More Thoughts on Conformation

DRATS! Sometimes I hate having adult ADHD, other times I think it makes me the perfect person to train dogs, where luckily we work in...


DRATS! Sometimes I hate having adult ADHD, other times I think it makes me the perfect person to train dogs, where luckily we work in short sessions and then take a break to play and work on something different for a while. (As a matter of fact, I’ve written a full sentence – can we tug now?) I had planned on talking about play all week but got sidetracked wanting to share some updates regarding Cuba and conformation with you this week. Yesterday, I gave you the rundown on conformation class v. 2. Today, I’d like to share more general thoughts on this journey we’re embarking on together as a training team. I promise we’ll catch up on the play topic soon!

As I mentioned in previous entries, I’ve seen a lot of things at the class which made me uncomfortable. Nicole (friend/client/training assistant/”fairy dogmother” to Cuba and Cub) accompanied me to this week’s class and saw a lot of things that made her feel similarly – my focus was on Cuba so luckily, I missed all the face-smacking and such. To people who are used to using such training techniques, all this clicking, treating, working at a distance, using an Easy Walk, etc., likely seems silly. “Why not just throw him in the ring and punish inappropriate behavior?” It’s true that a face smack may get us more immediate results – after all, who wouldn’t work to avoid that?

I think there is a very human tendency to focus on the goal instead of the process. For many, the “goal” is to get a championship – everything that comes in between now and that moment is simply an inconvenience. The sooner you reach that goal, the better, right?
Not to me.

Modern trainers try to set both the dog and human handler up for success. This is done through “splitting,” breaking behaviors down into small components and building incrementally. The alternative is lumping – select your goal and find the shortest way of getting there.

Splitting involves a lot of criteria juggling. For instance, with Cuba, our goals/process may look as follows:


Easy Walk harness – Look at That outside the classroom
EW harness – LAT inside the classroom
EW harness – in the ring
Show collar – LAT outside the classroom
Show collar – LAT inside the classroom
Show collar – in the ring

We may repeat this entire process in the spring when our classes move outside. Even if we reach the last stage (Show collar in the ring) and Cuba begins to have a hard time, we may go back to the Easy Walk temporarily, even working outside again for a little while and going back up the criteria ladder. Experience has taught me that the second, third, or fourth trip up the ladder always proceeds exponentially more quickly than that first trip.

Lots of people have said that at 8 months old, it is “too late” to start Cuba in the ring. Occasionally, I’ve felt as though a deadline loomed over our heads – if he is not in the ring within x number of weeks, all is lost. I was torn between my desire to start Cuba and my desire to ensure that his first show experience is positive.

I had considered bringing Cuba to Elmira for a fun match in March and then traveling a few weeks later to Syracuse for a four-day all breed show. Earlier this week, I had a nice chat with Rebecca Letson, another local trainer who owns RCA Dogsports (who is going to be mine and Cuba’s private handling instructor). I mentioned that I was considering doing the Syracuse show and wanted her feedback. Rebecca was the first person I talked to that said, “What’s the rush?” She recommended that I attend the show without entering, just to expose him to the show environment.

She has attended that same show in the past and said it can get a bit crazy, especially in the benching area where the dogs are crated and groomed before the show. Because spring is (hopefully) on the way, Rebecca recommended that I attend the Syracuse show with Cuba for all four days without entering and that I wait for an outdoor show, where space is more available and easily manipulated, to actually enter him. She suggested that I go to the ‘Cuse, find a distance he can work at, and just work on our skills. Practice our crate games exercises, “Look at That” from Control Unleashed, etc. Stay for a while, then either go home, or drive around to give him a break, come back, and resume working. This would provide a great opportunity for both Cuba and I to adjust to the show environment together without external stresses like whether his grooming, stack, or gait is absolutely perfect.

She recommended a relatively small show in Bainbridge (less than an hour from here) which is held at the end of June every year for our first show. This would make Cuba just over a year when he entered the ring for the first time. Lots of folks I know would think this was the end of the world – the sky is falling on Cuba’s show career! But I can’t even tell you how relieved I felt when she suggested that – I know we will both have more fun, win or lose, if we feel we are adequately prepared.

Face-smacking may work well if your goal is to get the championship before your dog is out of the puppy ring. I have different goals for Cuba though – he needs to be more than a champion, he needs to be a confident, socially well-rounded, and dependable both in and out of the ring. Eventually, I hope to use him as my CGC eval dog and as an exposure dog in reactivity consults. This requires an exceptional amount of impulse control and a confident ability to both engage with and ignore other dogs depending on the situation. Face-smacking won’t get me there.

I’m focusing on the process – building focus and confidence is my ultimate goal. Once we have achieved this, the pretty ribbons will undoubtedly follow. If we have focus and confidence under our belts, all of my goals for Cuba – participating in weight pull, carting, perhaps rally obedience, therapy work, etc., will be a cakewalk.

For me, the ribbons will be a side effect of the journey. Training is not a race but a relationship-building process. For others, the ribbons are the destination and the journey is but a hassle – the person wants to “win” the ribbons ASAP and in their quest to do so, the dog “loses” – his confidence, trust in the handler, understanding that she is a person whose primary goal is to make him feel safe and secure. I’d rather lose an immediate ribbon than a lifetime of trust. It might take us an extra few months or an extra year before we bring our titles home, but they’ll be all the more rewarding because we enjoyed working together every step of the way.

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