Over 130 different breeds compete in major dog shows, such as the Westminster in the US or Crufts in the UK. But there’s a good deal more to developing a show dog than simply acquiring a dog of one of those breeds and teaching it to sit or stay.
Within any breed there are dogs that are closer to the ‘ideal’ than others. This ‘conformation’ is an important first criteria. Conformation refers to the specific arrangement of parts – legs, tail, head, ears, etc – that determine the dog’s appearance. Since this is difficult to judge in young puppies, show dogs are often the offspring of other show dogs.
Once you have a fine example in hand, you’re ready to begin a dedicated training regimen. Daily for several months or years, the trainer teaches the dog ‘the basics’ and then more advanced behaviors. Sit, stay, heel, and so on are covered, of course, but with a keener eye toward precision than usual.
A show dog has to hit a mark (a specific spot in a show ring), pose (‘stack’) exactly, and walk in tune with its handler. And all this with thousands of people watching.
As with any training, begin young. Along with the basic behaviors, you’ll need to teach the dog to be calm in the face of much handling. Judges will inspect eyes, teeth and other body parts along with the coat and general posture.
Bathing is one of the best ways to begin this process. Teach the dog to enjoy having its feet moved, its gums exposed, ears fondled and so forth. This should be pleasurable for the dog and fun for you. If you can teach them to defer shaking vigorously when wet, you’re on your way!
During and after the bath, practice posing (‘stacking’). Four feet on the ground, one foot raised, standing and sitting, and other postures will all be needed. In every case the dog should hold the pose precisely and for as long as you wish.
When you leash train the dog to walk, the goal is to get them to follow you precisely whichever way you choose to go at any given second. Start with normal walking/heeling, but move on to sharp direction changes as soon as possible.
To encourage the dog to follow use a clicker when executing a change, or give a quick, sharp tug and release on the leash. Of course, the tug should be in the direction you go. At all times the dog should be directly at your side, never ahead or behind.
Graduate to walking on a very loose leash. Before long the dog should be able to follow along at a brisk pace and sense immediately when you change direction. Then it should turn as you do and resume the ‘at the side’ position.
Gradually increase the speed of the walk until you work up to a slow trot.
Just as important is to stop at the precise moment you do. With clicker or tug and release, the dog can quickly learn to follow your lead. Go when you go, stop when you stop. And for as long as you stop or walk. Before long only the lightest indication by the leash should be required.
As with any training, lavish praise and a sense of enjoying the activity is enormously helpful. Show dogs, though some are temperamental, almost universally get great enjoyment from the activity. You should too, otherwise the large investment of time and money – you’ll discover quickly – will not be worth it.