Preparing Your Aussie Puppy for the Conformation Ring

by Nannette Newbury © 1997 AKC Breed Column
Although primarily an owner-handler(breeder-owner-handler) breed, the Australian Shepherd is fast gaining the attention of top professional handlers nationwide. It doesn’t mean that breeder-owner-handlers won’t be able to obtain top honors with their own dogs, but it does mean that you need to get smarter in your approach to the conformation ring. Assuming you have taken the proper time and effort in breeding or finding your show prospect, there are many things you can do to sway the judge’s decision in favor of your dog.

One of the strongest and most admirable traits of the Aussie is its loyalty and biddability—willingness to please. Aussies love bonding and performing for their special person. As an owner-handler you have an extremely unfair advantage over a professional handler in this regard. Often a handler only has the dog on weekends, or for a show circuit. Take full advantage of this trait. Establish trust and bond with your puppy from the beginning.

Another great advantage is the affect you can have on puppy rearing that will give your Aussie the tools he/she will need to cope with the rigors and stresses of showing in the conformation ring. Socialization is probably the most important factor that will affect how your puppy handles adulthood and showing. I make a point of presenting my show puppies with as many different situations as possible. I spend quite a bit of time at my local Home Depot hardware store with my show dogs! It is a great place to meet people, children. loud noises, close places, different smells and situations. Be sure to make prior arrangements with management before waltzing your puppy into a store!

The puppy needs to be properly socialized not only with humans, but with other dogs. Remember you will be thrusting him into an environment with up to 5,000 dogs! He must be able to handle other dogs. Dog aggressiveness is not to be tolerated in our breed in a show or companion dog. I cannot stress this enough. It is your responsibility as an Aussie owner to make sure your Aussie deals with his peers in a calm and confident fashion.

A common characteristic of top Australian Shepherd show dogs is their high level of confidence. They actually seem to thrill when presented with new situations and positively beam with confidence in handling these new conditions. Of course genetics are important here, but there are many thing you can do to instill a heightened sense of confidence in your puppy.

There are a variety of other skills that will become useful as your puppy grows and gets ready for its show-ring debut. Being able to stand on or lay on the grooming table is essential. No puppy should ever be left unattended on the table. All it takes is one bad accident on or around the grooming table and you will pay dearly in trying to reacquaint your dog with the table. The puppy will need to grow accustomed to having its nails trimmed, coat groomed, feet trimmed (boy can this tickle!). All of this has to be an enjoyable experience for you and the dog. The puppy will have to get used to standing calmly for a bath. If you start young enough and make it enjoyable enough, even this somewhat difficult chore can become routine.

The Aussie show puppy should be crate trained, as there are many shows you will enter where x-pens are not allowed. Teach your puppy to eat in his crate. He may have to do it on the road. For safety’s sake, all dogs should be secured in crates when traveling in a car, either to and from shows, or around town.
Your show puppy should be well traveled and handle all aspects of car/van travel. Riding in a car must become a way of life if you have any hopes of your puppy having a lengthy career in the conformation ring. I spend hours traveling with puppies in the car, stopping often for playtime.

The puppy should be trained to eliminate on lead. This comes in particularly handy when traveling, or in a raging thundershower at a show site when you want the dog to go out, do his business and get back inside!

Training the show dog to remain in an x-pen is a great idea. I know one breeder-handler who keeps a number of her show dogs in a large 24” tall x-pen! People often walk by and remark, “Why don’t they jump out?” She calmly replies, “Because I trained them not to!” This is a training issue that should be dealt with long before you attend your first show.

Your show puppy should learn to wear a show collar and walk calmly on lead. Obedience training or puppy classes can be of great help here. I do not subscribe to the theory that obedience training ruins a dog for the show ring. As a matter of fact I am constantly amazed at the number of ill-behaved show dogs I encounter. It not only can detract from your enjoyment of the sport, but can affect your fellow competitors as well. . I have often used the “stand” command in the show ring or even used the “heel” command to gait a dog at a specific speed. The bottom line is safety. I want a good recall or down on a dog anywhere anytime. It could save the dog’s life.

Attending handling classes, even for the more experienced handlers, will give your puppy a sense of what will be expected of him in the show ring. If the routine is repeated often enough, early confidence will be instilled in the pup and when the big day arrives, a sense of familiarity with the routine can help keep his head on straight (perhaps yours also!). The classes also give you, the handler, an excellent source of feedback on how to properly gait and move your dog. Keep in mind that no one, judge or breeder, expects a young puppy to move 100% correctly at an early age. But do be aware that being able to recognize what to promote in your dog and how to best show that to your judge will give you an advantage over your competitors.

Another method to determine how best to present your dog is to set up a mirror in your living room, garage or dog area. Stack and restack your puppy. Watch what happens to his look in the mirror. You will quickly learn what makes this dog look best and be able to stack the dog spontaneously when it comes show time. Video taping the puppy can also be a valuable tool, but generally requires two able bodies; one to man the camera and one to handle the dog.

Sit ringside and watch dog shows from start to finish. One of the most common handling errors I see is dogs that won’t gait in a straight line. Countless quality breed specimens get passed over by a lesser dog for this reason. Moving and gaiting properly requires training, but a word of caution here. There are some well-known dog handlers and breeders who claim that starting a puppy too young on a show lead/metal collar (especially during critical teething periods) causes a permanent crabbing movement. Gaiting or leash-breaking need not be started extremely early in the show pup, and must never be overdone.

Attend puppy matches! With the abundance of matches available there is no reason to spend money and time starting your dog at an AKC show. You will want to know how he is going to react to the simulated show situation at a match and identify any issues you will need to work on at home. You will also know when it is time to present your Aussie in the AKC conformation ring. Why bring out a dog that has no chance of taking the points? Remember, you may be going into the ring against some of the top handlers and breeders out there. Why not stack the deck in your favor and make a favorable first impression?

Whatever you are exposing your puppy to, you need to make sure it is a positive and enjoyable experience. If the experience turns negative you will spend more time that you thought imaginable fixing it. Plan ahead. Set weekly obtainable goals for your Aussie. Identify problem areas and, if necessary, seek outside help in dealing with the issue. Local breeders, handlers, other Aussie owners or the Internet can provide a wealth of solutions and answers to some tough training questions.

Take your time, quit with small wins and don’t expect too much too soon. Remember it is important that the show dog get to be a puppy for as long as possible. They will always be dogs.