Socializing Show Dogs

04/14/2010
Author: Corky Vroom

Socialization is fundamental to preparing show dogs for the ring. It should start early. In fact, the sooner, the better.

All handlers have at one time or another faced the challenge of getting a promising young dog that lacks the right temperament ready for the ring. As you realize how much work needs done, you can’t help but wonder whether it can be accomplished. 

When showing dogs at the class level, you can sometimes win with a timid dog. This won’t work when you’re showing a finished champion as a Special. At that level, a dog has to think he’s good and have natural charisma. It’s easy to tone down an overly enthusiastic dog but hard to instill the right show attitude.  

The older a dog gets, the harder it becomes to work shyness out of his temperament. Once temperament is really set — around 18 months old — you’re not likely to change a dog’s outlook. The best chance for changing a timid dog is to start training when he is a puppy. 

If someone brings you a dog that cowers as soon as he sees you, you have to decide if it’s worth the effort. People have brought me dogs to evaluate that act just the opposite of their behavior at home in the backyard. It’s not surprising to see this when a dog has been taken out of his familiar surroundings — unless the owner has already started socialization training. 

My advice to clients has always been to start socializing dogs from the beginning when they are puppies. Get them away from their everyday surroundings. Take young dogs to the front yard with traffic zooming by and to parks and retail stores, anywhere they will meet unfamiliar people and experience new environments. You want them to not be afraid of the big, wide world. Then, when you take them to a handler, it’s just a matter of fine-tuning groundwork already begun.

Years ago a client brought me an already finished champion that had been “put up” while he campaigned another dog on the East Coast. When I got this dog, he had no show temperament. It took six months of working with him before I ever showed him.  

The dog ended up becoming one of the greatest show Pointers of all time. CH Counterpoint’s Lord Ashley even took a Sporting Group First at the Garden in 1970. During his career, “Ashley” won 19 Bests in Show and 97 Group Firsts, and was a two-time winner at the American Pointer Club National Specialty. He also was the No. 1 Sporting dog in 1968 and 1969.

I got lucky with that one.

Practicing at Dog Shows

Dog shows are a perfect place to practice socializing show dogs. After all, long before a show dog enters the show ring he should be conditioned to the sights, sounds and happenings at a dog show.

I used to like putting young dogs in exercise pens so they could watch everything going on. I would typically put a dog in a 4-by-8-foot pen. They feel safe in their space. Sometimes I would put a shy dog beside an alpha dog in an area where I had multiple exercise pens set up. After awhile the shy one becomes more comfortable and begins to emulate the outgoing behavior of the alpha dog.

Some dogs are born naturally outgoing. They investigate you as soon as they meet you. When evaluating a litter of puppies, you always try to identify the alpha dogs. This isn’t the one in the back corner that wants nothing to do with you. The alpha dog thinks he is important, and it shows.

Another dog show activity is to practice walking around with a young dog to help acquaint him with shows. This also helps teach a dog to walk on lead. It shouldn’t be forced walking. If the dog stops, you should also stop to let the dog fulfill his curiosity. No dragging a dog around. This makes one more fearful.

I cannot emphasize the importance of socializing and lead training a young dog. You don’t want to put it off. The longer you wait, the harder it becomes. In the beginning, let a dog walk wherever he wants. After awhile, he will go where you want. Training a dog to walk on a leash should be a positive experience. If you do a good job, it becomes enjoyable.

I prefer using a nylon choker with a lightweight leash. You may prefer a metal choker style. Regard­less, you want the dog to understand when you make a correction. If you stop walking, the dog should get the idea when you tug gently on the lead.

When you show dogs in the ring, you create a picture, which is why I always tried to color coordinate the lead to match the dog’s coat color. If the dog was black, I used a black leash. If the dog were white, I used a white lead. That way the lead becomes invisible.

Some breeds are easier to train on lead than others. I always found sighthounds, particularly Afghan Hounds and Greyhounds, to be the toughest. They tend to be aloof and less interested.

Importantly, you want dogs to have respect on the leash. A dog that never gets training is near impossible to train. If you spend five to 10 minutes a day training, you will master walking with a dog on lead in about one month.

Remember to make it enjoyable for both you and the dog. If you go nice, slow and easy, you’re more likely to have good results. You want to do all you can to help the dog look and perform his best. 

A retired professional all-breed handler, Corky Vroom of Denton, Texas, achieved more than 1,000 Bests in Show, including handling three dogs ranked No. 1 in the country, during his 40-year career. He also served as president of the Professional Handlers’ Association and was a founder of the AKC registered handler program. Vroom now teaches people at all levels how to show dogs in his “Corky Vroom Seminars: Learn to Beat the Pros.” For information, contact Vroom at 940-497-4500 or by e-mail at cvroom@centurytel.net.

This article originally appeared in Today's Breeder, a Nestlé Purina Publication Dedicated to the Needs of Canine Enthusiasts.

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