I recently showed a dog for someone. It was a dog I have seen at shows for years, but not a dog that I know personally. He is a seasoned special who has been shown by professionals as well as his owner. This dog is well trained and knows exactly what to do in the show ring and I was looking forward to showing him at our specialty.

When his owner got him out of the crate and put the lead on, he was agreeable, but didn’t come right up to me. He jumped on his owner and was unsure about coming to see me, but still agreed to come with me. This is the moment where we can make or break a first impression with a new dog. In my opinion, far too many people take a dog’s affability for granted. As I said this dog was willing to come with me, but I don’t want him to come because he is willing, I want him to come because he wants to come. At this point I could have walked off with him and went and stood at ringside and we would have worked together this day in a professional but somewhat disconnected way. He would not have given me any trouble, but he would have probably walked away with a somewhat bland experience and similar opinion of me. That isn’t what I am looking for when I work with a dog, so I approached it a bit more thoughtfully with his feelings in mind.

Before taking him out, I had loaded up with treats. As I walked off with him he was a bit unsure, not freaking out at all, just looking around a bit wondering why this stranger was walking off with him. I took a step with him, said “yes” and gave him a treat. I continued to do this a few times until he relaxed and settled down. We went outside and I continued to reinforce him for walking with me. I hand stacked him and reinforced him for allowing me to do that. I lifted him up and stacked him on an elevated surface and reinforced him for that. I petted him, talked to him and paired myself with treats. I pottied him and walked him around and then I took him and sat down to watch some judging at ringside. I lifted him onto my lap, pet him and talked to him. At this point I realized I had built a solid foundation with him.

I showed him and he did beautifully for me. I took food into the ring and reinforced him often for all of his good choices rather than simply ignoring them. He did everything I asked of him and I thanked him by gently praising him. He won an award of merit. Later on someone came up to me and said, “I saw you holding your dog at ringside, it is obvious how much he loves you”. I explained that it wasn’t my dog but a dog I had just met and showed for the first time. She told me that the way he was looking at me looked like “pure love”. I don’t know if it was pure love, but I know that with just a tiny bit of effort I was able to help this dog feel more comfortable and relaxed in my care.

Of course, we don’t always have a lot of time to get to know a dog, but it takes much less than you might think to make a good impression on a dog. Sometimes the way dogs are handed off with no regard to the dog or his opinion is frustrating for me to watch. While these dogs may be well trained and even outgoing, it doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve the courtesy of a proper introduction. Here are some things you can do to help a dog settle in and relax:

  • Offer treats, even if the dog doesn’t “need” them. This will create a positive conditioned emotional response (CER) to you for the dog.
  • Spend a little time getting to know the dog before taking him and before demanding he work for you.
  • Stay connected and attentive when working with new dogs.
  • Reinforce good behavior, for even if the dog is trained working with a new person can be hard and deserves to be rewarded.
  • Listen to the dog and observe his body language.
  • Have gentle and reassuring hands on the dog.


Vicki Ronchette is the founder of Show Dog Prep School and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Vicki has been working with dogs professionally for over 30 years as a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, groomer and veterinary assistant. She is the author of Positive Training for Show Dogs, From Shy to Showy and Ready? Set. SHOW! Vicki presents workshops and seminars all over the country on how training show dogs.