Before a dog is ever entered for a competitive show, there is a lot of work that must be accomplished in order to be able to present the dog properly. There is nothing like having a quality dog that is unprepared for a show. A dog that hasn’t been well trained and conditioned just won’t be a competitive dog.
Training for the Ring
The best time to start ring training and preparing your dog for shows is when the dog is still a young puppy. Puppies are easy to train and instill good habits in. The problem is often that many breeders and exhibitors don’t begin training early enough as they aren’t always sure a puppy will fully develop and don’t want to invest the time and energy in an uncertainty.
Unfortunately, that means many people lose out on these early months that could be used to work with the puppy and prepare it for future shows. There are several things that should be done while still a puppy:
1. While it might seem obvious that leash training is a good thing to teach in puppyhood, I don’t mean just simple leash training. Puppies can learn quite well the rules of the leash and how you would like them to walk on leash as well as how you would like them to gait on leash.
Introduce your puppy to the style of leash and collar that will be used in the show ring early on. For example, when I begin leash training a puppy, I teach them a modified version of heel for just generalized walking. I simply frequently reward the puppy exactly where I want him to be (right next to my left leg in this case) with tasty food morsels. Many young puppies can be given bits of their daily kibble as reward.
These early sessions should be quite short so that the puppy is having fun and is getting it right the majority of the time. This way the puppy enjoys leash training instead of dreads it. You can also reward the puppy as he begins to understand with a game of tug periodically as an additional reward.
Now, your leash training should reflect how you want the dog to ultimately look in the ring. Part of this will depend on what style of show your dog will be shown in and where. Many German Shepherds are shown in a modified heel position for their gait, so this means simply teaching a tighter walking style (like heel) and then adding in the component of varying speed.
Other dogs will be shown in a faster gait or will be asked to run out in front of the handler. This type of gaiting is most commonly seen in American Kennel Club shows. A dog can be taught this gait as a puppy just as easily by encouraging the puppy to pull out through the use of a second person enticing the puppy forward with a toy.
2. Stacking is something that shepherds naturally do themselves, but this posture is refined for the show ring. Everyone has a different way of teaching the proper stack, but one method that can be used starting with the young puppy is to mark the correct stance with either a clicker or marker word.
With the use of treats or a favorite toy to use as a lure, move the puppy forward while you slowly move backwards. When the puppy naturally poses itself correctly, click and reward the puppy for holding the position for just a second or two initially.
As the puppy ages and becomes better and better at it, gradually add in small amounts of time that you expect the dog to hold the position. This way you develop an impressive natural stack that the dog will hold as an adult in a show.
Body Conditioning the Dog
Physically exercising and conditioning a dog for the show ring is a task really geared towards the maturing adult dog. Puppies and young adolescents should have exercise to keep them fit and begin the process of muscle tone building, but you cannot do heavy conditioning work on a dog under the age of one to one and a half years old. It is too stressful for a young dog’s joints.
Puppies and dogs under this age should be exercised on a more minimal level and with a wide variety so as to avoid repetitive work that could cause stress injuries or joint damage.
When a dog reaches adulthood and is maturing, it is time to begin the process of more finely conditioning the dog. It both builds muscle tone and increases a dog’s stamina level. A dog must be able to have endurance in a show because if the dog gives out during a show, he will lose.
There are many ways to condition a dog, and using a variety of activities will help condition all the core muscles, not just a few of them. Some ideas for conditioning exercises:
Endurance jogging or biking: Slowly building a dog up to a jogging schedule that is several miles long really helps build a dog’s stamina level. You can also utilize a bike and bike alongside the dog for a similar effect.
Water exercise: If you have access to a pool, water exercise is one of the most therapeutic forms of exercise for a dog. Not only does it build incredible stamina and muscle tone, but it is easier on a dog’s joints and body so as to avoid injury. If you don’t have access to a pool, look for someone with an underwater treadmill.
Treadmill work: For some locations and people, training a dog to run on a treadmill is one way to jog a dog. The nicer treadmills give the option of easily adjusting the pace of the machine in order to properly warm up and cool down the dog, and many of them provide the option of having the machine incline as part of the walk.
Jumping: Agility work provides the opportunity for a dog to do jumping, but you can also utilize jumps for the non-agility dog. Jumps require the dog to really use its rear end which helps build muscle tone and strength. It is important to start work on practice height jumps and slowly build to a full height jump.
Play: While this might not seem like a conditioning exercise, it really can be if you vary your play. Games of tug of war are incredible motivators, but dogs often dig in with their front legs and rear when tugging and use every muscle they have to play! Fetch with balls and Frisbee catching also build muscles and can build stamina if a dog enjoys playing. Many dogs will easily play for an hour at a time.
The point with conditioning work is to help your dog’s body tone itself, but if you balance out the activities and give variety, not only will your dog enjoy it more, but it will also be better for the dog’s body.
A few other notes about conditioning:
A dog’s body needs time to rest in between heavier exercise sessions. This means set up your conditioning schedule on a rotating schedule of every other day for heavy work. Fill out the rest of the week with lighter activities that are perhaps more fun.
Always give the dog time to warm up and stretch before asking for heavy work or exercise. Also give his body time to cool down from heavy work.
Provide plentiful water breaks and don’t do heavy exercise on a full stomach.
Take into account the weather conditions. Dogs can easily overheat so try to time heavy outdoor exercise for earlier in the day. If at any time the dog appears overly tired or hot, stop and cool him down.