Thursday, August 23, 2012

Socializing Show Pups

Give Your Pup A Chance

Sue MacMillan

I noticed a recent posting on Facebook where the poster mentioned that she’d taken her pup to his first show and he’d freaked out.  He was a little better the second day but still very frightened.   She’d decided just a few weeks earlier that it was time to start showing the puppy, but had she taken the time to prepare him for dog shows?

Postings like this, as well as all the spooky Dals I’ve seen in the show ring, make me wonder if their owners have put any work at all into preparing their pups to become show dogs.  Dog shows can be stressful, and the barking dogs, crowds of people, loud noises, strange smells, and unfamiliar objects can be extremely frightening to a puppy that has not been properly socialized.  If a puppy grows up “in a backyard” and is just walked around the neighborhood (if he is walked at all), he will be totally unprepared for the stress of dog shows.  If he grows up with littermates and/or his dam, he is also dependent on them, and even less ready to go off to a show by himself.  Why do breeders keep promising pups and then put no work into preparing them to be show dogs?
Most people who purchase a puppy to show are prepared to put the work into raising the puppy properly, especially if they buy from a breeder who understands and emphasizes the importance of socialization. It seems to be the first-time breeder or occasional breeder who forgets that any pup they keep will require a lot of individual work.  It will actually require more work, because leaving home and adjusting to a new situation is actually socialization.  The pup that stays behind needs to be separated from the dogs it lives with, at least for a while.  It needs to “go to camp” and get away from home for a weekend and even longer, and preferably more than once.  It needs to make friends both canine and human, and learn to be self-sufficient and comfortable in a new environment.  Many breeders do this automatically, sending their pups off to stay with friends, previous puppy buyers, or with other breeders.  Puppy camping is fun for everyone, and invaluable for the future show dog.

Pups need to learn that riding in the car is fun, that strangers give treats, and that other dogs are friendly and like to play.  They need to see bikes, strollers, and kids on roller blades.  They need to hear trucks, motorcycles, airplanes, barking dogs, and children playing.  A puppy who has been exposed to and is comfortable with these things will be comfortable with the confusion at dog shows, will not be spooked by ring barriers, crowds of dogs and people, the squeak of crate dollies, and the sounds of PA systems and blow driers.

Kindergarten Puppy Classes are a great place to socialize pups.  They learn about different buildings, strange sounds and smells, new people, other breeds, and get a chance to meet and play with other puppies.  In many of the classes they will also get treats from strangers, which helps prepare a puppy to be comfortable with the approach of a judge.  Learning to sit for a treat will not screw up a show-dog-to-be.  Pups can easily learn the difference.  Teaching the pup to stand for a treat with a different command can be done at the same time or can be done later.

Many pups benefit from a basic beginners obedience class too, as long as positive methods of training are used.  Again, teach him a stand as well as a sit.  He’ll figure it out.  Even if he were to forget and sit in the ring once or twice, that’s much better than having him freak out or be excused.  It’s far easier to teach a stand than it is to convince a freaked out puppy that dog shows are not really as scary as he thinks.

All pups who will be shown need to learn the basics, either in an obedience class or a show handling class if there is one available.  Private handling lessons may also be an option.  Pups need to have experience wearing collars, walking on lead, as well as following and being followed by other dogs. They must be comfortable being touched by strangers, gaiting on rubber mats, having their tails and feet handled, their testicles checked (if males) and having their mouths examined.  Repetition is the key here.  Gentle handling, lots of praise, and the use of words they will remember and associate with a pleasant experience – “stand”, “stay”, “ok”, “teeth” or whatever words you prefer.  A puppy gains security from hearing familiar words and performing familiar actions, and the use of food rewards is always helpful.  Teach him a trick or two as well – something you can praise him for doing if he gets nervous.

If you don’t live in an area with training classes, there are still many way to train and socialize a puppy.  Visit pet stores on the weekends, take the pup to ballgames, parades, and picnics, walk him around parking lots, shopping areas and schoolyards, or take him into stores that allow leashed pets.  Carry him in if you have to.  Invite people to pet him and feed him treats.  Ask if it’s OK to bring him along when you visit friends.  Be pro-active about finding dogs for him to interact with and set up play dates with them.  Play dog show and ask your friends and family to examine him and check his bite.  Especially useful is taking him along to dog shows before he is old enough to show, just for fun. Enter puppy matches if you can find them, but don’t take them too seriously.   Your goal is a puppy that is happy and self-confident when you are ready to show him.

There are some dogs in this breed that are what I call “genetic spooks” – they will be uncomfortable about dog shows no matter what you do with them as babies, but you can generally modify their behavior enough to make it acceptable.  However, they will never be fun to show or enjoy the experience, and would be better off placed in appropriate pet homes.  If your puppy is not one of these born-to-be-spooky dogs, and has a genuinely good disposition, then get him out and socialized, and give him a chance to display the happy, confident, fun loving personality that is the reason we love and admire this breed!  

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