The Extended Trot
The most beautiful way for a four-legged animal to travel is in
what horse trainers call an "extended" trot. Instead of
just jogging along, the animal reaches, taking longer-than-normal
strides with each step. An extended trot is not a faster
trot: the cadence may not increase in the slightest. What does
increase is the distance covered by every step, and the extra strength
used in achieving that distance.
A dog in an extend trot seems to move powerfully, purposefully,
and gracefully, almost floating over the ground. These are the dogs
that catch the public eye as soon as they enter the ring. You can
hear the comments: "How proud he is!" "What a gorgeous
dog!" "Look, you can tell she knows she's beautiful."
We get the impression of confidence, even pride, because of the
function of the movement. In nature, the extended trot is what biologists
call a "display" behavior. Display behaviors signal the
message, "Look at me!" You can see an extended trot when
a stallion patrols the fence dividing him from other horses. You
can see it when a mature male dog notices and heads for another
dog in the distance. You can see it sometimes when dogs compete
in play: perhaps when one captures the ball from another and gleefully
trots off, head high, tail waving, with the prize.
In the ring, people hope for that look. Some people spend many
hours "gaiting" the dog, trotting it up and down, luring
it with food, encouraging it with the voice, trying to tease the
dog into "showing" itself. Many handlers simply haul the
dog's head in the air with the leash and then pull it forcibly along
at the speed they think most likely to produce a decent-looking
trot. Some breeders tend to select and show rather dominant individuals,
the "Alpha animals", as biologists put it, because they
go into the ring innately eager to be, literally, the top dog. These
individuals, male or female, may give you a flashy, extended trot
spontaneously. Of course they can also give you very dominant offspring,
way beyond the management skills of average dog owners.
Clicker Training The Extended Trot
There is an easy way to get beautiful show ring gaiting from any
well-built dog, without relying on an overabundance of dominance.
You teach it to give you an extended trot on purpose, and on cue.
First, you need a way to identify for the dog what movement you
want: the clicker will do that. Second, you need to be able to tell
when the dog is beginning to give you the right kind of movement.
However, it's hard to judge what a dog's legs are doing, when you
are looking down on it from your end of the leash. You can use mirrors,
but moving and watching at the same time is difficult too. The easiest
solution is to find a partner or an assistant. Perhaps you can work
with a friend who is also showing a dog, or with a neighbor or relative.
(Many teenagers enjoy being given a chance to work with animals.)
If your helper has an experienced eye, give him or her the clicker,
while you handle the dog. If your helper is not experienced enough
to tell good movement from bad, then have the helper run the dog
back and forth, while you watch and click.
The job of the observer is to click the instant the trotting dog
happens to reach farther than usual with the front legs. (An easy
way to spot even a small improvement is to crouch down to floor
level and watch how far those front paws go, in relation to the
dog's nose.) CLICK!
The job of the handler is to trot the dog back and forth, and to
stop INSTANTLY on hearing the click. The dog stops
too, of course, and gets its treat. Then the handler resumes "gaiting"
the dog. What if the dog doesn't seem to be extending at all? Then
click and treat at random points, a few times. That makes the dog
begin to feel "Hey! This is fun!" Then you will see a
new "spring" in the trot, giving you something to click.
It does not matter that you "interrupt" the stride to
stop and feed the dog; what the dog remembers is what it was doing
when it heard the click. Be careful to CLICK,
STOP and TREAT in the middle of the dog's travel. Don't fall
into the habit of waiting until the turnaround point, or you will
shape the behavior of lagging in the middle of the run and brightening
up at the end.
You don't need to worry about what the back legs are doing. The
dog will automatically engage the back legs more strongly to push
itself forward more vigorously in front. You do need to watch for
any tendency to "hackney", or to raise the front legs
high in a prancing gait; this is easy for dogs to do, and it's not
what we're after. If the dog starts flinging its paws in the air,
just don't click; the behavior will go away by itself.The handler
should be careful, during this training, to keep the dog on a loose
leash. A dog on a tight leash simply cannot move freely, much less
learn a new movement. Even on the about-turns at the end of a run,
encourage the dog to turn with you; don't spoil the fun by yanking
it around. Meanwhile, the observer can help by being careful not
to click if the leash is taut. With good teamwork, I have seen many
dogs "catch on" to the extended trot, reaching farther
deliberately, stride after stride, in two or three minutes; perhaps
within a dozen clicks.
An extended trot exerts leg and back muscles that a dog ordinarily
may not use much. Keep in mind that the dog may tire quickly. Tired
dogs don't learn well. During the first week or two plan to end
each session with a "jackpot" of a handful of treats
after a few good passes. Don't be tempted to ask for too much,
too soon, or the dog may come to dread this new task, a task that
otherwise should be exhilarating and fun.
Watch your dog. For a day or two after the first lessons he may
feel a bit stiff, just as you might if you took up a new sport.
However, once learned, this behavior is a great muscle-builder.
A few bursts of extended trotting, every day or two, will do much
to bring your dog into top athletic condition. That in itself will
improve the dog's looks, the feel of its body under the judge's
hands, and its general air of well being.
Adding the Cue and Dropping the Click
By withholding your click for progressively longer counts (five
strides, ten strides, twenty) you can "shape" the behavior
of sustaining the extended trot for a minute or more. You can also
teach the dog to keep in stride around corners (as in the ring).
Now you can add a cue: "Let's go" or "ShowTime"
or perhaps a hand signal. Give your cue before you take off. Click
(and treat) the dog after a few good strides, paying it off early,
so to speak, for responding to the cue. Once the dog is springing
forward when it hears the cue, you can go back to trotting for longer
periods before clicking.
As your dog learns to sustain the extended trot, and begins to
understand what you mean by the cue, you can substitute a word
"Yes!" or "Good!" for the click. The click
and treats are for teaching the behavior; they are the "language"
you use to communicate what you want the dog to understand. Once
the behavior has been learned, an occasional praise word or a pat
will maintain it forever. You will need to get out the clicker again
only if you want to improve the gaiting or repair some aspect that
has slipped in quality.
The Target Stick
A target stick is an easy way to cause extension, thus giving you
something to click in your first lessons. Clicker-training suppliers
sell folding aluminum target sticks, but you can use any stick or
dowel about thirty inches long. Clicker-train the dog to touch the
end of the stick with its nose, while walking along beside you.
Move the stick here and there, clicking and treating, to shape the
behavior of touching the nose to the tip of the stick no matter
where that pesky stick goes.
You can practice target-training from your living room couch, by
the way; you don't need to do it outdoors. (Target-training is handy.
For example, you can use a target stick to teach the dog to jump
onto the grooming table, to get into a car or a crate, to retrieve
selected items, and to do tricks such as closing doors. This is
not a waste of time: your dog's brain needs exercising too!)
Once the dog has become infatuated with the target stick, take
the stick along when you are gaiting the dog. As you trot the dog,
move the tip of the stick out in front of the dog a yard or so.
If the dog breaks into a canter, slow it down and try again. By
and by the dog is likely to extend its trot to get to that wonderful
Another advantage of using the target stick is it allows you to
place the dog exactly where you want it to be out in front of
you, say. When the extended trot has become reliable, and the dog
is positioned well, you can reduce your use of the target stick.
You do this by replacing the stick with a verbal cue or hand signal,
and clicking for the right movement and placement even though the
stick is not there.
Like horses, dogs naturally vary in the amount of extension they
can give you. The configuration of the shoulder is crucial; a sloping
shoulder "frees" the dog's front movement, while a very
vertical shoulder restricts the reach. Some breeds, Huskies and
Dalmatians for example, are built to trot long, far, and fast. Many
individuals can quickly learn to offer an extended trot. Other breeds,
such as Dobermans and some terriers, tend to have a rather vertical
shoulder. This conformation may be correct for the breed, but it
will result in a short trot. In most of the dwarfed or very short-legged
breeds, such as Corgis, Basset Hounds, and Dachshunds, the extended
trot is anatomically out of the question.
If you own these breeds you might want to train for high heads
and happy tails, rather than extension, to improve your dog's movement
in the ring. On the other hand, if you have a dog that is physically
capable of flying like a ship in full sail, why rely on its dominant
tendencies, or its feelings of the moment, to bring that behavior
to the fore in the ring? Teach it the extended trot, and you can
guarantee a good performance, good feelings, and an admiring crowd
as well, whenever you hit the ring together.