SHAPING FOR THE SHOW RING - Part 2
Improving your dogs gait for the show
ring is as easy as using a click and a treat.
In the show ring, the way a dog moves can be
more important than its coat, head, teeth or any other physical
characteristic. Movement shows best at the trot because, unlike
the walk or gallop, the trot is a symmetrical, balanced movement.
In this motion, any unsoundness - a bad hip, a weak shoulder - will
show up at once. To the trained eye, little defects in movement,
such as spraddling the hind feet or crossing the front feet, can
reveal poor proportions or structural flaws.
These flaws may not be evident under the thick
coat of a Collie or Samoyed or when the dog is standing still, but
they are characteristics that affect the dogs stamina,
endurance, lifelong health and ability to perform the work for which
it was bred. These characteristics will also be passed down to any
offspring the dog might have, which is why showing is important
to breeders and for dogs.
Judges, therefore, want to see each dog trot
past them, which allows for a good side view of the animal. Judges
also make each handler trot their dog directly toward and away from
their line of sight, so they can gauge how closely the dog approaches
its breeds ideal.
All too often, however, the behavior of both
dog and handler make fair evaluations impossible. If your dog trots
on a diagonal (known as crabbing) or lugs on its lead
as if pulling a milk wagon, the judge has no chance to see anything
but poor movement. Down go your dogs marks; down go your chances
to win. But these handicaps can be avoided and your dogs movement
improved by training with a clicker and treats.
Team-Training The Gait
In my January 1996 column, I explained how to
use a toy clicker (or any other distinctive sound) to mark the exact
moment your dog does something right. After clicking, tell your
dog with petting, praise and treats that you are pleased. The crucial
information, however - what the dog did to earn all that - lines
in the marker signal. You can also ring a bell, blow a whistle or
jingle the coins in your pocket. It is important to use an artificial
sound as a marker signal; research indicates that it is much
clearer to dogs than any spoken word.
Improving movement with a clicker is more easily
accomplished by two people: one to click, one to treat. Find a partner
- perhaps someone who is also preparing to show a dog - and schedule
some practice time. As you gait your dog, have your partner click
when your dog does what you want. Stop instantly on the click and
give your dog a treat of cubed cheese or diced chicken. After that,
resume gaiting, giving your dog another chance to earn a click and
Try not to tease or bait your dog with the food.
Waving food around defeats the purpose of the clicker. It makes
your dog watch and follow your hands, instead of looking straight
ahead; it also makes your dog think about food, rather than what
it is suppose to be doing to earn the click. Also, dont click
at the end of the run. Click at random points during the run, or
youll rapidly develop a dog that looks bored during the run
and elated only at the turnaround point.
Decide what needs improvement. Remember: You
want your dog to be near you, perhaps even a little in front of
you, and moving straight. You can put your partner alongside you
to work on positioning your dog, or at either end of the track to
work on its straight-line movement. Trade positions with your partner,
so you can watch and click your own dog and see how its coming
along. Finally, keep your sessions short. Dont push yourself
or your dog to the point of fatigue.
Working in teams will enable you to teach your
dog in just a few five-minute sessions to move in a straight line,
to keep its ears and tail up, to have a happy look on its face and
to move on a slightly loose lead. Why not hand those responsibilities
over to your dog? Use the clicker to explain what you want - and
your dog will be thrilled to oblige.
A loose lead is important. If you hold the lead
taut, your dog will almost certainly resist, pulling sideways or
backwards. Even a little resistance throws the gait off completely.
Nevertheless, stringing your dog upon the neck seems to be the fashion
these days. I recently saw a professional handler, in
a major show, gaiting an Australian Terrier with such a tight lead
that the dogs front feet were completely off the ground. What
the judge thought, I cant imagine; the dog was visibly miserable.
Problems You Can Fix
You can also use team-training to correct flaws
in your dogs gaiting. By clicking at the right moment, you
can tell your dog that you want it to trot, not pace; that it should
keep its front paws aligned with its shoulder, not flying wide.
What follows is a good example.
Jennifer is a young St. Bernard that, like many
big dogs, tends to shamble along with her head down. Her owner wanted
Jennifer to look proud and confident by carrying her head high.
We put an observer in the center of our practice space while the
owner trotted Jennifer back and forth in a straight line. The observer
clicked after a few steps, and Jennifers owner instantly stopped
and gave the dog a treat. The Process was repeated at random intervals
three more times.
The next time the owner started off, Jennifers
head went up. Click and treat. Now, on each try, the observer clicked
only when the head went up. In five minutes Jennifer was carrying
her head high. She looked like a different dog - a winner. Did she
feel different? Who knows? She looked happy, which wins
points in any judges eye.
The next step for Jennifers owner would
be to spend five minutes a day gaiting her at a trot, while teaching
her that the phrase show time means Carry your
head high, and youll get a click and treat. Then the
owner could, if she wished, replace the click with the word, good,
and Jennifer would be ready for the ring - where, happily, you may
talk to your dog and give it treats whenever you like.
By the way, can you run in a straight line with
your head up? Most people cant, without practice. If youre
unable to run straight, you may trip on your dog. If you look down
at your dog, youll make it run crooked. To fix this, draw
a straight line on the floor on pavement with chalk, or on grass
with flour. Then you and your partner should click each other for
running beside the line without stepping on or over it. Your dog
will be grateful - and you and it will both look calmer and more
confident in the ring.