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Conformation Training Tips

Michelle Santana
Foxfire Dobermans

In the beginning you must practice at home a lot, not just at the show or while in the ring.

The training period should be short (15-20) minutes, concise (decide in advance what exercise you want to train for each period of time) and fun. I have to say the biggest error I see in training is people don’t make it fun/happy and the results are methodical, ho-hum, bored-to-tears show dogs. If you are in a bad mood DON’T train!

  1. You must be consistent with the terminology for the given command and desired response. Take great care that you are making it clear to your dog what exercise they are being rewarded for.
  2. Break the whole show thing into Tiny, Understandable segments. Every exercise has a word (just like sit, stay, come) and a reward. If you get frustrated that your dog isn´t “getting it”, Play!! It is so Important that your dog think that “Training” is FUN. The most enjoyable dog to show is a dog Having a Good Time!!
  3. You MUST have a mirror in your training area. They can be found at Home Depot type hardware stores. The 36 x 36 inch size works best. I tack this onto a piece of plywood that I can move around easily.

I usually start training pups when they are about three to four months old. Before this age I just enjoy developing happy go lucky out going personalities (the naughtier the better, for me). I focus on playing & walking both on leash and off. Perhaps a little `informal´ stacking (mostly learning to have their legs manipulated without resisting). I, personally, don´t train small pups on a grooming table because, well, we aren´t showing Dobermans on grooming tables! I sit on the floor or kneel with them.

These training techniques work for all ages. The more ingrained a “problem” is the harder it is to unteach it. But I firmly believe with Lots of Training/practice most dogs can learn anything you want to teach them. The key is to make it Understandable to them. Find what motivates them. Find out how long the dog will stay motivated, and work WITH the dog, Note the natural tendencies of said dog & try to work In Their parameters as well as your own.


The first thing I teach is the stand. When placing the front legs under the body I say ‘place’. Then cradling the muzzle/under jaw in my hand I say ‘foot back’ when I place the back feet back. Foot back becomes useful in the future so don’t forget it. The feet don’t have to be a long way back at first, just comfortably so. Then I tell the dog to ‘stay’ or ‘stand stay’. I increase the time to stand/stay as time goes on. Then I say ‘okay’, release the dog, jump around, give it food, act crazy and generally have fun. Eventually you can stop verbalizing the ‘place’ and ‘foot back’. Your dog will know from the word stand what you expect. After placing the back feet back go to the tail and say ‘tail up’ as you stroke the tail and even any time you stroke the tail. When I say tail up I stroke the tail gently in a tickling manner with my finger tips. If you meet resistance, in most cases it is best not to push.

Sometimes you have to do the ‘tail up’ in a variety of soothing settings, like while they’re on your lap watching TV and relaxing, in the park while playing ball, while on a walk in the neighborhood or while watching something that interests them. It has to be equated to Pleasure in your dogs mind.

It’s okay to still say “Tail up” as you stroke it even if the tail is already up, it’s good practice.

If you have a dog that resists ‘tail up’ you need to re-represent the exercise with good feelings!  Try these techniques;

BAITING OVER THE FRONT (so as not to rack back)

For this exercise I use the command ‘Reach’.

This exercise is good to train a dog that has the habit of leaning back or has a shorter neck and likes to `suck´ it into their shoulder area. This teaches a dog to “use all the neck they´ve got”. With this method you aren´t `forcing´ them to lean forward, but Rewarding them for Leaning Forward.

One problem I see that people do with the `reach´ is they create a `lean´, in which the dog Leans forward with their Body instead of Reaching with their necks. BIG difference. It is not good to Lean the Body (or if you do lean the body you want to make sure it´s the appropriate amount), as Leaning the body can slope the top line and straighten out the stifle in some Dobes. You want to create a happy medium. This is one of the places the mirror comes in handy.                                        

To teach the `reach´, I place my left hand on the Dobe´s chest, about where the tan marking on my side is (opposite side of judge/mirror).                                                                                                 

Apply pressure to keep them from leaning. (You gently push them back/keep them in place, you can even say “Don´t lean, `reeeach´, GOOD `reach´, Yea!! When they do that specific action.) Only reward them when they reach with their Neck without leaning. (they may lean a little at first till they separate the two)

Continue to say `reach´, holding the dog´s chest/body with my left hand , while with your right hand, holding the bait Slightly in front of the nose/straight away from the body to entice them to `reach´ for the bait. When they Reach with their NECK reward them with a bite of bait. This should cause their neck to `elongate´ from their body Without them Leaning with their body.

Make sure you don´t start a habit of continually feeding the dog to get them to `reach´. They should learn to crane their neck out for a length of time (after they understand the exercise) before getting rewarded. Then reward sporadically during the given exercise.

Repeat this in multiple training sessions until you can say `Reach´, without holding the chest, and the dog cranes it neck forward for the bait. You can literally see their neck come away from their shoulder area. Eventually you should be able to say `Reach´ and the Dobe will `crane´ its neck from its body and your left hand (instead of holding the chest) will be able to hold the collar.  With minimal pressure on the collar, you will be able to learn to ask your Dobe to `reach´ and then manipulate/tweak the amount of arch and lean you wish to put in the finished stacked picture.  When releasing from this exercise always go to the front/side of the head and release with an `okay’!

Dance around, give bait, and make it FUN!!!


From the stack we go on to movement. Let me preface this with the biggest error I see people make. They are always walking their pups on wide, buckle type collars, often attached to Flexi leads. Doing this sometimes is okay but by and large this teaches the puppies to lean into the collars, pulling you along thus throwing off their balance and creating situational bulldog (wide, unbalanced) movement. I suggest starting wee little pups on appropriate ring wear such as thin/thick nylon collars.  I think it is important to start young pups off learning to walk in all situations with the thin collar high around the neck just below the cheeks/behind the ears like when showing. This way they don’t suddenly
rebel when one day you say ,”Oh, you’re six months old, wear the collar this way”. Next I teach the heel position with the word ‘easy’  (just in case you want to do the real heel in obedience in the future). When you are beginning to teach ‘easy/heel’ you start out at a walk then proceed to faster speeds. I teach the word ‘trot’ to differentiate speed (walk, trot, pace, gallop). I say ‘easy, trot’. The dog is not pulling at  my side while trotting. The proper down and back position is the dog’s shoulder or ribs should be at your leg with the head straight. Sometimes, with pups six months and older to adult, if they have a really bad habit of leaning/pulling  into the collar I use a mini-size pinch collar placed mid-neck to upper neck. With the pinch I am able to teach them to walk easy without pulling/gagging on the show collar. This way you don’t have to teach the dog that the show collar means an unpleasant experience because you don’t strangle them to death trying to teach the proper easy position.

I will spend as many days as necessary to teach the easy/heel position with the pinch collar. Then I will put the show lead on along with the pinch collar, something like a double reign. Then I work the pinch while the show collar is in place around the upper neck. I will gradually lower and raise, as needed, the pinch collar until eventually all that is being used to easy the dog is the show collar. While you will find the mini-pinch collar indispensable in training certain concepts in conformation, do NOT abuse this valuable tool. Use it properly.  Meanwhile remember, break with FUN, FUN, FUN!

Gudi Molinari designed a collar with a wonder clip that makes the fit to order pinch collar easy on/off. Bob Letsinger of SunnyHill Dobermans (Sunny Hill Designs) has now taken over the business. You don’t have to fit the prongs together. It also comes with an interlaced leather covering so the prongs won’t inadvertently undo themselves. The leather conceals that it is a pinch collar while in public.


In  preparation for teaching my pups to move like  show dogs with ears up and neck arched, once I’ve got the pup lead trained, I occasionally say ‘watch it’ and toss bait  to the ground in front of the pup. Sometimes, at first, you have to literally point it out to them, touching the ground and repeating watch it as you ‘discover’ the bait. You can even pick it up, keeping it close to the ground and re-toss it in front of them so they  see it land. At first it helps to throw it at pup level  so the pup sees it pass his face/head and fall to the ground. I allow them to pick it up and eat it but you DON’T want the pup to get into the habit of following your hand throwing the bait as this creates the dog moving with it’s head wrapped around your leg watching for your hand movement tossing the bait.


Make a long, imaginary down and back line for yourself.  Usually with the mini pinch mid-neck to low neck to reinforce the `easy´ position if need be, and the show collar up high under the cheeks/behind the ears and held Together in your left hand like a double rein (it takes practice).

Walk the imaginary line very slowly.  When the dog turns its head to look at you say firmly ‘head straight’ ,while  Reaching over in a pivot and with your right hand, palm open, (this is the signal) guide/push the side of the dog’s cheek/muzzle area to look straight ahead.  The dog focuses straight ahead and stops resisting say ‘Good!’ yeah!!.  And then continue with another firm command.. “Easy, Head straight” AND signal then continue down the line. Repeat this over and over in each training session.

Occasionally say, “good, head straight” when the dog is looking straight. Remember, be happy and positive but give the command in a firm voice. Every time the dog turns it’s head towards you, stop and repeat the above step.  It’s usually slow going at first but be patient. It may take many different sessions. Each time you get to the end of the line release the dog from the exercise. I say “okay, yeah”, jump around, be happy and act proud. The dog will be overjoyed with itself. Remember they only want to please you.

Eventually when the dog understands you want him to look straight you will be able to speed up the pace until eventually you can trot. Even at the trot you may have to stop occasionally and reinforce the command. Signal when the dog focuses forward and start at the trot again.   

With very stubborn dogs I will actually do the same hand signal but I will also use my thumb to push/bend gently the right side of the nose towards the left/off center. This will guide the head straight with more force. Guide the dog farther than just looking straight … over correct to the left of center. The dog really needs to understand that you want him to look away from you when you say “head straight”. This will eventually normalize to just looking straight. Once the dog understands the exercise you will be able to stop pivoting your body and making contact with the dog’s head. You will be able to just show the open palm from a normal  standing/moving position and say “head straight”. Remember, when you are in the ring ( i.e.-when making the about turn to come back to the judge on the down and back) show your open hand and say “head straight” to reinforce the command on the second journey of the down and back .


This is difficult to write about because it can be confusing to differentiate what side of the dog I’m talking about but I’ll try.  By now I think you all understand the importance of making this fun for your dog. So … all your dogs are just dancing around when you get that show lead out to train … RIGHT?

For the purposes of this post lets differentiate sides. When you are looking in the same direction as your dog you have the same left/right side. For free baiting you are looking at your dog. So lets say the dog’s left side becomes the judges side (also the side your mirror is on). You all have your mirrors don’t you? The right side of the dog will be your side (the side you stand on when stacking the dog).

We are going to teach the ‘step’ exercise. (This is when the dog steps forward with it’s front feet and eventually strikes a four square free pose) Point to remember. The show collar and lead are not, for the most part, tools to correct with. They are tools to steer and guide with like the reins on a horse. Your dog learns this exercise by three signals … your voice, your hand/body gestures and your collar/lead pressure/guidance. You are in front of your mirror.

  1. Walk in a little circle to position the judge’s side of the dog towards the mirror  Say ‘stand’.  Ignore what the rear is doing for now. You step about a foot in front of your dog, allowing enough room for the dog to step towards you. This next part is the hard part to explain…
  2. You will have the collar and lead in your left hand . The lead can be wadded up in your palm or dangling at this point. The collar is around the neck and pulled semi-taut with the one portion/strand of collar that connects to the lead running across your palm or fingers.
  3. Then, having taken the strand of collar in your left hand, you reach for and cradle the muzzle/under jaw portion in your left hand. You can fit your finger tips into the crevice or V that the two bones on the under jaw create. Simultaneously say ‘step’ and gently pull/guide the dog towards you, but slightly towards your left. This will create an imbalance and the dog will usually be forced to take a step forward with the judge’s side front paw. If it steps with both front paws, great … Say  ‘Yea, good, step!’ Feed the dog bait BEFORE releasing from this exercise. (**see below) IF it didn’t step with both feet but did with one paw keep your hand in the crevice and still say ‘good, step, yea’.  Rewar
    d IMMEDIATELY with bait from the right hand.
  4. If the dog didn’t step with both paws you can usually move/guide your left hand with the muzzle in it towards the judge’s side and create another imbalance, thus forcing the dog to step forward with the paw that is on your side. If the dog still hasn’t stepped with the paw on your side you can move closer and actually use your left foot to gently come around to the back of the dogs pastern area and apply a little pressure to force the dog to move it’s paw forward. Repeat saying ‘step’. When you get it to step, feed bait immediately and praise!   **It is important that you reward with bait immediately after it steps with either paw so it understands clearly that it is being rewarded specifically for this maneuver. Then release the dog from the entire exercise and jump around, be happy. Repeat # 1-4 several times at each training session and then move on to something else. You don’t want to over practice.
  5. At this point both front paws don’t have to be even or straight for that matter. You just want the dog to grasp the concept of what ‘step’ means. Again, be patient! If your dog isn’t understanding something try to figure out what part of the exercise it doesn’t get. Think of a way to communicate your desire.   
  6. Generally, with practice, a dog catches on very quickly to what step means. Eventually you will be able to wean the dog from your having to take it’s muzzle  in your hand. You will be able to say step and use your other signals such as your voice, collar/lead and/or body gestures to get your dog to step while you stand at a distance free baiting.

    In teaching the  free baiting exercise I ask that you use your foot (attached to your leg) as a pointing stick and GENTLY nudge. This is your signal to the dog. DO NOT step on your dogs paws with intent to injure them! Once again, let me say there are 100’s of training techniques, not every one of which works with every dog although having trained many dogs I haven’t found one yet that doesn’t learn from my techniques. Be patient. It takes time and reward to train anything. As I said so many times before, YOU HAVE TO HAVE A MIRROR so you can see when your dog is striking a good free bait stance.

    Remember to always reward quickly so the dog understands he is being rewarded for the action of stepping forward with his front feet even if the step isn’t perfect. They usually catch on very quickly that if they step with their front feet they will be rewarded. The trick then is teaching them just how far to step forward, that you want them to step in the first place and just how wide plus getting them to keep or put their back feet back to strike a beautiful natural stand.

  7. Once the dog steps with it’s front paws, if the back legs are not parallel (in other words, if they are standing like a German Shepherd) move to your side of the dog’s shoulder area while holding the cheek/crevice with your left hand. With your left foot/leg extend your leg under your dog to reach whichever back paw is unequal. It’s a tricky maneuver, one in which you must be careful NOT to have your thigh/knee rub against their rib/body area. The idea is to point and nudge/signal the foot you want moved and then use the voice command ‘foot back’. Nudge the paw GENTLY with your foot while saying ‘foot back’. It might even be both legs you want to go back; if so touch both paws.
  8. At first  they don’t have to go back as far or as perfect as you would like. It’s just the action of the dog understanding you want the back legs to go back. (eventually to a given position) Usually your dog will move the paw back at least some distance. Praise, reward, release, dance around! As the dog catches on you can repeat ‘foot back, foot back, foot back’ as many times as it takes to get the back feet to the position you want. Watch yourself and the dog’s stance in the mirror. When the dog has extended the foot to the perfect position say ‘PERFECT’. and reward with lots of praise. For puppies around 3-4 months it is easier to reach down from over the top of them, grasp the hock or thigh and say ‘foot back’, moving the leg back with your hand. I also use this technique with stubborn adults although I reach under their bellies to grasp the thigh and still say ‘foot back’. Remember, in the beginning I said teach foot back when teaching the stack, it would come in handy later? The dogs are smart and  they understand the concept.
  9. During this exercise you should be holding the bait in your right hand just  a little in front  of your dog’s nose, poised to give the reward when the back paw moves backwards. If you keep repeating this whole free baiting technique your dog will learn to anticipate what it needs to do in order to get the reward. Eventually I find the  dog catches on that leaving the back feet behind while stepping forward will earn them the bait FAST!
  10. One error I see occurring is that owners let the dog get away with anticipating too many steps as if the dog were thinking “well, if a step is good, a lot of steps must be better”. Your dog will step as many times as it thinks it will get rewarded.  That is what the mirror is for. Watch that your dog only steps as many times as appropriate for it to look natural in a beautiful free bait stance. You don’t want  to allow or teach your dog to step so far out in front of it’s body that you create a rocking horse/racking back stance.
  11. After your dog has ‘step’ understood you can begin to indicate perfection. I use my right foot for the judge’s side of the dog and my left foot for my side of the dog. If either front paw is not in it’s proper place I use my foot as indicated above to nudge the front paw back into an even stance. Or, if I have to, I do #5 where I come around the back of the pastern area to move the foot forward. At this point you reward ONLY when the dog has the front feet even. If the dog is standing too narrow I put my right foot between their front legs and say ‘wider’. I then reward ONLY  when the front feet are even and wide enough. If they are too wide I nudge the paw and say ‘fix it’ until the dog gets it right where I want it. Reward immediately when the dog puts its paws where you want them and say ‘PERFECT’. Eventually the dog will learn to anticipate what the correct stance is in order to get the reward faster. Always reward the dog  QUICKLY for getting it right while saying ‘perfect’! Sometimes during this period you will still have to be go back to nudging the back feet back but I find that dogs just eventually catch on to what you’re asking of them.

Be careful that you teach the dog to get it right in the area you designate for your free bait area. I often see handlers/owners continually back up while trying to get their dog to strike the perfect stance. In the ring you are limited to the area in front of the judge. Don’t let yourself get in the habit of backing up right out of the ring!


I think keeping showing interesting to our furry friends is of the UTMOST importance!!  After all, our pooches are really showing for us!!  All too often I see handlers, owners and professionals alike, standing in the lineup waiting for their turn with the Judge. They stand around in a military line, stone cold with a dog just hanging out at the end of the lead.  I think this creates real boredom and a dislike for or a ho-hum attitude on the dog´s part about showing. I try to jazz the situation up with little games and training. Every dog has its own idea of what a fun game is.

If the class is of any size I try to break away from the line-up of handlers and I seek the  more roomy end corner of the  ring, behind the lineup, until it’s my dogs turn to be examined  or  after my individual pattern and it’s time to re-lineup for the Judge’s class placements . If I can’t break away from the lineup I try to carve out a space around me to give me enough room to do some games a
nd training. Some judges are nice enough in a big class to designate an area for the handlers to relax in until it’s their turn. Don’t take this time to relax. Take it as an opportunity to super charge and train your show dog!

I intermix training with games and often combine the two. One game I play with the dogs is ‘watch it’. This comes in handy as well when you want to teach a dog to move with its ears up or to put its ears up. In a small area around me I’ll say ‘watch it’ and throw a little piece of bait on the floor. I throw it in all different directions. Be playful! Say happily, “Watch it, Get it, Yea!!!” Make it a big deal for the dog to watch for the bait landing. Almost always the dogs ears will be up or they’ll soon learn to put them up, albeit while looking down at the floor of attentively watching for the bait. You can modify this game by reaching for the bait yourself … allow yourself to win and to lose sometimes. Your dog will like to be faster than you. You can pick up the bait and wave it around, act excited. Say, “I got it” and then, “Watch it, watch it” while it’s in your hand. If the ears are up and the dog is looking at your hand, reward the dog from your hand. Keep them on their paws! Mix this with throwing and retrieving from the floor. Eventually you will be able to get the most stubborn of dogs to put their ears up! It’s like a cat and mouse game. IMPROVISE!!! See what interests your pooch and gets the reaction YOU desire!

You have to find what game peaks your dogs interest. I found that Jazz was real fond of ‘jumping back’ then ‘jumping up’ for the bait, sometimes with all four feet off the ground. I’d say “Back, Back, Back”, quick and happy while I walked into her front.  She’d get that sparkle in her eyes and leap backwards, and then up into the air for the bait. Then I would have her free bait in the regular manner and she maintained that sparkle in anticipation of repeating the game! This game came in handy when the judge was walking down the line-up looking for expression or if the judge had a free bait stand off with another competitor. I’d act like we were going to play the game and I’d stand far in front of her. The sparkle/expression would just emanate from her. If you have an extremely angulated dog you’ll have to beware that this game doesn’t create a crouchy/hocky rear in normal free baiting in anticipation of the game.

Another of my specials really liked to play ‘catch’. If he missed it I’d hold him back and race for the bait myself. I’d make a big deal saying “I got it, I got it, ha, ha” He hated losing so he was very attentive to get it… Sometimes he´d be so quick he would beat me to it on the floor! This game came in handy when we would come back to the judge on our individual because I’d say ‘catch’ and he, thinking  we were going to play the game, would give a great free bait stack.

Another game I play is the ‘airplane’ game. This is very good for teaching the exercise ‘here’ which I will go into later. I take a piece of  bait in my hand and pretend it’s an airplane by doing circular movements, up and down, all around, finally ending up with the bait ‘falling’ (handed) into the dog’s  mouth. You know, like when the dogs follow something — with this game their heads are following the movement of the hand. I even play ‘tug of war’ or fetch with a little pig’s ear that I can fit into my pocket. So, think of anything that brings a sparkle to your dogs eye. Improvise it to play in a small area in the ring.

Please remember, Pick Up any bait you throw or put on the ground.  Be discreet when playing these games in the ring as you don’t want to be disruptive but you do want your dog to have a good time.