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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By keeping the animal virtually ignorant of the process of obeying simple directions, they trust that an ignorant dog is better than a rehearsed dog. Judges, nominally exhibitors themselves, pander to the idea that a dog's reaction in the ring must be a spontaneous exhibition of the dog's personality. Between the fear of embarrassment that a dog might offer an obedience behavior in the ring and the judge's desire to see natural behavior, little thought is given to even fundamental training issues. Like any skill, if you abandon the fundamentals, you can forget the advanced stuff. In the absence of understanding how to stretch the duration of a behavior, for instance, lesser handlers must forever attempt to keep the dog's waning attention with treats tossed ever higher, wider waved squeaky toys and broader arm movements. More experienced handlers tend to intuitively build duration of a stack without really knowing how they did it. The reality is that they copied the more successful handlers either intentionally or inadvertently. 

Q. How would you retrain those handlers who are making mistakes?

A. I'd get them away from the context of conformation as quickly as possible. I once had a client, Robin Young, whose Border Terrier had suddenly gone soft when examined by the judge. It was less than a month until the national specialty, and Robin had already bought airline tickets, paid entry fees and made hotel reservations. The first thing I taught the dog was down. Robin just about had a seizure at this suggestionbut to her immense credit, she trusted my judgement. A month later, the dog took the Breed at the specialty. The dog did not go down on the table or anywhere else in the ring. He didn't shrink back from the judge and didn't act frightened. Why did I pick down? Because from down, all you have to do is put a treat on the ground about a foot in front of the dog's nose and you get a stand. Once your dog will do down, you can do repetitions of down-stand until the cows come home. By removing the context of conformation for awhile, we all got a break from the problem. Needless to say, stress is the quickest way to destroy a dog's confidenceand the last thing I wanted was to risk drumming the same context of failure into the dog, over and over again. By looking at it as a simple training problem, it helped all of us focus on what we wanted without the anxiety of assuming that the past failure would be carried over to next show.

Q. I had no idea you had so much to say to the breed exhibitor.

A. Very few dog people want to hear that their 20-ish years of hacking around the breed ring can be blitzed by a method that makes their knowledge obsolete. I have yet to be invited to speak to any breed club anywhere about teaching dogs to stack and gait. The best is an occasional all-breed kennel club that really wants the information for obedience. When the seminar happens, a few people show interest in the conformation stuff, but there is very little follow up, if ever.

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