Doing It ‘All’ – Are Your Dogs Meeting Their Breed Standard?
As a breeder concerned with producing quality Labrador Retrievers, I make breeding decisions based on the dogs’ breed standard. I believe most breeders who exhibit their dogs in the conformation ring do the same thing. However, breed standards not only explain the dog’s physical appearance, they also include a description of physical and mental abilities. Therefore, if I am breeding to the standard, my Labradors should have all those traits.
To demonstrate that my Labradors do meet the standard, I exhibit them in venues that reveal these expected characteristics, including in the breed ring, tracking fields, hunting fields, and obedience ring or variations thereof. With the absence of titles on both ends, I can only assume that my dogs meet their breed’s standard. And we all know the problems that assumptions can cause. Although “doing it all” is not easy, participating in performance events yields many benefits to you, to your kennel’s reputation, and to your dogs.
Over the years, I have discovered that adding performance events to our training and exhibiting plans offers a means of improving fitness, enhancing confidence, and developing good working relationships with my dogs. In addition, participation in performance events facilitates new friendships and training groups that are generally noncompetitive and very supportive of one another. I refer to this approach as a “Holistic Program” that yields a true representative of my dogs’ breed standard. This approach focuses on the whole dog and its needs, not just its “pretty face.”
So, how does one “do it all?” Suppose someone, let’s say Breeder Mary, decides to try to implement a program like this for her dogs. My first suggestion is physical structure and the eventual aim of a conformation title. Remember that structure is important because poor structure will interfere with the dog’s ability to do the work it was bred to do. But I do not suggest that the breed ring should be your first or exclusive goal. I do think it wise to give your puppy some ring time experience, as it is a good time to expose the puppy to that type of event. In addition, I focus on introducing the puppy to the basics of the sports I choose to pursue. For instance, I begin my conformation prospects with tracking, obedience, and field work after littermates go home.
Puppies’ abilities to learn are dependent upon their exposure to enriching activities, giving them opportunities to learn how to learn and enjoy it. Early experiences in any venue builds confidence and teamwork, and lays the groundwork for more technical work in the future. I have found that having fun in the tracking fields, obedience ring, or hunting fields is not forgotten and seems to instill a “love” of each of those sports as long as the trainer’s focus is fun.
So, Breeder Mary studies her breed standard and decides which performance events will serve to demonstrate that her dog meets its standard. If Mary has Terriers, maybe her chosen sport is earth dog events; if she has Collies, maybe it is herding. But wouldn’t you know, Mary has a Labrador. She has a nine-week-old puppy that shows promise as a show dog. Since many sports have overlapping skills, this venture isn’t as overwhelming as it sounds. But because starting several training sessions simultaneously is too much for a puppy, I encourage a few minutes a day around mealtimes to do the basics and establish a good working relationship. I use positive methods with food treats to “pay” the smart puppy. We practice sit, here, down, and stand (show ring) along with any other behavior issues that need to be addressed, such as biting or jumping up. Part of this training session can include play retrieving with tracking articles, soft toys, balls, and baby bumpers. I do very little correcting, focusing instead on showing the puppy what I want and rewarding the correct behavior. Too much serious work with young puppies can be a turn off.
At first, I do a lot of luring with food. As the puppy demonstrates understanding and responds to commands, I switch from luring the puppy to rewarding the puppy with praise and food for correct responses to commands. During this transition period, I decrease the food treats or ask the puppy to do more before “getting paid.” Before you know it, you and your puppy will be having a great time and learning lots about each other. I think this phase of training can be completed in a month or less.
So, Mary has successfully laid the groundwork for all the venues she plans to pursue with this puppy and now has a puppy that knows basic obedience and likes to retrieve. I lay off obedience for a while to avoid boredom. I focus instead on an outdoor sport, dependent upon the time of year. If it’s late fall to early spring, I begin some basic tracking work. I begin by playing a game of hide and seek with the puppy. In the past, I have taught it to love the tracking article and to seek it for positive feedback. Now I have a friend walk away from us with the puppy’s article while I encourage the puppy to watch my friend who is showing the article to the puppy periodically, eventually placing it down on the ground, then walking away and out of sight. If the puppy is motivated to want that article from the games we’ve played before, it will probably run to the article and celebrate with me when it’s found.
I progress this game by having my friend increase the distance the puppy has to travel to find its article. When the track length is long enough so that the puppy can no longer see the article, the puppy naturally switches to using its nose to “track” the tracklayer to find that pesky glove. I also add treats on the ground to facilitate getting the puppy’s nose down, and thus, “lure” it down the track. Eventually, the puppy understands that by using its nose and following the tracklayer’s scent it will find treats and the desired article. When the puppy understands the concept of using its nose to follow a scent to find an article, the groundwork and love of tracking is established. Titling a dog that enjoys this game becomes a matter of gradually changing the track until it meets AKC TD regulations, which can be done anytime. If the puppy is a fast learner handled by an experienced and confident handler, that puppy may be ready to complete TD training and enter tracking tests.
I love this sport for puppies because blind, deaf newborns “track” in the whelping box to find Mom, so it’s very easy to rekindle that skill as a young puppy. To demonstrate how easy this can be for some puppies, I have completed this process in 2-3 months and have had puppies ready for testing in that time period. It is not uncommon to see six-month-old puppies entered in tracking tests, earning their TD titles while very young.
In late spring or early summer, I switch to field work because, in warmer, sunny weather, trackingbecomes more difficult as warm weather leads to panting which makes scenting harder. As a learning puppy, I want to provide a relatively easy environment to make tracking fun and a little easier. There is always time to increase the difficulty as the puppy ages. I will resume tracking in the late fall.
Introductory field training for a puppy includes more fun retrieving, first in very easy cover, then heavier grass, and eventually, thicker, taller cover. Puppies need exposure to decoys, duck calls, primer shots, live and dead birds, as well as holding blinds and lots of people around. At first, I let my puppies run around loose while setting up a day’s training session for our adults. This experience is all about fun and social time as they get comfortable in this new setting. Once all of our equipment is set up, ready to start training the adults, the puppy is usually pretty tired and ready to sleep through most of the adult training time. This has worked well for me as an introduction to the world of field training for puppies. They seem to absorb some of the enthusiasm and fun that the adults exude. When finished with all the adults (we usually have 15 or more to train), I get the puppy out again and let him smell the scents associated with this sport. We usually play retrieve with the puppy using birds or bumpers, with everyone getting excited to encourage the pup in his attempts to be a big retriever. They love it.
These introductory sessions are also a good time to expose the puppy to water. I often take the adults for a walk after training, allowing the puppy to follow along. Of course, the adults love the water and swim often. The puppy is fascinated with that new element and is very curious about the fun the adults are having. I expose puppies to running water first and celebrate any little ventures they take into the water. Some puppies swim right away; others must think about it. I never push a puppy to swim, as I want him to figure that out for himself. Again, this process does not take long to have a puppy retrieving birds and loving it.
As the basic land retrieve at short distances is mastered, I begin increasing length of retrieves and work on steadiness and delivery to hand. As the puppy masters these basic skills, I progress his work to include higher expectations, longer marks in more cover with variable terrain, and a variety of water retrieves. All of this prepares him for running in Junior Hunter tests. Some puppies take to this sport so quickly that by the time they are old enough to enter hunt tests (six months), they are ready. I have titled seven-month-old puppies that just can’t get enough retrieving.
Now I am hearing gasps from those who are sure I am physically ruining puppies by all this physical work under the age of six months. Phooey! If the puppy is out of sound orthopedic lines, there is no reason the puppy can’t work as described here. Any puppy that breaks down in this program is not a breeding candidate in my breeding program. I strongly recommend that puppies are not exercised on hard surfaces but rather on dirt and in the water. Well-conditioned puppies that are not overweight will build muscle which holds joints in place tighter than puppies that are not fit and are too heavy. Secondly, good representatives of the breed are smart, active dogs that need something to do to satisfy themselves and to avert boredom or bad, neurotic behavior. Years of rescue work has taught me this. The problem dogs tossed into local shelters by their owners were different beings once taught some basic commands, exercised, and given the responsibility of being a pack member.
I have followed this Holistic Program since 1986, with minimal orthopedic problems such as hip dysplasia in dogs I have bred and raised. This Holistic Training Program has worked well for me to demonstrate that the Labradors I breed meet their breed’s standard. A similar program can be designed to meet the standards of any breed bred for a specific purpose. There are so many options these days that you can design any assortment of sports programs that you and your dog enjoy.
My program is not just for puppies but can be applied to adults throughout their whole lives. I have started older dogs on this path multiple times. The difference is that puppies have a clean slate and are like sponges, learning readily and quickly. Older dogs have habits and preconceived ideas about what to do and how to do it. Thus, older dogs need to learn new skills but must also change old habits before being able to perform new ones correctly. Once accomplished, they too love working adventures.
I would love your feedback on this approach. If you have questions or requests for future articles, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
Doing It ‘All’ – Are Your Dogs Meeting Their Breed Standard?
By Sandy McMillan