by Kay Green
Tally-Ho: September/October 1984
Over the years as I have become more involved in obedience, conformation and tracking, I have discovered that some modifications to my training program have produced better and faster learning results for the multi-purpose dog. I have always believed that most dogs can handle more than one activity at a time, and can produce very credible performances in all areas of exhibiting. However, the time and way that some obedience exercises are taught to the multi-purpose dog sometimes creates confusion and causes exhibiting problems. Tracking training hasn't seemed to pose a problem to the overall performance of my multi-purpose dogs. However, some obedience trainers, who have never taught a dog to track, have voiced their concerns to me that they don't want to give their dog permission to sniff because they are afraid that he will sniff the ground in the ring. I have never had that problem with any of my tracking dogs, and in fact, most of my dogs learned tracking right along with obedience and conformation. With proper training, they quickly learn that sniffing has a place, and that place is in the field.
Several months ago a couple of my friends, who have been showing lovely Pembroke Welsh Corgis in conformation, wanted to start their dogs in obedience. However, they were concerned that obedience would interfere with their dogs' conformation performance during the learning phase. The beginning obedience course that my friends would be attending would coincide with several conformation show weekends, and they did not want their dogs to sit in the ring. Both of my friends have trained several dogs over the years in obedience, but this was their first experience with a multi-purpose dog. They knew that their dogs would eventually figure out the difference but they didn't want to take the chance that their dogs would be confused in the upcoming shows.
Most beginning obedience instructors teach heeling, the sit-at-heel, and sit-stay long before they teach the stand for examination. This makes sense for most beginning obedience dogs because many have had no formal training. In fact, some dogs have never seen a collar or lead before they start obedience training and are totally out of control during their first class. Trying to introduce the stand during the first day of class for these dogs would be futile. However, for those dogs who have had weeks and months of conformation training and exhibiting, teaching the stand during the first class is a very good way to show the multi-purpose dog the difference between the sit-at-heel and the conformation walk-into-a-stand, right from the beginning. The confusion is dealt with and cleared up during the first week of obedience training and usually these dogs never again make a mistake between the two exercises.
For the multi-purpose dog I recommend teaching the stand right along with the sit during the first class, and working on these two exercises equally during each training session during the first week. As I mentioned in an earlier article on food training, I teach the sit by using food. I hold a piece of food in my right hand (between my thumb and index finger) under the dog's nose, then slowly draw it up and back over his head, while telling him, "SIT." As soon as the dog is sitting, I immediately give him the food reward along with verbal praise. While the dog is sitting I hold another piece of food in my right hand, this time between my thumb and middle finger, with my index finger extended out. I hold the food under the dog's nose and slowly draw it forward (not up) while telling him, "STAND." As soon as the dog is standing, I give him the food reward and verbal praise. I continue to feed and praise him for a few moments while he is still standing. I alternate between the sit and the stand several times during each training session. The reason for holding my index finger out while teaching the dog to stand is to create a fixation (in the dog's mind) on my finger. The dog is immediately rewarded with a goody (while standing) each time he sees my index finger. It doesn't take very long before the dog connects my extended index finger with the STAND command. Therefore, when I am moving my dog in the conformation ring and bringing him up to the judge, I merely extend my index finger and the dog walks into a nice stand. This should be a very discrete signal. When this is done properly, no one will have any idea that your dog has been taught the automatic sit-at-heel.
Both of my friends taught their Corgis the stand during the first week of obedience training using food and both reported to me that their dogs' conformation performance did not suffer during the beginning obedience training.
Another problem area for many multi-purpose dogs is their confusion between the fast heeling in obedience and the fast gait in conformation. The dog is taught not to break gait in conformation, but then thinks that you have lost your mind when you try to get him to gallop during fast heeling. My current multi-purpose basset, Striker, really gave me fits in this area. He simply refused to break gait no matter how fast I ran and would rather lag than break into a gallop. As long as a dog is able to keep up with his handler during fast heeling, he is usually not penalized for not breaking gait. However, it is so easy for the dog (especially a basset) to lag during fast heeling if he does not break gait that it is a good idea to teach the dog to gallop. The solution to this problem came when I resolved another one, as described below.
As Striker was learning obedience, I discovered that he could work very well in a group of other dogs but was very insecure and easily distracted when working with me alone. He did not seem to enjoy working at home or at parks, without other dog/handler teams present. So, I took him to several different training classes each week. However, when I thought he was ready for fun matches, he still could not work in the ring with me alone. I finally came up with the solution for not only this problem, but the fast heeling as well. I remembered back to when Striker was a little over a year old and I had roadworked him about a mile a day for several months until he was in good condition for conformation showing. I also used the roadworking to teach him the fast gait. Striker loved his walks and was very motivated to learn the fast gait because it was part of an activity that he really enjoyed. When he was mature and well trained I had discontinued the walks.
After giving this problem much thought I decided to combine conformation gaiting and obedience training together with roadworking. I discovered that Striker needed a separate command for conformation gaiting so I now use the command "WALK". After fast gaiting for a few blocks I tell him to "HEEL" and then make sure that he gives me a fast, straight sit. I then tell him to "HEEL" again and we smoothly move into fast heeling. After a couple of weeks Striker started to understand the difference and now breaks into a gallop on the fast heeling.
The first two weeks Striker couldn't handle the distractions of barking dogs, jogger and bikers suddenly appearing behind him in the dark. However, slowly over the weeks his attention has gradually improved to the point now that no matter what the distraction Striker is able to continue working. We also work on off-lead heeling while on our walks. I make sure that I am walking next to the grass on the sidewalk, while Striker is next to the street. If he is not paying attention to me and where we are going, he falls off the sidewalk and into the gutter (a natural correction that he can't blame me for). It didn't take him long to discover that he had better watch me and not the joggers. I also pretend that I have a metronome in my head ticking at the exact speed at which Striker and I heel best. From time to time I will make clicking noises with my mouth in time to my mental metronome. Hearing the constant rhythmic ticking helps us both to heel together more smoothly as a team.
I vary where we go for walks, and where we do obedience and when and where we do gaiting. For example, on one of our walks we may start out with fast gaiting for three or four blocks. Then we may work on some off-lead heeling for two or three blocks. Next we stop at a park on our way and work on turns and finishes. Our next stop is sometimes at a vacant field with two movable "NO PARKING" signs strategically placed (by me) at about eight feet apart. We move around the signs two or three times and then it is on to the church parking lot for recalls and front work. Our next stop is usually to feed the horses the carrots that I brought along. Then Striker has some free time to sniff and, being a male, hike his leg. Then it is back to fast gaiting again. Our walks take about 40 minutes and we have been doing them now for about two months at this writing. It's funny, but this has turned out to be a part of my day that I wouldn't miss for anything (except a blizzard). Combining the roadworking, conformation gaiting, and obedience work has really paid off. I have a well-trained dog who now knows the difference between fast gaiting and obedience heeling. Also, he can work anywhere by himself and is sleek, healthy, has a lovely coat, good hard muscles, and is capable of great endurance (he doesn't even breathe hard at the end of our two miles). Striker is not the only one who has benefited from this regimen. Getting up and hitting the road at 6:00 A.M. has become a part of my day that I look forward to with anticipation and pleasure. Sharing the quiet and beauty of the early morning and watching the sunrise together has created a special closeness between us that I had not expected. Striker and I do not consider our workouts as work anymore. Fast gaiting, obedience and feeding the horses during our two miles seems a natural part of the way we start each day.
Not all dogs like going for walks, but for those who do it is a wonderful way to slip in a little conformation or obedience training or both. If you find that your multi-purpose dog is having difficulty with a particular activity, stop and think about altering the activity and the way you introduce it to him to see if it might make a difference. Many times when you come to a dead-end in training or exhibiting and can't seem to find a way around the problem, the solution may be to try a different approach.