By now, you have figured out that I am all about making sure that dog shows are fun for dogs. It's only fair that if we are going to ask our dogs to participate in a sport with us, that we make sure that they enjoy it. Not only is it the only ethical way to approach it, it's also the only realistic way to approach it. If a dog is not having fun, he is generally not going to be competitive. So, whether you are starting out a new puppy or an adult that is new to the show scene, it is critical that you go about it the right way or you risk ruining dog shows for your dog forever, or at least for a long time.
Dogs, like other animals, can experience "single event learning" which means that some experiences, particularly very frightening ones can have a lasting effect. If your dog goes to a dog show and has a very frightening experience or a very stressful or upsetting one, he may associate dog shows with bad things. If we want our dogs to win at dog shows we have to make sure that they have fun at them and that they enjoy showing. We want all their dog show experiences, especially their early ones to be fun and rewarding. It is really critical that your dog doesn't experience any really scary experiences at his or her first few dog shows. It is doubly important if you are working with a puppy under a year old or a very sensitive dog.
Since the first and most important thing to do is to make sure that your dog has fun at dog shows it is up to you to set it up to ensure that this happens. Bring high value treats and toys to dog shows. Realize that the first few times to a dog show can be very overwhelming so it's important that you are prepared to set your dog up to have fun and enjoy himself. Bringing toys and treats will help him to associate dog shows with fun things.
Consider going to some shows just to hang out with your dog without entering. A lot of people have a difficult time with this and figure that it's a waste of time to go without entering. Not true! It's actually a really good idea to take your dog to a show or two without entering so that he gets used to the sights and sounds that he will be exposed to at a dog shows. Unless you have practiced in a LOT of different environments with a variety of different distractions you have no idea how your dog will react and how well he will be able to perform at a dog show, unless you attend a couple first to see how he does. Dog shows are fun for people but they can be extremely overwhelming to some dogs. Dogs that are easily aroused or shy or timid really need to be desensitized to the dog show environment before being expected to perform reliably at one.
This next recommendation is a really important one and one that a lot of people take very lightly, unfortunately. I recommend that a new show dogs first shows are one day gigs. I would never ever start a puppy at a two day show and I would certainly never take a new show dog or a young show dog to a three or four day cluster. Even with a very well trained and experienced show dog, three or four days is a lot. I have seen many very stable dogs that seem to enjoy dog shows get really burned out on the third or fourth day of a long show weekend. It takes a lot for a dog to work up to being able to cope with that, and in my opinion it's simply not fair to expect that from young or inexperienced dogs. So, start them out nice and easy with just one day. If you do enter a four day cluster I recommend you pull the dog if you start to see signs of stress or fatigue.
Finally, please make sure that your dog is ready to attend a dog show before entering him. I can't tell you how many people contact me a week or two before a three or four day dog show because they entered their untrained, unprepared dog and now they are panicked because the show is in a couple of weeks and their dog is not ready. It is unethical in my opinion to enter a dog in a show when they are not prepared for the show ring. Even a stable dog will experience some stress at a dog show, especially their first shows, but if you also have a dog is not trained and has no idea what to do or what is expected and it's a recipe for disaster. It's simply not fair to the dog and a great way to teach your dog to dislike dog shows because they view them as overwhelming events where they are confused and don't know what to expect.
So, take your time, plan well and be smart. There will always be another dog show, so if your dog is not ready don't enter yet. If you do enter, take your time to ease your dog in so that they can slowly and honestly get used to the dog show scene so that they learn to love dog shows!