The Best Tricks for Show Dogs
By Chelsea Murray CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, CTDI
Have you ever been in a large class or group ring with your dog hoping they have enough brain cells left to “be good” just a little longer? Have you ever been a little stressed trying to keep your dog’s arousal levels manageable? Preparing your dog for the show ring involves a wide variety of skills from socialization as a puppy, to body handling, and the show ring routine. But, as a professional trainer and trick dog instructor, I encourage ALL of my clients to master a few key tricks that can help save your show ring performance!
Why Do Tricks Work?
Our goal when working with our dogs on any skill is for both the teacher and the learner to have fun. But, have you ever noticed how certain skills are more enjoyable to work on? Focusing on fine tuning a heel position for obedience can lead us to feeling a bit more serious or even stressed. This impacts our tone of voice and how we deliver the cue, how generous we are with our rewards, and can emotionally impact our dogs. But, it is hard to keep a straight face while teaching your dog to submerge their nose and blow bubbles. Seriously, have you tried it? Teaching tricks generally lifts our spirits and in turn, those of our dogs! This means that the dogs and their humans often are both happy, the behaviors are heavily reinforced, and the cues are rarely (if ever) poisoned. This leads to behaviors that the dogs want to do that can not only keep them engaged with us but can also boost their mood.
Trick 1: The Hand Target
Hand targets are often taught as part of foundation curriculums for young dogs – they are very practical and have many potential benefits! A hand target is when you teach your dog to take their nose and touch your hand. This skill, often put on a cue of “touch” or “here”, has endless uses on show day. Hand targets are often used with dogs to get them from point A to point B without having to touch them or to interrupt them and redirect them from an undesired behavior like inappropriate chewing. Since this skill can be used like a magnet to help include the dog in movement instead of forcing them, this skill is useful to navigate congested ring sides, get your dog out of a sit and into a stand on the grooming table, and even reposition them to look forward in the ring. Hand targets can also be used to teach a follow behavior, which makes them practical as foundation to other skills too like a spin. For our dogs who need more energy in the ring to show off their gaiting, practicing some fast paced targets in different positions can help increase excitement and jazz them up to improve their performance.
Video Tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXsti2XN9mo&t=3s
Trick 2: Spin
Teaching a dog to spin in circles in both directions is another great trick for show dogs. Spin is often used in fitness programs for canine athletes as it can provide a gentle warm-up and stretch for the neck and spine. Slow spinning in circles can also help improve a dog’s body awareness and proprioception, which can lead to more thoughtful movement and stacking skills. As a skill for the show ring it can provide a structured outlet for some ring jitters. Young dogs, dogs who struggle with impulse control, or those with some pent up energy can often struggle with maintaining stillness. Providing a structured outlet for movement via a spin behavior can help them release that energy in a productive way thus reducing the likelihood of other “energy bursts” like barking or trying to move around on lead to visit neighbors. Since this skill is one of those “happy behaviors” it can also help keep that young dog focused on you instead of looking around for entertainment from other sources. Spins can also be used to help excite more low-key dogs. Increasing motion and jazzing them up can help them just before they get their chance to gait around the ring. In large breed rings or group rings when the judge has given permission for dogs and handlers to “relax”, go ahead and add in a few spins to the mix!
Video Tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QK-cOTysEgM
Trick 3: Go to Mat/ Settle
Another favorite trick of mine is teaching dogs how to relax on cue. I personally teach the behavior of “settle” to signal to the dog to find their mat or towel and lay down. This cued relaxation is a great way to manage arousal levels in young dogs and help prevent them from becoming over stimulated. For our more quiet and even fearful dogs it can be hugely beneficial in providing structure. By giving them a visual signal on where they can relax and allowing them to use this known skill, you can use this reinforced behavior to help them build positive associations with the show environment and become more comfortable. Plus, having your clean and groomed dog relax on a towel is much better than the floor!
Video Tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvXjKv5VcmY
Trick 4: Chin Rest
Another practical show dog skill is teaching a chin rest. This duration behavior involves teaching a dog to relax and rest their chin on a target. This target could be a pillow, like one used for grooming a Standard Poodle, or an easily transportable target like your hand! Chin rests can be used to help keep dogs still on the grooming table, to walk a dog through a crowd (with a moving chin rest), and can be cued before you lift their head to show bite during the exam. If your chin rest behavior includes duration and relaxation, you can also strategically utilize this skill to help reduce arousal in the ring by allowing your dog a moment to take a breath and rehearse a calm skill.
Video Tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2lnaerPR5o
Trick 5: Take a Breath
You know those jittery feelings of stress or nerves as you enter the ring? Chances are your dog feels them too. Just like humans can work on mental management skills that include deep belly breaths to reduce stress, we can teach our dogs to breathe too! Dr. Karen Overall’s Take a Breath protocol can give you more tools to help your dog calm down. So if you start noticing any stress signals like your dog checking out and unable to respond to a cue, looking around frantically, scratching or shaking off, or even increasing respiration rate- you can cue your dog to take a breath to promote relaxation. As you rehearse this skill more and become more observant of your dog’s stress signaling, you can use this proactively to help your dog stay under threshold.
Video Tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzRr9CEEzhI
Trick 6: 1, 2, 3 Pattern Game
Pattern games, like this 1, 2, 3 game from Leslie McDevitt, are not only easy for the dog and handler to learn but can also be quickly applied in many situations. This game can be used to teach wiggly dogs to remain still during a stack. A dog who is quick to be frustrated may jump the gun and break a stay frequently during their stand leading to more frustration. By teaching the dog the treat comes at three, you can begin to add stress-free duration because the dog learns the pattern. This game can also be used to teach dogs to pass even the most exciting distractions in a busy crowd encouraging focus on you as they follow the pattern.
Video Tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRxlIp_1gr4
Starting the Training and Putting Them to Use
When beginning to look at your show dog and your show ring routine I always recommend evaluating whether or not your dog needs more help relaxing and reducing stress or needs more help getting amped up. It is important to look closely here too as some stress can be hard even for many experienced dog homes to read! While stress can look like frantic behavior or trying to get away or flee, stress can also be more subtle and look like a dog who is calm, quiet, and distracted. Once you have identified the individual needs your dog may have you can begin to work on the appropriate skills to help maximize your ring routine! Spending 3-5 minutes a couple times a day can help you make great headway on the behavior. And as you advance, begin to look for some new and quiet environments you can practice in, helping your dog generalize the skill making it useful for the real world.
What tricks do you find useful for your show dog?