Puppies in Conformation Class
Yes! It’s true! I do allow young puppies in my conformation classes, in fact, I encourage it. Because the methods that I use for training show dogs (and all dogs actually) are positive reinforcement methods young puppies do great and are welcome to attend. Young puppies (2 to 5 months) are like little sponges, open and ready for new information and learning opportunities. This is, in my opinion, the best time to get your puppies started on their conformation ring training. One of the most difficult times to start training a dog is during adolescence, so waiting until a dog is old enough to show (6 month) is not the best time to start your training. It makes much more sense to start young so that when they enter adolescence they are already well on their way and have several behaviors under their belt. It just makes sense to start early!
I realize that some people have concerns about exposing their puppies to diseases but most classes require vaccination records making a dog training class in a reputable facility a fairly low risk environment. For me, personally, I have no problem taking my puppies to low risk areas once they have been started on their vaccinations. If I am being honest, I am much more concerned with my puppy having many positive, early learning and socialization opportunities than I am with them contracting a disease. The behavioral risk of keeping them inside and not socializing them well is too high and I am not willing to take that risk. Waiting until a dog is 4 months old to start the socialization and training process simply does not give you enough time to properly socialize and expose them. So, be safe and be smart, but socialize them well!
Whenever I have young puppies in my conformation classes I am always careful to make a few things clear to my clients. First, the goal is not that the puppy do everything perfectly like a well trained adult show dog. The goal is that the puppy have fun and enjoy himself. I recently watched a very disturbing You Tube video where someone demonstrated how to train a puppy to be a show dog in under a minute. It was really awful to watch this cheerful puppy be strong armed into position, and forced to stand completely still while he panicked and struggled to escape. Eventually, he stopped struggling and stood there… with his ears and tail down and the spark gone from his eyes. Poor guy. This is, in my opinion, the absolute worst way to train a puppy. This puppies first conformation experience was scary, uncomfortable, aversive and something he wanted to escape. Always remember that however an animal learns something lives with that behavior forever. In other words, if show ring training is trained using positive reinforcement and keeping it light and fun for the puppy, then those behaviors will always have that emotional state attached to them. On the flip side, if the show ring behaviors are trained with force, corrections and punishment, that emotional state, dread, discomfort or fear will be associated with those behaviors. The fact is, if you want your puppy to grow up to be a dog that enjoys showing, he needs to be taught to enjoy shows as a puppy.
I always want to make it clear with my clients is that they have a right at any time to give the puppy a break or end the training once they feel the puppy has had enough. We never want to overdo it. When it’s done well, the training should leave the puppy wanting more. So, it’s important that we stop if the puppy starts to show signs of tiring out, getting stressed or looking bored. Show training should be fun, fun, fun!
Puppies need to be trained on comfortable, non-aversive, dog friendly equipment. I am not a fan of metal choke collars in general, but they are never a good choice for a young puppy just learning the ropes.
It is important to make sure that puppies in conformation class feel safe and secure. If the class is very loud or full of many rowdy dogs, it may be better for the puppy to be off to the side, simply watching and chewing on a bully stick. People may think that this is a waste of time but it’s not because as the puppy is sitting on the owner’s lap, munching on a tasty chewer he is actually being conditioned that being around a bunch of dogs in a strange environment is a good, safe and relaxing thing. This is invaluable conditioning to a show dog and a great way to ease a puppy into training.
If you haven’t already done so, consider finding a positive reinforcement conformation class to take your puppy to. When it’s done well and the puppy is kept safe and having a good time, it can be a wonderful thing to do for your puppy.
Note: Before taking your puppy to a conformation class be sure to observe a class and make sure that the instructor is a positive reinforcement trainer. Please never allow anyone to jerk, drag, force or intimidate your puppy in any way. You are responsible for keeping your puppy safe and you have a right to say “no”.