How to train a show puppy

Maybe your breeder has asked you if you would be willing to show a puppy. Maybe you are curious about those dogs you watch on TV. Maybe you have a purebred and you are looking to learn about how to show a dog. One thing is certain – if you want a show dog who wins, there is training involved.

So how do you begin with a new puppy?

Showing a dog is a sport which is properly called ‘conformation’.  Another word for conformation would simply be ‘structure’.  What you are showing a judge in the show ring is the structure of your dog.  If your dog is well structured standing still, their movement should reflect that.  So there are two pieces of showing a dog, standing or ‘stacking’, and moving your dog.

First, you must know what skills a show dog requires.  Typically, when people start to teach a puppy, the very first thing the pup learns is to sit. However, sitting is the very last thing a show dog needs to do. Show dogs need to learn to stand, and to be very tolerant of people picking up and placing, or ‘stacking’, their paws.

Rodeo at 7 weeks old

When you first get your puppy, place an equal emphasis on asking your puppy to sit, and asking your puppy to stand.  Most everyone has taught a pup to sit, but much fewer have attempted to teach their dog to stand.  Here’s a quick tip:  when your pup has sat, take a treat, pull it slowly away from their mouth in a line parallel with the floor.  First the pup will lean forward, and then attempt to stand.  Once they stand, praise them, “Good stand, Fido.” and reward with the treat.  If your pup is reluctant to stand, use your other hand to place a little pressure on their belly to help get them into position.

Now that your pup is in a stand, it’s a good idea to have a treat that requires some effort on their part to chow down on.  A larger milkbone, or string cheese are great ways to start.  Your pup will be focused on what is in your hand, and less on what you are doing.  Start playing with their paws, lifting them up and setting them down.  You don’t have to worry about any particular position at this point.  The idea is just allowing your pup to be content while you are handling their feet and legs.

So, if stacking and moving are the two skills your pup needs, the second thing to get your pup used to is moving at a trot with you, on all sorts of surfaces.  Typically a show ring will have some sort of rubber flooring to avoid slipping either of the people or dogs.  If you can find somewhere to practice with a similar floor type, that is best.

Speaking of flooring types, one other thing must be said about show dogs.  They are confident dogs.  They are very well socialized because a judge can excuse or disqualify a dog that growls or nips, or is aggressive in the ring.  Every dog should be well socialized.  A show dog is exceptionally socialized.

Breed Specific training

Every breed is judged in the show ring based upon their breed standard.  This standard describes in great detail the ideal specimen of any given breed.  If you are looking into showing a dog, and have not read the standard for your breed, now is definitely the time to do that.  Click here to be taken to the complete list of breeds in the American Kennel Club.
Click on your breed to see more information and the breed standard.

Once you are familiar with your standard, you can look at your puppy and begin to learn how to place their paws to show them to the best advantage.  Look for winning pictures of dogs of your breed, see how the handlers have them stacked.  That is a good place to start.

The Big Secret

Now, here is the big secret about showing dogs… It’s not all about the dogs.  The handler (human) is equally important.  If you think showing dogs is all about having the best dog out there, you are gravely mistaken.  If you want to be serious about showing your dog, there are skills and etiquette that you need to learn.   Here are a couple of things to consider:

  • Make sure you can move at the pace your dog needs to move.  With toy breeds, people can get away with a brisk walk, but a German Shepherd needs to move.  If you can’t show the judge the ideal pace of your dog, you simply can’t win.
  • Invest in a nice show lead ($20-40).  Never show your dog on their everyday collar
  • Dress to be a backdrop to your dog (if you have a white dog, don’t wear a white pantsuit, wear black to make them stand out from you)

As I mentioned earlier, the idea of judging and showing dogs is to judge them against the ideal of their breed.  But, there is no such thing as the perfect dog.  Every dog has a fault.  The job of dog handler is to present their dog before the judge in the best possible way.

Make sure you have fun!

One final tip for the beginner: no matter how serious you decide to take showing your pup, or how much effort you place on developing your skills, remember: if your dog isn’t having fun, they will not be presented to the judge in the best light.  Make sure show training doesn’t become a bore, or a source of frustration for your dog.  No matter if we come in first place or last in the ring, our dogs know they did a great job.

Next steps

So now your puppy understands how to stand, and to leave their paws where you place them, what now?  Now it’s time to get the help of a conformation instructor. Conformation instructors can see you and your pup from the perspective of a judge and are familiar with many, many breeds to help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your puppy.

Our Sit Means Sit location offers conformation classes on most Thursdays.  Call our office for more details.

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