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Karen Pryor: "Shaping for the Show Ring"


Shaping for the Show Ring
Part III

by Karen Pryor

Clicker training can help owners shape their small dogs into show-stopping

Little dogs face challenges at conformation shows that big dogs do not. The length of the ring, which a big dog can cover in a few strides, can be a very long trot for a small dog. Bigger dogs are everywhere, a threat to even the bravest Miniature Pinscher. Worse, there are big people (with big feet) everywhere.

Small dogs know from experience that being stepped on hurts. I have often seen owners of little dogs waiting to go into the ring, oblivious to the fact that some bystander has just backed into or tripped over their West Highland White Terrier or Manchester Terrier, endangering and totally demoralizing the dog.

Little dogs must be shown to the judge on a table, one high enough that the dog may be justifiably afraid of falling off. Getting there can be an unpleasant experience, too. With some terriers, it is traditional to hoist the dog roughly by the tail and the lead, an airborne experience that many small dogs find visibly disconcerting.

Training Dogs to Pose

The process of shaping behavior by means of conditioned reinforcer - or as some dog owners call it, clicker training - offers enormous benefits to the small-breed conformation dog and its owner. Let's start with table work. One way to overcome a dog's fear of the examination table is to give it a job. Many handlers use a job that can be described as "watch my finger."

Give yourself a noisemaker. Plastic clickers are becoming very popular, but if you don't have one, a pocket stapler is easy to handle and makes a nice, distinct sound. (Spoken words are not as clear.) Cut up some desirable food, such as hot dogs, chicken or cheese, into pea-sized pieces. Put the food where you can reach it but your dog can't (in your pocket or on a nearby stool). Put your dog on a table.

Click. Give it a treat.

Now hold your index finger out, steadily, in front of the dog's nose. Click when it looks at your finger. Take your finger away and give the dog a treat. You don't need to wave the finger and you don't need to have food in that hand. In fact, it's better if you don't; you want the dog to listen for the click, not look for the treat. (You are not tempting the dog with bait, hoping it will look interested; instead, you are showing it that by focusing its eyes and ears on your index finger, it can make you go 'click'.)

Perhaps your dog crouches in fear. Hold the lead for safety's sake, but don't push or pull at your dog, or try to lift it. Keep your hands away. After a few clicks for looking at your finger, your dog will stand up. Click the instant it stands, then give it a treat. Don't touch your dog and, whatever you do, don't talk to it! Sweet talk and encouragement may actually reinforce timid behavior. Instead, hold your finger enticingly near your dog's nose and rely on your clicker to tell the dog, "That's what I want."

Your dog will break its pose while it eats the treat. That's fine. What happened when you clicked is what will count in the long run, not what the dog does between clicks while it eats.

When your dog is standing and focusing on your finger, move it away slightly and start reinforcing your dog to lean forward into a show stance. Keep the clicks and treats coming every few seconds in this early lesson by finding various good things for which to click: Click for standing with all four paws on the ground; for leaning forward a bit; for raising or wagging its tail; and certainly for pricking its ears.

What happens if you click for your dog's having pricked its ears and it simultaneously sits? Don't worry; give it a treat. The majority of clicks will catch your dog standing. It's the cumulative information that counts, not the occasional mistake.

How do you extend the length of time your dog will stand there? Once you have the dog standing nicely, you can convey the idea that it should hold its pose by waiting two or three beats until you click. If your dog breaks the pose before you click, fine. Don't click. Start again. Let your dog discover for itself that it now needs to stand still a little longer to make you click.

Don't worry too much about the duration of the stand in the first session: A few seconds is a good start. Later, you can see whether your dog will hold the pose for 20 seconds or even a minute. At that point you can also add distractions, such as working in strange places, in the presence of other dogs, or while a friend plays 'judge' and examines the dog.

In future lessons, you'll also want to click your dog for posing on the ground, thereby teach the dog to 'self-stack' whenever you halt in the ring. In your first session, though, you should quit when your dog has learned to stand is beginning to pose. Take the dog down and let it digest what's just happened - while it digests its treats!

What did happen? This is the process known as 'shaping'. Instead of physically manipulating your dog to put its feet and head in the right places, you are building a behavior you want, piece by piece, by using the 'click' to communicate what's right. With a clicker and treats, you can get a pretty good stack from almost any dog in the first session, even if it's just a puppy. Clicker training is harmless for puppies and they absolutely love it.

Learning to Learn

You are now on your way to having a little dog that will stand with aplomb on a table while a judge examines it. But that's not all that's been accomplished. Your dog now has a job to do on the table, so it's no longer afraid, but busy. Your dog has learned how to do something easy and fun for itself. You have taught your dog to do what you want, but your dog thinks it's trained you to be predictable about producing treats. Your dog feels like it's in charge - no wonder it looks confident.

You can use your clicking skills to improve your dog's gait, developing a more
animated way of moving. You can shape your dog to trot out a little in front of you instead of at your side, which is very showy. You can give your dog the responsibility of holding its head up high, rather than you hauling it up with the lead.

You can add charm, such a cocked head or pretty expression. One Lhasa Apso
with many Best of Breeds to its credit has learned to respond to the command "Say Hi!" by waving its front paws. Judges always smile.

The purpose of clicker training a little dog is not to make a bad dog look good, but to give any dog the best chance it has in the ring. Mary Owens of Pensacola, Fla., has clicker trained Asti, her Border Terrier bitch, for obedience and conformation. Borders are rough-and-ready short-coated terriers, perhaps a bit unglamorous compared to the snappy Wire Fox Terrier or elegant Bedlington Terrier. "But Asti knows what to do," says Owens. She says to herself, "Oh, showtime again! Let's see, feet, tail, ears ... and smile!"

What a pretty little dog. She's won Best of Group twice so far.

[ Part I ] [ Part 2 ] [ Part 3 ] [ Part 4 ]
For more information about clicker training your dogs, whether for show or obedience, go to ...


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