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Crosstraining Your Show Puppy:
Part I

Photographs by Tom Eldredge

Just the thought of training a puppy for the show and obedience rings simultaneously probably makes some of you cringe. You’re likely thinking, “But then my puppy will sit in the ring!”

A dog who knows the obedience commands for stand, sit and down can simply be told to stand. In addition, those obedience exercises make for a better muscled show dog. Many judges are frustrated when they put hands on a dog, especially a young puppy, and feel an overweight or out-of-condition body. Too much weight on a young dog can also lead to orthopedic problems later. Being out of condition and poorly muscled is especially a problem with the hot weather so many areas of North America have had this summer. Show dog should never be flabby – they should all be fit!

After more than 30 years of showing dogs, I can say – without a shred of doubt – that dogs sit in the breed ring for three reasons – none of which has anything to do with training.

The most common reasons dogs sit during conformation events are:

  • • They don’t want their rears examined, whether it’s a nonviolent “sit down” protest or a panicked snap sit. These dogs aren’t comfortable with an exam by a stranger. It has nothing to do with training except that you need to do more training.
  • • They are tired or bored. During a four-day circuit outside in heat and humidity, yup, some dogs may sit for a break.
  • • They want to scratch, and a sit is the easiest position in which to do this.

Many breeds are hand-stacked or shown with the handler holding the dog in position. Why the worry about sitting? For free-stacking dogs, there is more chance for a sit, but even then, dogs are easily trained to stand. A step toward a free-stacking dog who sits down will almost always get him to pop up into a stand.

Puppies are clean slates, as well as sponges waiting to learn new things. Take advantage of this wonderful window. Training your pup will build confidence and muscle. In addition, a pup with some training will be much easier to rehome if you decide it’s not your future BIS star after all.

In Novice obedience – the first level – a dog must do a stand for exam. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? However, in obedience the dog must stand for an exam by a judge off lead and with the handler six feet away! Granted, the pup’s teeth and testicles won’t be checked, but dogs are faulted for moving even one paw. The judge simply approaches the dog, generally lets the dog sniff his or her hand, then touches the dog’s head, withers and rear. Still, that means obedience dogs must know a stand – not just the dreaded sit.

The Benefits of ‘Puppy Aerobics’
So how do you start your pup? Right at 8 weeks, you can start “puppy push-ups” or “puppy aerobics.” These exercises teach your puppy basic positions and build muscle, especially in the rear. In addition, your pup will be more coordinated and confident. All are good things for a future superstar.

Puppy aerobics will strengthen and define the large muscles in the rear of your pup. Building muscle with these easy workouts should not strain your pup and is much safer than using some of the supplements available that contain steroids or hormones. The gluteal muscle and biceps femoris will both be worked as your pup does these aerobics. That means more muscle definition for the rear.

In short-coated dogs like Rottweilers and many Sporting breeds and sighthounds, the added, obvious muscle is a real aid in the show ring. Think about the last time you looked at the well-muscled rear of a young German Shorthaired Pointer. Didn’t it catch your eye, especially when that dog moved off with power and ease? A coated dog may be able to hide a lack of conditioning and muscling a bit better, but not under a knowledgeable judge who puts his or her hands on the dog.

Additionally, the long muscle along the back, the latissimus dorsi, will also get a workout: think stronger topline and fewer back problems. What’s not to like?

Sit and Down – the Magic Moves

Start with a tasty treat by your pup’s nose as shown at left. Raise the treat, and the pup will bring his rear under him (center). The end result is a nice, tight, tucked sit.

To teach the sit, simply bring a nice treat from right in front of your pup’s nose straight up over his head. The pup will sit to raise his head for the treat. With most puppies, you can do this on a grooming table. Ideally, you want his front feet to remain in one place while his rear tucks under. This exercises his rear and back muscles the most.

A treat in front of his nose, brought down and back, leads to a down.

Once your pup is sitting, you can go to the down. Simply take another great treat and bring it from his nose, straight down to the floor or table, then back between his front legs. You can also teach the down straight from a stand – do the same motion with the treat. This quick drop is a “foldback down” with no forward movement.

The stand is a bit trickier from a sit or a down, but getting into a stand from those positions really helps both coordination and muscle. For the stand, take a treat from right in front of your pup’s nose and bring it forward just a touch, then slightly to the side. Your pup will stand. Once again, the ideal stand leaves the pup’s front feet in place and involves using back and rear muscles in what’s known as a “kick back stand.”

The treat is brought forward and a bit to the side which brings the pup to a stand as shown at left. The treat is then brought straight forward for a nice stand.

Training as Workout
You can now mix these positions up to give your pup a real workout. Lure sit, down, stand, down, sit, stand, sit, etc. Don’t do these for more than a few minutes as your pup will tire from both mental concentration and the physical work. Once your pup understands the movements of the treat, name the positions, and gradually fade away the treats.

Your pup now knows “stand,” along with sit and down, both of which can be useful in real life. In the ring, until he is steady with the routine, simply tell him to stand for his exam.

Still not a believer?

My 10-month-old free-stacking Belgian Tervuren, who has a Rally Novice title, recently finished a four-show weekend, going Winners Bitch three days, RWB the fourth day and BOB on one of those days over a special. She had to do plenty of sits for her RN, but she didn’t sit a single time in the breed ring during the entire circuit. This circuit was held outdoors in hot weather. My pup who runs and does her aerobics daily had the stamina and strength to easily hold up for all four days. No question about the muscle in her rear and the strong topline from the judges, either.

Isn’t that what we all want?

Written by

  • Deb Davenport July 28, 2012 at 9:16 AM

    THANK YOU! This article is so true! I started in obedience competition. When I became involved in conformation, I was utterly astonished at the “fear of sit” syndrome. Having trained my dogs to sit, stand, down, stay – all without bait in the ring, and often with no verbal command allowed – I could not fathom why everyone thought obedience training would cause the dog to sit! Afterall, one would just tell the dog to stand. Simplicity!

  • Barb Bristol July 28, 2012 at 12:21 PM

    Great article!
    I am amazed at how many people are worried about the dog sitting in the ring. I have NEVER seen an obedience dog sit in the ring (unless a stand-in handler accidentally gives a “Sit” hand signal) – as you say in the article, the dogs I’ve seen sit in the ring are all obviously NOT obedience trained, and usually need more training period.
    The one problem I do sometimes encounter with my dogs is the dog wanting to watch me while we are gaiting. Even this is usually more of an issue with a youngster, and as the dog learns the difference between “heeling” and “gaiting” it goes away. But if you have any training ideas I would love to hear them!

    • Alexia Fino July 28, 2012 at 8:33 PM

      I use “heel” for focused heeling, and “let’s go” for showing gaiting. All on a loose leash and I kind have the leash loosely in front of the dog, almost like a lure. That really helps them look forward for show gaiting

    • Deb Eldredge, D.V.M.
      Deb E July 29, 2012 at 1:17 PM

      The “watching you” can be a problem – especially with herding breeds :). Teaching a “look” – by throwing something out ahead of you or putting a target out ahead can help. You could put a clear target (once your dog has been taught to target) at various points around a ring & then gait to them.
      I have seen this behavior in dogs in dogs without obed training as well – often as they focus on the bait in the handler’s hand.
      Using a different word – “heel” vs “let’s go” say, can also help. We underestimate how smart our dogs are. Even without changing collars or leads, they quickly learn which ring they are in. Dogs do learn context as well as individual commands.
      The only time I have seen true confusion in one of my dogs was years ago with my male Terv special. Heading into the obed ring for group stays at his first national, he looked around at all the Tervs & clearly switched from obed mode to breed ring mode. The shock on his face when i told him to sit & stay was quite funny. Well trained dog that he was, he did as I asked, clearly thinking I had blown it :)

  • Peri July 28, 2012 at 7:48 PM

    Deb, as usual, YOU ROCK! Cute puppy too.

  • Alexia Fino July 28, 2012 at 8:29 PM

    I absolutely agree with this article! An obedience trained dog is a happy show dog!!!
    And it’s fun for you and the dog!


  • Marie August 4, 2012 at 9:12 AM

    Great Article Deb!!

  • Claudia Weiss August 29, 2012 at 6:03 AM

    My story of cross training. My first handling class instructor was appalled I also obedience trained. Until the night I left the dog in a down stay to help tape down maps, and how easily I taught her a “Terrier back” with my herding dog. She understood SWING and BACK immediately. I always cross train puppies.

  • Dawn August 21, 2013 at 11:03 AM

    I can’t believe that this is still such an urban legend in the show community! I’ve been showing, but also doing obedience, field trials, rally, herding, therapy dogs, dog sledding, back packing and now lure coursing with my dogs since I was a child. Growing up with Brittanys, the most dual titled breed and proud of it, it was considered “normal” to do all the sports with the same dog – and this was back in the late 1960’s.
    I have carried this philosophy on into adulthood, with my own dogs.
    And yep – it’s darn impressive to be able to leave your OES in the ring at conformation class, fully stacked with a “stay” command and go out to grab something from your bag and come back to your dog who hasn’t moved a bit. 😉

    • Susan Chaney
      Susan Chaney August 21, 2013 at 5:58 PM

      Thank you for joining the conversation at Best In Show Daily, Dawn.

  • Deb Eldredge, D.V.M.
    Deb E August 21, 2013 at 11:36 AM

    Exactly Dawn! I had a friend years ago whose CH OES also earned an HX- maybe even an HC & had a UD – Dazzle owned by Deb Bain

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