Puppy training is one of the most important and enjoyable aspects of raising a show dog, and new exhibitors can start the process much earlier than some people think. Show puppies should start the basics of conformation training weeks before they are ready to leave the breeder’s home. If early training is done consistently, puppies learn extremely quickly and have a head start on the basics before they are even old enough for handling classes.
If you plan to purchase a show puppy, ask the breeder what training the puppy will receive before you bring it home. If you plan to raise your own litter, you can begin early training yourself.
When training basic conformation skills, use positive reinforcement methods, which reward the desired behavior with food or toys. Obviously, force methods (such as pinching a dog’s ear to have it pick up a dumbbell in obedience) should not be used on young puppies. Always keep in mind this important motto: “Puppies learn what they repeat and promote what you permit.” The goal here is to avoid allowing your puppy to form any bad habits that will be difficult to correct later.
Name that puppy
Soon after the puppies are born, give each one a name. A puppy as young as 3 weeks old can learn its name if it is repeated often. The puppy will realize it is an individual dog, not just an unidentified member of the group. Many breeders wait until the new owners name the puppies, but they run the risk of missing the opportunity to give the puppies that all-important sense of self-esteem. Because puppies adapt well to name changes, the new owners can always choose a different name for their puppy later if they wish.
One of the most useful behaviors to teach a puppy is to look at you on command. They can begin learning this the very first time you feed them a meal. When you put the food bowl down, and your puppy begins to gobble up its meal, repeat the word “cookie” (a word often used by exhibitors), or another word of your choosing, over and over. This verbal repetition will teach the puppy to associate a pleasant experience, such as eating, with that word.
Later, use this word to focus the pup’s attention on you while offering it treats from your hand when the puppy is in a Stand-Stay. This particular technique, known as baiting, is very useful for dogs shown in conformation because it makes the dog stretch up its neck and pose, as if it has just seen a squirrel. This pose shows the judge the dog’s outline and balance as it is described in the breed standard.
Exhibitors can offer bait from their hand, pocket or mouth. Dog food is commonly used as bait for younger dogs. Liver and hot dogs can be used for older show dogs. Only feed as much bait as you need to get the job done. And remember: Never give a puppy you wish to show in conformation a treat for sitting; always make it stand for a treat. If a puppy learns to sit for a treat, it will always sit when treats are offered. A show dog must always stand in the ring and never sit, so you don’t want to teach the dog to associate treats with sitting.
Stand for examination
Every show dog must stand still during the judge’s examination, which includes an inspection of the dog’s mouth. Stand-Stay is the single most important exercise a show dog needs to learn because dogs are required to stand for long periods in the show ring; they should never sit or lie down. It’s never too early to begin this training.
As soon as the puppies can stand up (4 to 5 weeks of age), have them stand on a table in front of a mirror, which will allow you to accurately evaluate their outline and balance. First, hold the puppy in a standing position and count to 10. Gradually count to higher numbers every day until you count to 120. As the puppy gets older, it will begin to hold this position on its own.
As soon as your puppy can hold this position, check its bite frequently so it becomes used to this kind of examination. To check the bite, lift its lips to see the teeth in the front and sides of its mouth. The bite exam takes only five seconds. If your dog is unwilling to allow the judge to look in its mouth, you risk having your dog excused from the ring.
Introduce a second person to touch the puppy while it’s standing still. As the puppy grows larger, encourage it to stand still while you examine it on the ground. It’s helpful for all dogs, even those breeds routinely examined on a table, to become used to being touched while standing on the ground. Sometimes judges do touch table dogs while they’re standing on the ground, even though the American Kennel Club discourages this practice.
Gaiting on a lead
The way a puppy is taught to trot on a lead may make or break its performance in the show ring. Dogs that hate the lead do not show well because they might gait with their heads down (which throws off their toplines), or pace or gallop (which are incorrect gaits). It’s extremely important that puppies have a happy experience with the lead from the beginning.
Your puppy should start wearing a small buckle collar all day and night by the time it’s 8 weeks old, and at all times for at least three to four months after that. This helps the puppy get used to the feeling of something around its neck.
Before you begin lead training, use treats to lure your puppy to follow you around without a lead, at your left side. Once the puppy is used to wearing the collar and walking beside you, formal lead training can begin.
Outside, snap a show lead (available from dog-show vendors and catalogs) to the collar, pick up the puppy and carry it a short distance away from your house. Put the puppy down and walk back toward your house while holding the other end of the lead. The pup will be happy to go toward its home and will hardly notice the leash is on. Use the command “let’s go” while walking the puppy on a lead.
Keep this up for several days, carrying your puppy farther away from the house each time. If it fights the lead, back away from the puppy and offer it treats to come toward you. Never drag the puppy on the lead or create unhappy experiences. It may take several weeks to train a puppy to move freely and happily on a lead. Your patience will pay off later when you are gaiting your dog for the judge.
Any grooming techniques your puppy will need to grow accustomed to should be started as early as possible and continued throughout its life on a regular basis. Your puppy must be comfortable with necessary routines, such as nail trimming, combing, coat trimming, whisker trimming, teeth and ear cleaning, bathing, blow drying, and any other procedure applicable to your breed.
By the time your puppy is 4 months old, it should be walking well on a lead, standing for examination and focusing on you with the use of bait. By that age, your pup should have finished its series of puppy vaccinations. Now you can begin more-advanced training and socialization to the show ring.
Anne H. Bowes has been an owner-breeder-handler of Pembroke Welsh Corgis since 1968. She is an AKC judge for four breeds and Junior Showmanship, and was awarded AKC Herding Group Breeder of the Year in 2007.
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