Notes from Cuba’s First Conformation Class

I just recently discovered that the local kennel club offers conformation classes in our area. Fantastic! Had I known that they were available, I would...


I just recently discovered that the local kennel club offers conformation classes in our area. Fantastic! Had I known that they were available, I would have started Cuba in the classes much sooner (they allow dogs as young as 12 weeks old to start). However, I didn’t know then, so I’m left to start now, with an enormous 8 month old puppy. Cuba is a friendly but very hormonal adolescent, so we’ve been going through some barkiness/barrier frustration phases together and I really wanted to work through these issues to prepare him for what will hopefully be his show debut within the next month or two.

I’m very lucky in that one of my best clients is also one of my best friends. I begged, erm, invited her to join me tonight. Since I was a little nervous, I knew it would make me feel better to have a friend who has good dog handling and reading skills, is someone that both Cuba and I trust, and could help with handling the leash while I did the clicking and treating. Plus, I wanted to discuss the class with her afterward to get her feedback – often, having another set of eyes on an issue can provide you with a fresh perspective.

I’d been told that the classes were taught in a big warehouse type space and that only half the space was to be used for the handling class. “Fantastic!” I think to myself – I’ll have plenty of space where we can start from the other side of the room and do a lot of work on “Look at That”, an exercise from Leslie McDevitt’s fantastic book Control Unleashed. Unfortunately, I was met with a surprise – a student who is currently working in obedience sequestered that other half of the classroom for practice. I admit I was a bit discouraged – it seemed as though the only place we’d be able to set up would literally be within a few feet of these strange dogs and I wanted the exposure to be much more gradual.

The classroom had a glass door and luckily, it wasn’t as cold outside as it’s been. Nicole and I decided we’d work outside for a while, just clicking and treating him for looking at the dogs in class, watching them move, etc. He worked pretty nicely through this after some minimal barking, although he did not particularly care for one Border Collie in the class who, like many Border Collies, had a bit of a staring problem. A few times Cuba would get a little overaroused, which was easily enough remedied by backing him away a few feet to where he no longer had visual access, letting him compose himself, reinforcing focus when it was offered and moving back within sight of the class.

After about ten or fifteen minutes, we made our way into class. The ring where the dogs were working (many of them very small puppies, about the size of half of one of Cuba’s feet. Even the next “largest” dog in class was only 1/3rd of Cuba’s size!) was separated from the area where we were by a very short, lattice-type gate. About ten feet away from us was a crated dog who was obviously very stressed out by Cuba being around – I tried to turn his back to her to remove the social pressure and wish there had been enough room for me to give the poor girl a bit more space.

Cuba actually didn’t bark much when we came in. We continued practicing “Look at That” and also capturing eye contact with me when it was offered. Within about three minutes, Cuba actually offered a down. Click! Treat! This was a big deal for him, because it’s hard to offer a relaxation behavior like that when you’re in a new environment with twelve unfamiliar dogs that you can’t play with; especially considering that most of these dogs had likely never seen a dog his size before and were unsure whether he was canine or some odd sort of slobbery livestock.

I kept him in the classroom for about ten minutes then took him outside to give him a break, let him sniff around, and relieve himself. We re-entered, and our second entry was even quieter and more focused than our first.

We certainly didn’t get through the class in silence, but I didn’t expect to. He did, however, surprise me with how little he barked and how quickly he refocused. I was a bit shocked and more than a bit uncomfortable by some of what I saw there (training techniques I would definitely NOT recommend), but I know that others were probably equally shocked to see Cuba and I – he’s huge, I’m a clicker fanatic, and where other dogs are getting slapped in the face (yes, literally) for looking at or trying to interact with other dogs, Cuba’s getting clicks and treats for looking at other dogs and yes, even after a bout of barking.

Nonetheless, it was a good learning experience for both of us. I’m already excited for next week’s class, for which I have the same agenda – practice Look at That, get him confident and under control, and then maybe, next week or the following week, we’ll actually make it into the ring with some of the other dogs! I’d rather not hurry – certainly training isn’t a race and I want him to feel confident and love what he’s doing. I’ll keep you all posted on the “little guy’s” progress, and will be sharing further thoughts on our class experience tomorrow!

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