Dog Shows: Stack and Attention

The whole country is watching. Are you doing it right?

Posted: Mon Jul 19 00:00:00 PDT 2004

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If you move your hand in a particular way (and conformation handlers are incredibly stylistic), or say a word, or cluck your tongue, or lean to the left just before you give the bait, the dog uses that signal to learn what caused the treat. In effect, these sights and sounds become a signal that means end of behavior. Anyone who has ever done any clicker training will recognize this process perfectly. To see how this works, consider a common handler signal that consistently precedes that actual treatreaching into the side pocket of a sport coat. The dog learns that no amount of movement on the part of the handler is meaningful until the hand goes back for the liver. At first, the dog experiments to find out any other thing that might get the treat delivered faster. After many repetitions where only standing still does the trick, the dog drops back to whatever posture has most consistently caused the behavior of reaching for the liver.

Q. Are the dogs so smart they learned the game?

A. Not smart, just perceptive. This is exactly the same way a dog learns that the sou nd of the door bell means someone is at the front door.

Q. I'm a show person, inculcated with the idea that professional handlers know everything. In fairness, they call themselves handlers rather than trainers. As handlers, many are incredibly adroit. I once saw Clay Coady handling a Westie with incredible brilliance at Westminster. He was using the huge video monitor above his head to see where the judge was looking so that he could present the dog in the best possible manner. It was simply awesome to see.

A. More of the problems with training are at the bottom of the sport, with the beginners, rather than with the handlers.

Q. How would you train a show dog?

A. How DO I train show dogs, you mean. I've done it periodically over the years, usually as a trouble shooter. I have an ethical problem with making terrified dogs shine in the ring, however, so I always make sure the dog is basically mentally sound before I teach them to look pretty.

1) Associate a signal with the bait. I use a clickerit's the best tool for the job. Conformation people rarely accept this advice readily, so they will have to use some other signal that means end of behavior. Their objections break roughly into two categories: a) I'm not taking a clicker into the ring; and b) a word works just as well.

To make this perfectly clear, the clicker is in fact a construction toolit is not used in performance. Having a clicker in the ring is like having the Best in Show Judge at Westminster trooping into the ring with a 20-foot long string of toilet paper on her shoe. Conformation people should indeed

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