|What is Conditioning?
By Delores Burkholder
Participation in every aspect of the Sport is enhanced when your dogs are in condition to perform at their best in the event chosen for each dog. Conditioning starts with your first choice of what to feed when weaning a litter. It also involves mental conditioning for show puppies including lots of toys to play with, adjusting to different surfaces and conditions, lots of hands-on experience on the ground and on a table. Yes, experience on a grooming table regardless of the size of the dog is recommended. Then trips to the veterinarian, where puppies encounter a car ride and strangers who also put their hands on them. Grooming starts with the first times puppies are on a table and the use of grooming tools appropriate for your breed. Food, coat care, exercise, veterinary care and your personal hands on relationship with your dog all contribute directly to your success in the Sport.
Food: As the saying goes, you are what you eat and so are your dogs. A diet that puts a solid muscle weight on the dog and grows the ideal coat is the goal. Large kennels and handlers may use the same basic diet for all the dogs. Individual animals may need specialized supplementing to the basic diet.
Coat Care: The basics should include a weekly bath, brushing, toe nail trim, ears and teeth cleaned. If it is a breed that is clippered, scissored, stripped or needs daily brushing for top condition, it must be done in a regular routine without excuses. There are multitudes of grooming products that can help produce the results you want, but the basics of regular care must be applied.
Exercise: A dog that is not physically fit and mentally fit is not ready for the show ring or for performance events. Judges comment on a weekly basis that a certain dog could have won if it was in condition. How much time is it going to take to exercise your dog? How much space do you need? Do you own one dog or do you own a number of dogs that will interact to accomplish part of their exercise on their own? Any breed can benefit from walking or running. The speed at which they walk or run varies. You can walk a toy breed. Larger breeds will need a person who can run a long distance at the speed that is correct to condition that dog. Most people can not run a consistent speed. Failing to run at the proper and consistent speed will only accomplish teaching a dog to pace. Training a dog to run along side a bicycle or scooter is effective. Is there a large parking lot or a road with almost no traffic that you can use? Trotting exercise will condition a dog for the show ring. In your kennel exercise area dogs can benefit from low jumps set across the paths they use or benches to jump on and off. This tightens back muscles. Dogs can benefit from retrieving on flat areas or up and down hills or up and down a staircase. Hit balls for a dog to retrieve. Swimming is great exercise. Exercise is physically and mentally stimulating for you and the dog.
Mental exercise: This is a big topic. What is mental exercise? First, the owner must be smarter than the dog. It is true of mental exercise that “variety is the spice of life.” A dog needs a routine of proper nutrition, a clean living environment and stimulating interaction with the owners to perform. Your dog, just like you, will get bored with constant repetition. Training should incorporate a variety of activities including hands-on training, play time in a variety of settings, a variety of toys or obstacles all with lots and lots of praise. All of this is mental exercise for a dog.
What does hands-on mean? First what it DOES NOT MEAN is feeding your dog constantly while in the ring. Use your hands to teach the dog to stand in a show pose appropriate for your breed, then your hands control the leash used on the dog. What you teach the dog determines the results you achieve. Use bait to get your dogs attention, to stand and look alert. That is the definition of baiting. Watch exhibitors who constantly let the dog chew on bait in their hand. These dogs will move around while being examined, will not want a judge to examine their heads because they want more bait, the judge has to look at a mouth full of bait and the dog may grab at the judge’s hands thinking they will have bait which can be interpreted as attacking the judge. Teach the dog to watch your hands, but use the food sparingly.
Appropriate mental exercise is rooted in the statement, “The owner must be smarter than the dog.” All dogs are not alike any more than all people are alike; dogs have a variety of personalities. Different dogs will exhibit different personalities and require that the owner/trainer do mental exercises to determine a routine that will work to get that dog to perform at its best. Dogs that get too much attention may need more kennel time so they are excited to do what you want when they are out of the kennel. Reverse that for the dog that has spent too much time kenneled and needs more attention. In other words get inside their heads.
Working with dogs is a lifetime learning experience, a fun challenging lifetime experience. Go out and enjoy it.
Delores Burkholder has been a breeder, an all breed professional handler, and has managed breeding programs for clients and operated a boarding kennel and groom shop. She has been an AKC conformation field rep for 14 years.