Improving your dog's gait for the show ring is as easy as using a click and a treat.
In the show ring, the way a dog moves can be more important than its coat, head, teeth or any other physical
characteristic. Movement shows best at the trot because, unlike the walk or gallop, the trot is a symmetrical,
balanced movement. In this motion, any unsoundness - a bad hip, a weak shoulder - will show up at once. To the
trained eye, little defects in movement, such as spraddling the hind feet or crossing the front feet, can reveal
poor proportions or structural flaws.
These flaws may not be evident under the thick coat of a Collie or Samoyed or when the dog is standing still,
but they are characteristics that affect the dog's stamina, endurance, lifelong health and ability to perform the
work for which it was bred. These characteristics will also be passed down to any offspring the dog might have,
which is why showing is important to breeders and for dogs.
Judges, therefore, want to see each dog trot past them, which allows for a good side view of the animal. Judges
also make each handler trot their dog directly toward and away from their line of sight, so they can gauge how
closely the dog approaches its breed's ideal.
All too often, however, the behavior of both dog and handler make fair evaluations impossible. If your dog trots
on a diagonal (known as 'crabbing') or lugs on its lead as if pulling a milk wagon, the judge has no chance to
see anything but poor movement. Down go your dog's marks; down go your chances to win. But these handicaps can
be avoided and your dog's movement improved by training with a clicker and treats.
Team-Training The Gait
In my previous column, I explained how to use a toy clicker (or any other distinctive sound) to mark the exact
moment your dog does something right. After clicking, tell your dog with petting, praise and treats that you are
pleased. The crucial information, however - what the dog did to earn all that - lies in the marker signal. You
can also ring a bell, blow a whistle or jingle the coins in your pocket. It is important to use an artificial sound
as a marker signal; research indicates that it is much clearer to dogs than any spoken word.
Improving movement with a clicker is more easily accomplished by two people: one to click, one to treat. Find
a partner - perhaps someone who is also preparing to show a dog - and schedule some practice time. As you gait
your dog, have your partner click when your dog does what you want. Stop instantly on the click and give your dog
a treat of cubed cheese or diced chicken. After that, resume gaiting, giving your dog another chance to earn a
click and treat.
Try not to tease or bait your dog with the food. Waving food around defeats the purpose of the clicker. It makes
your dog watch and follow your hands, instead of looking straight ahead; it also makes your dog think about food,
rather than what it is suppose to be doing to earn the click. Also, don't click at the end of the run. Click at
random points during the run, or you'll rapidly develop a dog that looks bored during the run and elated only at
the turnaround point.
Decide what needs improvement. Remember: You want your dog to be near you, perhaps even a little in front of
you, and moving straight. You can put your partner alongside you to work on positioning your dog, or at either
end of the track to work on its straight-line movement. Trade positions with your partner, so you can watch and
click your own dog and see how it's coming along. Finally, keep your sessions short. Don't push yourself or your
dog to the point of fatigue.
Working in teams will enable you to teach your dog in just a few five-minute sessions to move in a straight
line, to keep its ears and tail up, to have a happy look on its face and to move on a slightly loose lead. Why
not hand those responsibilities over to your dog? Use the clicker to explain what you want - and your dog will
be thrilled to oblige.
A loose lead is important. If you hold the lead taut, your dog will almost certainly resist, pulling sideways
or backwards. Even a little resistance throws the gait off completely. Nevertheless, stringing your dog upon the
neck seems to be the fashion these days. I recently saw a 'professional' handler, in a major show, gaiting an Australian
Terrier with such a tight lead that the dog's front feet were completely off the ground. What the judge thought,
I can't imagine; the dog was visibly miserable.
Problems You Can Fix
You can also use team-training to correct flaws in your dog's gaiting. By clicking at the right moment, you
can tell your dog that you want it to trot, not pace; that it should keep its front paws aligned with its shoulder,
not flying wide. What follows is a good example.
Jennifer is a young St. Bernard that, like many big dogs, tends to shamble along with her head down. Her owner
wanted Jennifer to look proud and confident by carrying her head high. We put an observer in the center of our
practice space while the owner trotted Jennifer back and forth in a straight line. The observer clicked after a
few steps, and Jennifer's owner instantly stopped and gave the dog a treat. The process was repeated at random
intervals three more times.
The next time the owner started off, Jennifer's head went up. Click and treat. Now, on each try, the observer
clicked only when the head went up. In five minutes Jennifer was carrying her head high. She looked like a different
dog - a winner. Did she 'feel' different? Who knows? She looked happy, which wins points in any judge's eye.
The next step for Jennifer's owner would be to spend five minutes a day gaiting her at a trot, while teaching
her that the phrase 'show time' means
'Carry your head high, and you'll get a click and treat.' Then the owner could, if she wished, replace the click
with the word, 'good', and Jennifer would be ready for the ring - where, happily, you may talk to your dog and
give it treats whenever you like.
By the way, can you run in a straight line with your head up? Most people can't, without practice. If you're
unable to run straight, you may trip on your dog. If you look down at your dog, you'll make it run crooked. To
fix this, draw a straight line on the floor on pavement with chalk, or on grass with flour. Then you and your partner
should click each other for running beside the line without stepping on or over it. Your dog will be grateful -
and you and it will both look calmer and more confident in the ring.
[ Part I ] [ Part 2 ] [ Part 3 ] [ Part
For more information about clicker training
your dogs, whether for show or obedience, go to ... www.karenpryor.com