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Avoiding The Heavy Head

Sometimes, (and I find this often) when a “newbie Handler” is trying to imitate the “Pros”, what they SEE isn’t really what we are actually DOING. Due to this, we get dramatically different results. I would say, from my work with beginner handlers, the hardest points for newbies to learn is exactly what the pro handlers are doing with the dog’s collar to achieve a certain ‘looks’. Looking from afar can be very deceiving.  You really need to get right next to a handler and ask “How are you holding the collar when you do this xxx?”

A case in point. Most “pros” don’t ever have a dog leaning over the collar, except for the few seconds WHEN the judge is actually looking at their dog or for the few seconds they might need to occasionally practice the ‘arch of neck’ here and there. Also, some dogs are less sensitive about collar pressure and can sustain this position for longer amounts of time.

That is why it is so crucial to have TIMING down pat.  The tissue/muscle under the collar at this part of the neck is the most sensitive, hence we keep collars up tight when we want the utmost control, lower on the neck.  This is also the axis that handlers use to ‘tweak’ the neck into an arch.

What I suggest and what I do, is to actually achieve this ‘look’ by the simple use of your hand holding the bait in such a way that you would achieve this look even if you had NO collar on the dog.

Most handlers, although you can’t tell from afar, actually have the collar ‘loose but snug’ so it looks tidy. They could remove the collar from the exercise and still have the same effect. They are achieving the ‘arch’ by holding the bait to the dog’s mouth in such a position that the dog is arching its neck to be able to get its muzzle to the food.  (practice this in front of your mirror so you know exactly where to hold the bait for your dog’s particular neck structure and what position achieves this ‘arch’.  It is different with each dog.)

It should all be a hand/baiting action that attains the arch, NOT the collar so much. The point is NOT to ‘hang’ the dog on the collar to achieve this arch, which can be tricky.

Then when the judge is looking you take your hand away SLOWLY for that time period.  Hold the bait a few inches from the dogs mouth, so he can continue to look at it. (you can start an inch or so away from the mouth and eventually increase this distance)

Handlers take the food away from the mouth when the judge is looking so the judge can see the dog’s head AND the ‘picture’ they’re presenting without the hand interrupting said ‘picture’. (judges don’t like seeing dogs eating lunch in the ring)

It would be helpful to say a command other than stay as you take the bait away. This command indicates to the dog that you want him to hold this ‘arched neck’ position with only the use of the collar and to stay looking at the bait for those few seconds. This command assures him that you WILL reward him for LOOKING at it. When the judge stops looking at him, move the bait back up to the mouth for a quick reward.

You don’t want the dog to be rewarded for lunging at the bait so don’t ever reward with bait unless they are doing it right, even if doing it right for your dog means holding the position for only a few seconds. Set them up to do the exercise correctly BEFORE you reward. They MUST wait for you to bring it to them (their mouth).

This scenario can last for longer and longer durations as the dog matures and understands what is expected of him. On a young pup I wouldn’t expect him to look at the bait for more than 30 seconds or so without being rewarded. As they get older you can increase the length of time.

It is also important for you to note that you hold your hand straight or slightly towards the judge so that the dog’s head is either straight from the body or turned slightly towards the judge to show them a bit of the dog’s head. An error I see a lot is the handlers’ hand/bait listing off center to the (away from the judge) and this contorts the head profile and body balance. It’s a natural mistake … when you are concentrating on so many things you forget and your hand lists off center.

In order to keep the dog from listing off center, you teach the commands GENTLE, NIBBLE. Teach your dog to NIBBLE (with incisors) on the bait in your hand, missing your fingers (sometimes it’s difficult I know)

You know when you are getting the ‘arch” by the position of your hand and bait when you can LOWER the collar and still attain the arch. That’s when you are doing it right.

This is why it’s SO Important to practice in a mirror so you can SEE the picture you are creating.

Michelle Santana

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The heavy head happens when the dog is getting held up by the collar and does not understand what you want him to do. Dogs don’t like the pressure from the collar. You have to condition them to allow you to put pressure on the collar under the throat. Whenever you can in the ring, use a loose collar up around the throat; you can have it with just a little pressure and it will clean the neck up. Then when you need the neck arched for the real push, the dog will accept it, and lean into the collar.     

I tell my clients that they can work on this anytime at home … when you are in the kitchen and you have some food you are tossing to them, put the food on your counter where you can reach it and the dog is looking up at it. Tell them to stay, do a mini stack; its not important to get that part perfect, and take their collar, whatever collar they are wearing, bring it up under their throat, and get them used to the pressure. The dogs are usually so excited about the food that is on the counter, the food that they are SURE is better than any dog food, that they will focus on this … they will hardly notice the pressure from the collar on their neck.   

This is how I stack a heavy headed dog.  I hold the dogs head in my right hand while I am stacking the dog, do not hold him by the collar.

After I have the dog stacked, I take the collar in my left hand, while baiting the dog over his front. Keep the collar easy under the throat so as not to encourage this heavy head syndrome. Actually I almost never have a tight collar on the dog, until the judge is actually looking at him, then I stretch the neck up and bring the head slightly down, arching the neck. As I am baiting the dog over their front I  use the word stretch and tell them what good dogs they are!  Once the dogs are used to the pressure from the collar, they know that they get rewarded when they do allow the pressure, and that it is not going to happen all of the time. Then they are very understanding of what you want and will do it willingly.

It is all in conditioning them to accept and understand what we want them to do.

Linda Hoff