes and really worked hard. Once you get into the ring the dynamics really change and both you and your dog can get really nervous. Remember...it's all about the journey that you take with your dog.
This next photo is of Biddy (with me on the other end of the lead) at her VERY LAST dog show... The Westminster Kennel Club in New York City!! It was a dream come true! Take a look at the focus on that face... it can absolutely be you!