Training a Saint Bernard for the show ring starts at an early age just like any other training. The sessions need to be short in the beginning and as the puppy gets a little older then you can lengthen the sessions. These sessions also have to be fun so the puppy doesn’t get bored. Often there are handling classes offered for puppies and dogs of all ages. Check with the local clubs and training facilities. They usually will have successful professional handlers and exhibitors as their instructors. This is a good way to get your puppy socialized as well getting him used to being surrounded by other dogs and distractions while under your control.
Standing still, and squarely
To get your Saint ready for the show ring, teach your dog to stack or stand still and squarely. Some handlers like to “free bait”. To do this, stand in front of your dog with the bait (something like dry broiled liver pieces) so he can see it. Entice him with the bait, and offer praise at the same time to get him looking at the bait and standing still. You can also use a favorite small squeaky toy.
Some handlers like to hand stack their dogs by manually placing all four legs in position. Figure out which way is easiest for you and your dog, and then be consistent in your training. Training a Saint puppy to stack is not as hard as it sounds. If you have a wiggly puppy, it’s best to stack him on blocks or bricks that are elevated off the ground. This teaches the dog to trust where his feet are being placed – if he moves his feet he will become unbalanced. But make sure he’s not afraid, you want to build his confidence. A confident dog is a happy dog and will do better in the show ring.
Never scold, make this fun for him
Be firm but never scold him, you want this to be a positive experience for the puppy as well as for you. To stack him, start with the front. The legs should be straight, under the shoulder blades. Then move to the rear – the rear legs should be vertical from the hock down. Feet (toes) should be facing forward. Talk to him, check his expression, you want him to look happy and alert. His tail should be constantly wagging. It especially should never be turned under, tucked between the back legs. That could mean he’s not happy, not feeling secure. If possible, practice in front of a full length mirror so you can see what the two of you look like to a judge.
Make sure you fit your puppy with the correct choker type collar. You’ll have a variety to choose from but a soft, narrow collar is better than a metal chain type. Make sure it’s on his neck correctly. A rule of thumb is that you should be able to slip two of your fingers loosely under the collar while it’s on him. The leash is equally important. Generally a 4 foot long leash, either nylon or light-weight narrow leather is best. A combination lead and collar called a Martingale is perfect for training puppies. You’ll be using the lead and collar (as well as any bait) to control your Saint as well as to keep his head up, his ears up and alert, making a pleasant picture. You should also have what we call a “slobber cloth” too, in your pocket, to wipe any drool from your Saint’s lips when you have someone going over him especially his mouth and muzzle.
Teaching him to trot correctly
Always practice with your Saint puppy on your left side, adjusting your pace to his. This will take some experimenting. Gaiting is moving your dog so the judge can see the movement and structure of your dog. The correct gait for the show ring is the trot – this is when the right front leg and the left back leg move forward at the same time. If the dog is moving the front leg and corresponding back leg forward at the same time, this is pacing which is incorrect for a Saint Bernard. Start by getting the dog’s attention and take a few steps forward before setting your pace, trot your dog in a straight line, then turn around and go back. Use praise, baby talk and gentle tugs on the lead. Once you return to the same spot, properly stack your dog again. This is the foundation of how your dog will be evaluated in the ring.
Get him used to strangers going over him
Once your puppy is comfortable being stacked for a few moments, get him used to having strangers go over him from head to tail. Get him used to his whole body being handled, stroked. This includes his head, ears, shoulder area, up and down the legs, as well as his feet, chest and back, the groin area including testicles for males, and tail. Everything about him will be checked by the judge. Practice showing his bite, he needs to get used to having you as the handler as well as a judge opening his mouth, lifting the lips away from the teeth. Don’t practice with any bait while working on this.
Entering matches for practice
These are good to enter your puppy in, or even older Saints who need some ring work. Make sure your Saint is current on all his vaccinations and he’s been groomed – this includes ear cleaning, brushing out and toe nail clipping. Many local specialty clubs and all breed clubs as well as some training facilities will offer matches throughout the year. These usually have puppy classes and are an excellent training venue as well as a venue for socializing and getting your Saint used to other animals, dealing with crowds and noises.
Entering a show
Make sure your Saint is trained, groomed and ready for a big show, whether it’s a specialty or an all breed show. Judges have less than two minutes to pay attention to each dog – this is not the time to be lead-training your dog, or getting him used to strangers and noise. You do a great disservice to not only the dog but to the judge too if the dog is not properly trained for the show ring.
There are many rules and regulations for entering dog shows. You’ll want to be on the mailing list for the show superintendents who will send you all the information you need to enter a show. You can find further information by going to the American Kennel Club’s website, www.akc.org And of course a great place to show off your special Saint Bernard is at our annual National Specialty. This is the place to meet other Saint fanciers and exhibitors, attend educational events that help you learn more about your Saint, as well as caring for him, not to mention seeing some of the most beautiful Saint Bernards in the world proudly being showcased by their owners and breeders. I look forward to seeing you there!
Tom Claus, Indiana