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Karen Pryor: "Shaping for the Show Ring"


Shaping for the Show Ring
Part IV

by Karen Pryor

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 extended 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 be used 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 stick. CLICK!

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.

[ 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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