Are You Ready?

~ The Art of Conditioning ~
Part Two

By Melinda Sunnarborg

Reprinted from the 12/00 Collie Club of America Bulletin.
(All rights reserved.)

"You can't expect to win unless you know why you lose." - Benjamin Lipson
In the last issue, we discussed preparing for the show ring with the same focus as do top athletes for their own sporting competitions. We looked at the important components of conditioning that are health, coat care, and grooming. In this concluding article, we will visit the remaining elements: socialization, training, and mental preparation. We will see how proper attention to detail within each of these areas can form a promising strategy for a successful show season

4.Socialization. In short, socialization means getting out into the world and exposing a puppy or dog to LIFE in general in order to build his self-confidence. We have all seen and felt sorry for unconfident dogs in the show ring. Their ears are back, they are panting, they shy away from the judge, they are looking around as if for an escape route and they are not focused on their handler. They look miserable. Their handler looks even more miserable.

In the beginning, wherever possible, take your collie everywhere. Bring him along to family events, picnics, trips downtown, shopping centers, parks and playgrounds - all kinds of different places. You want to expose him to the sights and scents of different people, cars, traffic, trains, kids, birds, balloons, flashbulbs, airplanes, construction equipment - anything and everything. Take him to work after-hours and let him run around inside the building to get him used to a strange roof over his head. Take him to the vet's office just to visit and let him get petted by the staff. Praise him enthusiastically for acting "brave" or for walking up to investigate new people or things. All of these experiences will build up what we call his "social bank account." When the time comes later on for him to face new situations, such as traveling to unfamiliar shows and hotels, he will have a strong portfolio of past experiences on which to build his confidence. More important, he will trust you and feel secure and at ease when he is with you.

5.Training. There is nothing more beautiful than a well-groomed collie standing out at the end of his lead, showing confidently, then gaiting precisely and happily on a loose lead beside his handler. The handler goes almost unnoticed because the dog is practically showing himself for the judge and for ringside. He draws himself up, carries his neck arched, and his expression is curious and animated. He practically radiates charisma and has a "look at me!" attitude. Isn't that the picture we want to create when we walk into the ring with one of our own collies?

A wise animal behaviorist once stated that it takes the same amount of time to train a new dog for the conformation ring as it does to train a dog for an obedience CD degree. Sound like a lot of time? Think about what we are asking our collie to do. We want him to move at a correct trot, in a straight line, with his head up, and on a loose lead when we ask him to. We want him to stand squarely and not sit while the judge examines him. We want him to place his feet in the correct position - on his own for the most part - and not fidget around. So, essentially, we are indeed teaching a number of the Novice obedience exercises: the Heel on Lead, the Stand for Examination, and the Stay commands.

Teaching a collie a new behavior is like trying to teach a four-year-old child who does not speak our language. You need to go slow, be very clear and consistent in how you ask for the behavior, and provide immediate positive reinforcement when the correct behavior is given. It helps to give each action a name, such as "stand," "stay," "let's go," "head up," "turn," and "stop," so that through repetition, the collie learns the verbal cues for what is expected of him. Use savory tidbits, such as pieces of chicken, cheese or liverwurst as motivators and rewards while teaching a new behavior. Heap on the praise when he does something right! Clicker-training works very well for teaching show routines because it is easier to mark a correct behavior with a click than it is with a "good dog." Surely our voices must sound like "blah, blah, blah" much of the time to our dogs. A well-timed click cuts through the blather and registers instantly in the dog's brain that "Yes, I did the right thing and a treat is coming." For more information about clicker-training, do read the great little book, "Don't Shoot the Dog" by Karen Pryor or search "clicker-training" on the Internet for some great on-line articles.

Certainly you have heard an exhibitor say, after a particularly embarrassing performance in the ring, "I don't understand why he doesn't behave - I take him to class!" This is a classic example of what obedience competitors call "location training." The dog performs perfectly in the backyard or at training class because he has been continually trained in those locations and is comfortable there. But at a show, there are a million new sights and sounds to take in; lots and lots of new stimuli. It's not that the dog has forgotten his training; it's just that it is not a "priority" to him at the moment. This new stimuli is much too enticing! The solution? Practice at lots of different locations - parks, fun matches, schools, etc. Train at the show site also - the day of the show. Plan to arrive an extra half hour early - beyond the time you need for set-up and grooming. Pick an out-of-the-way area and practice the ring behaviors that your dog has learned at home. Bring the clicker along, if you use one. Run though stacking, stays, the down-and-back and the triangle patterns. Calmly correct the dog's mistakes; enthusiastically reward the correct behaviors; use the verbal cues to tell him what you expect. With consistency on your part, your collie will learn what his "job" is at the shows and he should catch on very, very quickly.

As part of your homework, practice by yourself - without a dog. Check your posture in a full-length mirror, or better yet, set up a video camera and tape yourself, both with and without the dog. You'll be amazed at the little things you pick up on - simple things like standing up straighter or standing with your feet closer together. Little things can do a lot to improve the overall picture of you and your collie together in the ring. Put on the clothes that you normally wear in the ring and see how you look from afar. Maybe your favorite show outfit doesn't hang on you exactly like you thought it did! Every detail that you can focus on and correct is one more card in the deck in your favor.

6.Mental Preparation. The last element of conditioning is probably the most overlooked. To again draw a comparison to the Olympic athletes, notice how many of them are "focusing" in the last few minutes prior to their event. They have blocked out everything around them. They are concentrating on visualizing their upcoming performance in their mind; doing a mental run-through in advance.

In following the standard show advice of always watching the judging of a class or two before your own, try taking it a step further. Project yourself in the place of the handler you're watching. See through his/her eyes for a moment. How spacious is the ring? Do you see that sprinkler head in the grass, waiting to trip you? How much room do you have for the down-and-back pattern? Where are you going to set up your collie? Facing which direction? Where does the judge stand when he/she is watching the dogs move? If you do this mental exercise a time or two before you take your own dog in the ring, you will have a little edge over the rest of your competition. In a virtual sense, you will have already practiced. Instead of worrying about yourself, you can focus on your collie and give him the cues he needs to have a great performance of his own. Another card in your stack!

Let's compare a typical dog showing experience with one that incorporates the six components of conditioning.

We've all seen them. A couple pulls up in the parking lot at the show grounds. They come to a screeching halt. They're late. They yell at each other. " Who's got the bait?" " Who's got the lead?" "What ring are we in?" They grab the dog and run like mad to ringside. No time for final grooming. "Heck, the judge won't even notice those extra whiskers!" "If there's time, we'll exercise Champ before he goes in the ring. If not, we can always do it afterward." "You know, Champ threw up his dinner last night, but he's probably ok by now." "Gee, too bad we missed training class on Tuesday, night. Oh, well - Champ knows what to do."

About 45 minutes later, we see the same couple on their way back to the parking lot, usually without a purple ribbon, and most likely grousing about how "crooked" the judging was! How was Champ's performance? There's probably no need to ask! Will his owners ever "get it"? Maybe. Unfortunately, they spent the same amount of travel time and money in entry fees, parking, and gas as their competitors, who were prepared to win.

By contrast, the exhibitor who has planned out a strategy of preparation and conditioning has a much different kind of day at the show. He arrives early - in plenty of time to set up his equipment and exercise his collie. He does his first round of chalking and brushing, then takes his dog out for a short practice session of stacking, gaiting and executing the patterns. He puts the collie back in the pen to rest and get a drink of water, while he gets a cup of coffee for himself and watches the judge's first classes. What virtues is the judge rewarding? How can our exhibitor emphasize these features in his own dog? He studies the judge's ring procedure and notes where he wants the dogs set up and what patterns he uses. Our exhibitor imagines himself in the ring with his dog and visualizes their performance. He knows exactly what he'll do from the moment he steps within the ring ropes...

Back to the setup. Our exhibitor puts the finishing touches on his collie who, thanks to training and socialization, is relaxed and calm. Our friend checks the ring one more time to pick up his armband and makes mental note of where the judge is within the schedule. He estimates two minutes per dog and will return to ringside when the judge is nearly finished with the specials class of the breed before collies.

When his class is called, our exhibitor moves directly to his predetermined mark in the ring, making sure that his collie is trotting, not pacing. However, all of the biking and road work are now paying off and the collie moves true - even at a slow speed. The judge sends them around and our collie moves on a loose lead, looking forward, with his head up and slightly in front of the handler's knee, as though he is leading him on the trip around the ring. First in catalog order, our exhibitor stops and free-stacks his collie who knows through training that he is to stand with his feet in the correct position and stay until told to move forward. The judge performs his examination and the handler stands upright and lightly holds the collar. The judge is impressed by the excellent muscle tone of this collie. He notes the immaculate grooming, down to the short, rounded nails and the sparkling white teeth. He touches the coat. It is full, clean, and it feels "alive" - in beautiful condition. On the triangle, the collie again moves on a loose lead. As they approach the first corner of the triangle, the handler gives the verbal cue to turn left, which the collie does without breaking stride. He knows the triangle pattern well from their many practice sessions.

On the final line-up, our exhibitor checks his collie's stance. He noticed while watching the previous classes that this judge will reward a good shoulder assembly, so he turns his collie just slightly inward so that the judge gets a good view of his nice front. Then he moves back to the end of the lead, tells his collie to "stay" and stands still. He holds his bait low. When he watched their practice sessions on videotape, he noted that his collie arched his neck elegantly when the bait was lowered. He smiles at his collie so that the dog knows he is pleased with him, then he takes a quick glance at the judge. The judge is pointing right at him. "YOU - you're Best of Variety!"

Is all of this a fantasy? It doesn't have to be. Each one of us is empowered to decide just how much effort we want to put into the preparation of our collies for the show ring. We can take "potluck" and do the minimum - and hope we can win once in a while. Or we can be focused like those Olympic competitors and use all of what we know about elements of conditioning to "stack the deck" and increase the odds of being successful. We may not have to wait four years for each chance to "go for the gold," but with a similar commitment to proper conditioning for our collies, we can make the best of our regular opportunities to "strive for the purple"! So... are you READY?

Bio: Melinda Sunnarborg has been a CCA member since 1982 and worked for several years as a professional groomer. Under the Burlywood prefix, she has bred and shown champion Collies and Basset Hounds, as well as trained obedience titlists in both breeds.

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