As the old adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child. The same can be said for raising a show dog. Raising, training, and ultimately showing a top show dog takes a team of individuals, dedicated to the success and well-being of the dog. Behind every great show dog is a list of people who have helped that dog and their owners and handlers get to level at which they are at today.
Every year thousands of dogs and the teams behind them compete across the country in the hopes of claiming just one of a few coveted Top 10 spots in the Top Dogs standings. Countless hours are spent training, grooming, and preparing to become one of the few that can call themselves a top dog.
We caught up with the principal team members behind 2018’s Top Show Dog GCh. Krisma’s Xman First Class, “Xavier”, Lois Grier and Marcel Bourgon, to talk about the training that goes into preparing a dog to compete in conformation.
Q: How do you start training a dog for the show ring?
At home we have a shop with mats and mirrors where we practice, it’s essentially a practice ring. When I start with a puppy, I put a show lead on them and see if they can simply gait around the ring with me. I think they have it at that point or they don’t.
Top shows dogs are bred and whelped to be top show dogs. Xavier is a dog that has unbelievable showmanship, and he was bred to have that showmanship. He was trained to be under control. He has that terrier, breed specific dynamic, and you can’t train a dog to have that, they are born with it.
What we train dogs to do is pay attention and move in a straight line. In our training we are refining what they already have. Training them to look at you and concentrate, to give you that focus. You have to figure out what works for that individual dog, and what they respond to, i.e. food, praise, toys, noises. Whatever it is that gets the dog’s attention and holds it.
Q: What is the one thing every show dog must know how to do well?
Some of it depends on the breed that you have. In terriers and especially Kerri Blues, there is nothing like a Kerri Blue that can walk in the ring, own it, and move with a movement that takes your breath away. I think that is the one thing that catches a judge’s eye.
In order to get a dog to have that beautiful, breathtaking presentation, the dog has to want to be there. Want to work with you and please you. You want your dog to be interested and happy to be in the ring. Wanting to not only be there with you but perform with you. Xavier is a dog that has personality in the ring. That’s what makes a top dog.
Alongside that, conditioning is also very important. You need to be doing specific exercises to build the muscle for the specific breed. Exercise and condition base on your breed and the traits they are supposed to have is important for all dogs, from toys to sporting.
Q: We all have our off-days, and this is especially true when you are working with dogs. What are some things you can do to work through those off-days?
It depends on the dog. You have to know your dog. And the only way that you can do that is to work and practice with your dog. Inside the ring, outside the ring, training classes. These are not robots and they are not going to perform the same every time you go into the ring. Nor would you want them to. They have attitudes, they have personalities. Every single time you go in the ring you are going to learn what to do better or what not to do based on what happened that day in the ring. You really have to figure out what makes your dog perform its best.
Q: Do you have any advice for people just starting out in the sport?
I really feel that anybody who wants to do this needs to find a mentor. If it’s in their breed, all the better. But if not, find anybody who shares a passion for showing and wants to help somebody new get started because this is not an easy thing to do. It’s not easy to be the newbie in the ring and try to feel like you are not intimidated. I really believe that without mentors I wouldn’t be where I am today. Particularly when you have a dog like a Kerry Blue that requires so much grooming and the presentation is so much a part of that first impression. If you don’t have a mentor, I think it’s really hard to learn and stay focused and stay with it without being discouraged. I think a mentor is so important.
My number one advice is that you and the dog should be enjoying what you are doing. You don’t win every time, so have fun. There is always another show tomorrow. And if you have fun, the dog will have fun.
Find a mentor, someone you respect and who is excessively knowledgeable in the breed. Work with them and look to the top people in your sport for advice and guidance.
Well-controlled handling classes that mimic the show atmosphere are also extremely important. When you are in the ring showing a dog you’ve only got two minutes to impress a judge, so learn to use them to showcase the best of your dog.