Note: I promised this topic and I always keep my promises! But, before we start, I’d like to offer a moment of silence in honor of the dogs and exhibitors killed en route to the World Dog Show in Milan. I learned about this tragedy at the same time I was hearing exhibitors talking about their planned 12 hour drive, at the end of a 12 hour day, from one show site to the next. I know too many people who have been seriously injured as we push, push, push. Push ourselves and our dogs to the very brink. Yes, we all want to make money or get to just the right judging line up or get the best parking spot or get home to work our real job or whatever it is that drives us. The horror in Russia should serve as a wake up call for all of us. Nothing, anywhere, is more important than the safety and well-being of each of us and the dogs in our care. While we all believe we’re immune, that we are, indeed, superhuman, we aren’t. My sincere condolences to the families of the people and animals involved in Russia. My heartfelt prayers for safety to all of us traveling this summer, in the U.S. and around the world.

Hands Free Technology

Building on our column from last week about teaching the dog to hand stack, we can now talk about the fun part of training a show dog. I teach hand stacking and free stacking concurrently, but rarely in the same session. I like to train in pieces and then weave all the parts together for a seamless performance.

Puppies start learning to free stack without a leash. This is where they gets lots of food and praise and there is no “wrong answer.” We use treats to teach a dog to “go kennel,” so we start with a puppy running amuck in the dog room. I call the puppy to me, show her the cookie and ask her to “watch me.” This command is essential to free stacking and offers a bedrock of focus that will help you and your dog through nearly any situation.

Once the puppy makes eye contact she gets praise and we throw the cookie for her to chase into the crate. This is a building block for everything that will follow. It works for older dogs as well, but the younger you can start, the more firmly the conditioning system will be established.

The “watch me” for a cookie continues routinely and we build on that by asking the dog to wait longer for the reward. Instilling focus is the first tool. Next we begin moving the dog around using that focus. I walk forward, the dog steps back. I walk back, the dog steps forward. I can use the focus to move the dog side to side as well. All of this is without a leash and using only body language and food motivation. If the dog is motivated more by toy drive than food drive, switch devices to reward the focus.

As a side note, dog communication relies heavily on body position, not so much on verbalization. While I teach commands during the free stack training, “back,” “step up” and “fix it” being the primary ones, the dog is responding primarily to my body language. My shoulders are square and back. My feet are set shoulder width apart and are pointed straight ahead. The dog will usually mimic my stance. I always teach a free stack with the dog coming straight in to my body. This provides a natural block to forward progress and never involves a leash correction.

As the dog begins to understand your desires, she will move in tandem with you. I normally back the dog up to get the back feet placed first. A properly built dog will stand comfortably with its back feet parallel and slightly behind its hips. Once the dog’s back feet are set, I ask the dog to step up with its front feet. At this point in the training, I add a leash and collar to physically guide the dog in to position. I can walk the dog up using the leash to gently move the dog’s weight from foot to foot.

And this is why free-stacking is the fun part of training your show dog. The word “no” should cease to exist during these exercises. If the feet aren’t right, just break and start over. Once they are close give a reward and do it again. As the dog gains confidence, the wait for the reward lengthens, the feet are more precisely placed to earn the reward, but there is never a “bad dog” moment.

The philosophy behind training a reliable free stack is that good dogs generally look best if you just let them stand up on their own. Teaching them to balance, focus and then use ears or tail as required by each breed will create a winning picture.

A Cavalier that smiles and wags with feet four square, a Portugese Water Dog with tail up and goofy grin while planted like a statue, a Doberman that is up and arched over its front with the look of eagles…. These hands free pictures can make all the difference in tough competition.

Warning, if you have trained the “watch me” command well, you will have most of your control over the dog with eye contact. This means the handler has to maintain the “watch” also! One of my favorite show dogs of all time was a GWP bitch I owned. Smoke was very serious about her “watch” command. I was showing her at a national after she had been retired for several years. She nailed a gorgeous free stack at the end of her down and back. Unfortunately, I glanced away from her when the judge gave me direction. Smoke was so offended, she jumped up and bounced off my chest with both her front feet and came right back down in a perfect free stack. It left a mark, literally, and taught me a valuable lesson… Keep your eyes on the prize!

Next week, we’ll take a look at training a dog to move properly. Just a thought, you have to walk before you can run!

As always, this is JMHO.