Can a stranger walk up to your dog and look at its teeth? All dogs at Westminster can, while most pet dogs cannot.
Hundreds of perfectly groomed, beautifully cared for dogs come to Madison Square Garden for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the second-oldest continuous sporting event in the nation. For two days, the dogs are judged on how well they exemplified their particular breed. Judges looked at the dogs’ physiques, fur, eyes, color and grooming. Only one dog out of 2,500 dogs has a chance to be selected Best in Show. Westminster, you see, is the canine equivalent of the Miss America Pageant without the baton twirling.
Before you decide conformation showing is all fluff, ask yourself this question: Can a stranger walk up to your dog and look at its teeth? Can your dog even stand still while someone takes a good long look at him? All dogs at Westminster can, while most pet dogs cannot.
If you wonder why these behaviors are important, change the scene from Madison Square Garden to the exam room at your veterinary clinic or grooming parlor. Here the behaviors taught to show dogs have a valuable purpose.
If you wish to give your pet the ability to be groomed calmly or allow a veterinarian to examine an injury, you have to know how to shape behaviors. The best tool is positive reinforcement. Loosely defined, that is anything nice that strengthens behaviors.
It is important to be able to connect a positive reinforcer to the right behavior. For a pet dog that wants to behave like a show dog, it is crucial to know exactly which behavior caused the reward. Traditionally, people have tried to use verbal praise to connect a reinforcement to a behavior. The problem is it takes too long. To see what I mean, try this little experiment: Hold a book at arm’s length. Now drop it. When the book reaches the halfway point, say “Good boy.” Even if you have really good timing, the book will hit the floor before you can finish speaking. If you attempt to mark the halfway point, you will have to say the praise more quickly.
To solve this problem, you need a signal that can tell your dog the exact instant it performs the correct behavior. For modern trainers, a toy clicker is the best tool for teaching a new behavior. Associating the clicker’s sound with treats and affection becomes an abbreviated way of saying “Good boy.” If you don’t have a clicker, you can still increase your accuracy by saying “Good” instead of “Good boy.” If you want to try clicker training, begin by holding the clicker inside your pocket as you use it for the first couple of training sessions. This limits the possibility a sound-sensitive dog will be too startled by the click to complete the command. By the third session, the dog should be interested in the sound, regardless of its volume.