Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Newbies Guide to the AKC Show Ring

I keep seeing new people wanting some resources for what to expect in the show ring.  I wanted to offer that here with some information that I hope will be helpful.  What I am sharing here is written in regard to showing dogs with the American Kennel Club.  While much is the same, there are some differences in the different venues, so please be sure to make yourself aware of those things when showing in another venue.

How It All Works (in brief)
Here is a very quick look at how the judging works.

  • Class males are shown first, class bitches are shown second, Champions or Specials are last
  • Staring with dogs, each class (6-9 pup, 9-12 pup, Bred-by, Open, etc) is judged and a 1st through 4th place is chosen.
  • All the 1st place winners from the classes go in for the Winners Class
  • The judge picks a Winner's Dog, this is the only dog that gets CH points at that show for that breed or variety.  The judge then chooses a Reserve Winner's Dog, this dog will get the points if for any reason the Winner's Dog isn't eligible (entered in wrong class for example). Note: If you got 2nd place in your class, stay close by because if the 1st place winner in your class goes Winner's, you will have to go back in for Reserve.
  • The same thing is done for bitches to select a Winner's Bitch and a Reserve Winner's Bitch.
  • After Winner's Bitch all the Champions or Specials go in along with Winner's Dog and Winner's Bitch for Best of Breed or Variety, Best Opposite Sex, Best of Winners and Select for Grand Championship points.

Ring Procedures
In general, it looks something like this...

  • As soon as you are settled in, go to your ring and pick up your armband.  Use one of the rubber bands to secure the armband onto your left arm.  If you have thin arms, you may need two!
  • Dogs are called into the ring in catalog order.
  • The ring steward will tell you where to go.
  • When you get there, stack your dog.
  • At this point, some judges will look at the dogs all stacked up and some will tell you not to bother stacking them (or getting on the ground if you kneel) and just take them around together.
  • Once the dogs have gone around together the first dog in line goes on the table for the exam and in general, the other dogs are free to relax.
  • At this point, many judges will not look at the other dogs in the class at all, and you truly can relax.  However, some will watch the dog go around and then look up the line at all the dogs in the class, if you have a judge that does that, do not allow the dog to showcase something that you don't want the judge looking at again and again.
  • When it is your turn, you will stack up your dog.  Usually, you wait until the dog before you has started his last go around to the end of the line.  Sometimes with table dogs you can put them on the table as soon as the other dog has started his pattern.
  • The judge will exam your dog.  I like to wait until the moment the judge is looking and bait the dog so his head and neck are just how I like it.  The judge will walk up and you want to make sure your lead, hands and body are not in any way in the way of the dog so the judge can see. Do not feed your dog right before the judge will examine the bite. I will sometimes use food to occupy the dog if needed after the judge is done examining his head and bite.  
  • The judge will then have you move the dog.  Usually this will be a down and back, a triangle or a diagonal.  When returning to the judge make sure that the judge is looking at you, that you are moving in a straight line and that you stop far enough away so that the judge can see your dog.  
  • The judge will then have you take your dog around to the end.
  • If there is more than one dog in the class, you will stack your dog once the last dog has been examined and sent to the lineup.  Be sure that you have your dog stacked and looking good as the judge passes.  
  • Some judges will walk down the line and back up to look at rears, some judges will back up and look at the group again, for some breeds you may need to move a few times as the judge walks around.  Some judges for some breeds may have you stack your dog facing the judge.  All things you should practice for and be ready for.
  • The judge will sometimes put the dogs in the order he or she is considering and then move the dogs again.
  • The judge will make the picks and then you go to the stand with the appropriate sign on it (1, 2, 3, 4).
  • If you have won the Open class, you stay in the ring and go to the front of the line for the Winners class.  If you have won another class you simply wait near the ring gate to be called back in for Winners.
  • In the Winners class the judge may move all the dogs again, may put another dog or two on the table, etc.  Be prepared for that.
  • If you win the Winners class, you need to stay close by to come back into the ring for the Breed or Variety judging.
Things to keep in mind
  • Get to the show grounds in plenty of time.  I like to arrive an hour before judging.
  • Watch the judge with other breeds if you can to get an idea of where you will be asked to stack, the patterns the judge is using, etc.
  • Pick up your armband as soon as you are set up and ready to go.
  • Watch the judge but do not disconnect from your dog.  
  • Talk to your dog, have fun and let your dog have fun.
  • Be courteous with bait and toys in the ring.
  • Be courteous about space and make sure to give the dog in front of you plenty of space.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Cattle Dog Named Stan

So, there's this cattle dog, an Australian Cattle Dog, you know, a blue heeler, the type of dog that many believe you have to be rough with, hard on, the boss of and heavy handed with?  Yeah, one of those.  Stan was adopted by a loving couple who just wanted a nice dog to do things with, to be active with, to take places.  Unfortunately, Stan turned out to be reactive with other dogs.  He would bark and lunge when he saw other dogs and the behavior was getting worse so they contacted a trainer.

Trainer A
The first trainer is a positive reinforcement trainer recommended by the rescue group where Stan was adopted.  The trainer apparently tried to use straight classical conditioning (feed in the presence of the trigger) to modify the issue and change Stan's feelings and reactions to other dogs.  Unfortunately, they did so without the use of systematic desensitization.

Classical conditioning is really just pairing something (other dogs) with something (food, for instance).  Best case scenario is that the dog's emotional response to the "thing", in this case other dog, changes from upset to happy because the other dog has been paired with food.  In my opinion, it is best to do this while also using desensitization.  Desensitization means that you keep the dog "under threshold" or exposed at a low enough intensity level that the dog is not reacting, can learn, eat and think.  This didn't happen with Stan, he is was far too close and while he would frantically eat, he was far from comfortable.  It is my opinion that there would have been far greater success if desensitization was also implemented and if the owner was taught a bit more about the fundamentals of the process and how it should work and how it changes behavior.  While we don't need to be too "science-y" with our clients, we do need to be sure not to dumb it down so that they don't even understand how or why something should work and why.

His owner did not see a significant if any change from this trainer, so contacted another trainer.

Trainer B
Stan was sent to a board and train trainer who uses aversives including shock collars and pinch collars to train dogs.  Stan was basically physically corrected for reacting to other dogs.  This didn't make him feel more relaxed, comfortable or safe.  For weeks he was jerked and shocked for reacting to other dogs before the trainer returned him to her with the information that "there is really something wrong with your dog" and that "I can't fix him".  Stan was as reactive as ever, probably even more so now.

Why would he get worse and why didn't this work?  When using punishment to change behavior a few things have to happen.  First, of course the timing has to be impeccable, however, even if it is, if you are using a tool that can create pain or fear for the dog, you start to lose control of what exactly the dog is associating it with.  You could be and many times are attempting to correct the dog for his reaction to the other dog, but instead are simply making his feelings about the other dog worse. So, how can he possibly stop reacting defensively when he has more and more reason to feel defensive? We need to feel safe to learn.

Best case scenario, for the owner, not the dog, in this case would have been that he linked the corrections with his behavior of barking or lunging and simply stopped doing it and learned how to cope with his fear or discomfort around other dogs.  This happens sometimes and it's why some people feel that this method is acceptable.  See?  It works!  Well, it works if you are only interested in making the behavior stop, it doesn't work if you are interested in making the dog comfortable with other dogs.  I have seen this stop some dogs from reacting to other dogs, but I have never seen it make dogs okay with other dogs being around and it certainly doesn't help with the dogs actual relationship with other dogs if he has any, which would be my goal.  I don't want him to just stop, I want him to feel okay AND stop.  The dog feeling okay is a critical piece for me.

Honestly, I have seen people correct dogs for YEARS for reacting to other dogs. YEARS.  And the behavior never changes and in many cases it gets worse.  Suppressing behavior in the moment is very different from changing the future of the behavior.  Punishment reduces the future frequency of the behavior, so if it is punishment it has to change the future of the behavior.  What is it if it doesn't change the behavior but the dog gets shocked or jerked whenever they see another dog? Physically correcting a dog for reacting to other dogs gives him so much more to worry about.  He is forced to be exposed to other dogs at an intensity level he is far too overwhelmed at,  if he reacts he is in trouble, he can't turn to his owner or handler for help because they are the one doling out the punishment.  Many times you can see the dog squirm and look stressed and uncomfortable but tries to hold it together because he is trying so desperately to avoid being corrected by his owner. Not a great life.

The owner was pretty horrified by this training and would not allow Stan to remain for more training and turned to another trainer who was recommended by a trainer that the owner highly trusted.

Trainer C
Trainer C accused the dog of enjoying reacting at other dogs.  This trainer said that Trainer B did it all wrong, but then proceeded to do the exact same thing as Trainer B with no improvement.  Not surprising since again, it is a very flawed method and will not work with all or even most dogs.

Many trainers who use these methods and simply continue to introduce bigger sticks...stringing him up on a choke chain doesn't work put a pinch collar on him, if a pinch doesn't work, put a shock collar on him, if that doesn't work, put both on him, if that doesn't work, put the shock collar on his abdomen.  None of which makes the dog okay with other dogs!

Finally, the owner just stopped and backed off.  She could no longer stomach watching what was being done to her dog in the name of training.  All she ever wanted to do was help him.  This journey with this amazing companion of hers has taught her a lot.  She eventually went on to learn more about behavior and training.  Stan is older now, she has worked with him using desensitization and counter conditioning and gotten him to the point where they do well together and he is much more comfortable with other dogs in the world.  Had she been exposed to this training plan earlier on things would probably be very different for Stan, but I don't think it could have made their relationship stronger.  Everything she has done with him was done FOR him. She didn't get the help that she paid for or deserved.  But, now she knows and when we know better we do better.

For what it's worth, when you say cattle dog a lot of people will claim to know the breed and what they need.  They talk about being firm, in control, the boss, a good leader and many recommend harsh training methods and treatment.  I have trained, lived with and fostered many cattle dogs and in my experience, for a dog that is bred to work cattle in a way and in a terrain that few dogs could do, they are incredibly sensitive.  As an owner, a cattle dog is not a dog that I want untrusting or suspicious of his human partner.  Be clear, train well, be fair, trust him when he knows better than you and you won't find a better partner.

Finally, it's important to know that just because someone is a great dog trainer or very skilled in training pet dogs or dogs for a certain sport does not in any way guarantee that they understand the ins and outs of behavior problems or how to solve them.

Thank you to Stan and his owner for letting me write about his story.