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Have you ever dreamed of entering your best friend in a dog show? While it can be daunting to get started in the competitive canine world, many pet parents love trying this new activity with their companions.
Here’s everything you need to know about training your dog for their first show!
Before you start training: Dog show basics
What exactly is a dog show?
According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), the official term for dog shows is conformation. This refers to the “act of conforming” or “producing conformity” — show dogs aren’t judged against each other but are instead compared to their respective breed standards.
The more closely a dog’s appearance and temperament match breed expectations, the greater their chances of producing healthy, predictable puppies!
What dogs can enter a dog show?
While most shows in the United States are through the American Kennel Club, there is also a United Kennel Club (UKC) and a Mixed Breed Club of America (MBCA).
Even if your dog is eligible for a dog show, they might not actually enjoy the experience. And that’s okay! If your pet gets nervous or struggles with changes in routine, conformation might not be for you. Most dogs who thrive in the competitions are confident, social, and happy to work in a range of environments.
If your dog isn’t eligible for a show or you don’t think they’ll enjoy being out in the ring, there are countless other activities you can try together. Here are just a few to consider:
Other dog sports like rally, agility, nosework, or dock diving
Earning trick dog titles
Equipment you need for a dog show
The right collar and leash
Your everyday walking collar or harness probably won’t be successful in the show ring. Here are two common gear options for your conformation dog:
An “all in one” style show lead. This leash is all one piece — the line makes a loop at the end with a slider to keep it fastened around your dog’s neck. “All in one” collars are particularly common for small breeds.
A martingale collar and show lead. Martingale collars were originally designed for sighthounds whose heads are smaller than their necks. They’re sometimes called “limited slip” collars — they tighten up enough to keep your dog from slipping out, but they have a minimum size where the loop won’t get any smaller (unlike a choke chain). These are a great choice for medium and large breed dogs.
Clear communication with your dog
When you enter the show ring with your dog, you need to work together as a team. These things can strengthen your relationship and make sure you’re both on the same page:
Reinforcement your dog loves. While you won’t actually use treats or toys in a competition, you should absolutely use them during your training! Keep your dog’s motivation up through positive training by generously rewarding them for a job well done.
A reward marker like a clicker or verbal “yes” to mark exactly what your dog did to earn a reward. This makes it possible for you to communicate clearly during training sessions (even if you’re unable to deliver a treat precisely when your dog offers the right behavior) which makes the learning process easier on everyone!
An understanding of your dog’s body language. The same way you want your pet to listen to your signals, it’s important you can listen to theirs. Pay attention to the things your dog does when they’re nervous (maybe ears back and tail down) or excited (sweeping tail and high head) so you can keep them comfortable as you train.
Skills your dog needs for a dog show
In a conformation show, your dog will need to demonstrate three main skills: gaiting, stacking, and tolerating a physical exam.
It’s generally easiest to start working on these behaviors while your best friend is still a puppy — but even older dogs can learn new tricks!
Gaiting means your dog moves at a certain speed (in line with their handler), in a precise position (head and tail carried in regard to their breed standard), and without pulling on the lead while in the show ring.
The judge will evaluate your dog’s structure as they trot with opposite front and back legs moving in unison.
How to train your dog to perform the right gaiting behavior:
You can begin with your dog on or off lead.
Lure your dog to walk at your left side using their favorite reward. Small training treats work great for this!
Once your dog becomes familiar with the picture of walking at your side, adjust your own pace. You want to move at a speed that encourages them to trot.
Position your lure to keep your dog’s head held high. Note: Unlike heeling, where it’s generally desirable to have a dog looking at their handler, you always want your dog’s head facing forward in conformation. This enables the judge to see your pet’s movement in profile!
Over time, slowly fade out your lure in favor of a hand signal or verbal cue.
Eventually you can decrease your rate of reinforcement (give treats less frequently) to get your dog used to covering longer distances without constant rewards.
Stacking means your show dog stands in the proper position based on the written standard for their breed.
There are two kinds of stacking: hand stacking (where the handler or judge physically manipulates the dog into position), and free stacking (where the dog may be prompted to adjust their footing slightly but otherwise enters the position on their own).
Your dog will be stacked multiple times in each show:
As soon as you enter the ring
Before being moved as a breed group
Individually for the judge’s examination (small dogs will stand on a table while medium and large breeds will stay on the ground)
For the final lineup with the other competing dogs
Many handlers let their dog free stack for everything except the physical exam. Hand stacking your pet before the judge approaches can ensure they’re in the best possible stance.
Note: Your dog’s specific stack position will depend on their breed! Before starting to train either a hand stack or free stack, make sure you understand the guidelines in your pet’s breed standard.
How to train your dog to be hand stacked
Hold a treat in your hand. Allow your dog to nibble on it as you use your other hand to adjust their feet.
If your dog is too focused on the food constantly in your hand, consider wearing a treat pouch instead. This way you can periodically reward them for staying in place and allowing you to move their limbs without distracting them too much.
Put your dog’s front legs into position first. Reward them frequently!
Then move your dog’s back legs, continuing to reward them for staying calm throughout the process.
Hold your dog’s legs near the hock, not the feet themselves, when you hand stack them. Your pet is more likely to adjust their entire body if you touch their paws.
Once your dog is in position, slowly build up duration. Take your hands off of them and reward them for staying in place.
If at any point your pet seems uncomfortable, take a step back in the process. Increase your rate of reinforcement and consider breaking things into even smaller steps (for example, instead of moving their leg right away, maybe you just work on touching it, then gently holding it, and so on).
How to train your dog to free stack
Begin with your dog in a standing position. If they naturally sit or struggle to remain still, reward them often — let them know that standing pays well in this context.
Once your dog is able to stand for a reasonable interval, start teaching them how to move their paws into a precise position.
You can teach your pet to move their back legs by stepping towards them. Mark and reward any shift of motion backward, which will eventually lead to them adjusting their rear paws into alignment.
You can do the opposite to teach your dog to move their front legs — instead of stepping towards them, take a step away. Mark and reward as soon as they move their front feet!
Once your dog gets the hang of moving their paws, you can add a hand signal or verbal cue (like “step” or “back up”) to communicate more clearly.
Being physically examined
Your show dog must also stay still for an examination. The judge will physically put their hands on your pet to evaluate their structure, including checking their teeth.
If your companion growls, snaps, or shows other signs of discomfort during this process, you risk being disqualified from the competition.
How to train your dog to tolerate a judge’s examination
The younger your dog is when you start getting them used to being handled, the better!
Begin by regularly touching your pet and praising them for staying calm. You can start by giving treats while you have hands on them and work to where you only give the reward at the end.
Take things slow, and move confidently. Over time, work up to examining your dog’s teeth, torso, and, if they’re male, their testicles.
It can be helpful to give your dog a heads up that they’re about to be touched. For example, some handlers say cues like “mouth please” or “show me your teeth” before examining their dog’s bite. This can create a greater sense of predictability and trust in the show environment, especially while your dog holds a stationary stacked position.
Once your dog is comfortable with you touching them in these ways, ask your friends and family to do the same thing. Closely watch the process to make sure your pet is comfortable. Reward frequently and don’t be afraid to take a step back if needed!
General show dog training tips
Remember why you’re showing your dog in the first place
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when the stakes feel high. There’s nothing wrong with wanting your dog to place in conformation — but keep in mind the more important reasons (like trying something new as a team) that you wanted to start showing them in the first place.
Reach out to a mentor or support network
The right guide can make a world of difference in your new dog show journey. If you own a purebred dog, consider reading out to your dog’s breeder or a local breed club to ask about conformation! Many veterans are happy to help newcomers find their footing — and you might even find a group training class perfect for what you want to practice.
Fade off of food reinforcement and increase your criteria slowly
Slow and steady wins the race. No matter what dog show skill you’re working on or specific training process you’re following, it’s important to break things down into small, bite-sized chunks. Set reasonable expectations for both you and your dog.
Keep training fun!
Above all, the greatest joy is simply sharing life with your best friend. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the thrill of a competitive dog show! But first and foremost, remember to just enjoy your dog — independent of championships.
Trainer that reviewed this article
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