E359: Ashley Escobar - Teaching Conformation Skills: What You Need to Know

 Competing in conformation is so much more than running in circles — join me and Ashley for a conversation on the skills it takes to become best in class.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast, brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods. Today I have Ashley Escobar here with me to talk about conformation. Hi Ashley, welcome back to the podcast!

Ashley Escobar: Thanks for having me back on.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. So to start us out, you wanna just remind listeners a little bit about you and your current furry crew? Yes. So I currently share my home with two Border Collies, two half sisters, Pink and Teal, and three Australian Shepherds Star, Sila and my keeper puppy from my last litter Treasure.

Melissa Breau: Fantastic. And since we're here to talk about conformation, do you wanna share a little bit about your background there? Yes. So I cut my teeth in the dog world altogether when I was a kid in junior showmanship, which quickly led over to conformation breed ring where I debuted my Jack Russell Terriers at the time. And it was just a, I caught the bug at that point and so it just went from there all through my younger 4H-ish years.

I'm not gonna say how long, 'cause it's been a while when I sat down and calculated it. So we're just gonna say it's been a long time and moving into Doberman's and then Border Collie and German Shepherds and Australian Shepherds, which have proven to be my favorites to present in the breed ring, which is why I have them now.

Melissa Breau: Fantastic. So for those who maybe aren't super familiar with conformation as a thing, can you talk a little bit about just kind of what it is?

Ashley Escobar: So conformation or some venues refer to it as the breed ring. It's a beauty pageant if you will, where every breed has a breed standard. And this standard is actually, it's just a set of measures that have been defined for that breed for certain characteristics, physical and temperament wise that they're looking for in the ring as the judge.

So this is how they determine what is the ideal breed for Australian Shepherds for example. So there's certain things that they're looking for. It's certainly beyond the color of the coat and the overall prettiness or the flashiness of the dog when you look out there, right, as judges, we're looking for very specific pieces to the puzzle of the dog as they come into the ring and everything from the, I like to split everything in thirds 'cause I'm a former math professor, so we're looking at the putting the dog in thirds, right?

So we're looking at the front half, the middle half and then the rear. So front, middle, and rear. And the judges do a physical exam as well as a visual exam as they go through the ring and they look from everything to the bite on the dog to the tail if they have a tail.

Melissa Breau: Fantastic. So talk us through like kind of what actually happens.

Ashley Escobar: So you walk into the ring and then it's actually very structured. So, and it's one of the only dog sports that you do together in a group. So you get your number, you wait, you are in an order, they call you in order for your class and as the ring steward calls you in, they're checking off your number. Once everyone is in the ring, you immediately should be stacking your dog and getting ready to present your dog.

'Cause it's really the first view that the judge is going to get of the profile of your dog in the ring. And the judge is then verifying that the numbers that have been checked in are indeed there with the armbands being present because it matters. So everything in breed ring is all about points.

So the number of dogs that are in your class, it's very important that they don't accidentally check someone and who's not in there, right? So the judge will…they all are allowed to handle their classes a little differently, but for the most part you're gonna enter, you get checked in on your armand, your, the judge takes one quick look at the profile of your dog and then immediately they'll have you move around to the other end of the ring where they'll do their individual judging inspection exam.

People call it different things. But they're gonna look at each individual dog, they're going to go over them physically where they physically put their hands on the dog. They're gonna be checking the bite, they're gonna check the layback of the shoulders, the muscle tone on the dog, and then they're gonna have the dog move in a very specific pattern so that they can see how the dog structure really is put together and how the dog moves on the flat.

Once that happens, then you fall back in line at the end and once everyone's had a turn, then they will have the entire class go around the ring together to see really looking for type at that point because it's, you're in there with all the same breeds for your class dogs. So it's a group of Australian Shepherds in there and you wanna see how they all hold up next to each other with that side gate profile movement.

And then the winners are picked, scores are reported, and if you won, you hang out to go move up to the next level essentially. And if not they, they thank you for your contribution to the points for that class and you go on about your day.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Can you talk a little bit about the pieces of all of that that'll benefit from training?

Ashley Escobar: You know, both for maybe the dog and the handler? I am a huge proponent of knowledge is power and you may have the best dog, you may have a freak of nature, like there's nothing wrong with this dog, right? Like good luck we, none of us are perfect. But if you know what to expect and you've been able to train and prepare your dog like you're more confident, your dog is more confident, it's much easier to present your dog.

Even if your dog is structurally perfect, you may, if you don't have, if you lack the knowledge of what's happening in the ring or when something's supposed to be happening or how you're supposed to move or stand or hold your leash or how to present different things, you can take a dog that's structurally perfect and not be able to present it in such a manner without having all of the skills in place for you and your dog.

Like with every sport, if you have no idea what you're doing, it's not very long and your dog's like, oh cool, like we're both lost and you don't know what you're doing either. So I'm going to maybe be a little intimidated when the judge comes over to do their exam or whatnot. So we wanna make sure that, that we know what's happening in the ring from how to properly stack your dog, how to do it really quickly because the judge is, they don't give you a lot of time.

I don't know if you've ever watched conformation, but when they walk up like they expect to be able to look at your dog right then and there, right? They don't want you messing around trying to get it just right. So how to properly stack your dog, how to properly show the bite of your dog if you're showing the bite or if the judge typically looks at the bite of your particular breed, exactly where to stand because although we wear fancy clothes and we're, you know, all dolled up when we take our dog in there, it's really not about us. So we wanna make sure that we're not showing ourselves right.

We wanna make sure that we're really just presenting the dog in the best manner. So just having those skills, especially I feel like the biggest area where I see lack of skill present itself is during the judge's exam. 'Cause it really inexperienced handler or someone who's, who really I mean inexperienced, they just don't know, they don't give their dog any support during the judges' exam.

And I find especially in herding breeds, like they're, especially females and that's usually what I show are bitches, they don't tend to enjoy this stranger just coming in and going over them. And some judges will warm up to the dogs a little bit if they see it. Others are like, no, I'm here. I'm on a time schedule, I'm ready to get my lunch.

And they like, they're ready just to like bang it out. So being able to have the knowledge and the skills of how to support your dog to keep them comfortable during that exam is huge for me. So that's the human half.

Melissa Breau: Are there skills that you specifically train the dog for?

Ashley Escobar: Yes, there are skills that the dog has to be trained for as well. For my breeds, free stacking or not touching the dog's feet, right? So I'm gonna free bait or free stack my dog. I'm just gonna go to the end of the leash. I'm gonna give my dog a cue and my dog is going to put their feet right where they need to be. The shoulders straight in line, the hawks right where they need to be.

They're not standing imbalanced. If you've taken any fitness classes with me, we talk about a balanced stand. That's exactly what the free stack is and in my book, it is a balanced stand on your dog and it's 100% a trained skill that your dog can learn how to do.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. So I know that speaking of fitness classes that you believe fitness can play a big role, right? In really helping a dog kind of show to their strengths. Can you talk a bit about how it's particularly beneficial for conformation dogs?

Ashley Escobar: I, it is kind of where I started with regards to fitness with dogs. So I come from the horse world as well and that's where I did a lot of my equine conditioning and fitness with hunter jumper horses and everything just bled over into the dog world.

But I was showing Dobermans at the time and Dobermans really have to pull over their front. They really have to look really proud, chest out headset really matters and getting some of these dogs who were structurally built to do it, they just didn't know how to move their muscles, a little stabilizer muscles in the right way to do it.

So tweaking their fitness routine and really conditioning their bodies to get into this balance stand is, it's a learned skill but it's also a fit the fitness component of it. Because if you work those muscles, just like with us, then we can have just that really ideal posture. Just like we have a broomstick behind our back and our chest is up, like we don't even think about it. We just, we have really good posture. It's the same thing with dogs.

So there's certain exercises that you can do that can help strengthen the dog's core and their shoulder stabilizers all the way into their neck muscles, their rear so that they can really pull over their front and stand in that balance stand or free stacking position for presentation.

Melissa Breau: Are there common mistakes or maybe misconceptions that you see from newbies or maybe even more experienced exhibitors, right, that people sometimes make? Can you maybe talk us through a few or, or maybe how to avoid them?

Ashley Escobar: I, the biggest thing that I see or hear about is when I ask people what they think conformation is, they tell me, oh, it's left-handed circles and just getting my dog to learn how to do a stand for exam. And although that is like two big pieces of cake, there's lots of little slices of cake within that that we can break down and do. So, although gaiting is, it is a huge thing of mine because it's also fitness. Some dogs just don't, they have the structure to do it, but maybe they've worn a harness that didn't fit them properly for their whole life and now we want to take them in the ring and they don't have the front end extension and reach that they could because they've had this smaller stabilizer muscles just really bulked up and built so they're stride is shorter or you don't know how to properly gait your dog to really get that front end extension and get them in that nice side sweeping trot that you want to see in the breed ring.

So there's knowing what your dog should look like when they move for the breed ring and then knowing how to help your dog understand that this is the gate that I want you to have in this ring when I cue it for you. Head carriage is another huge one. I have a lot of clients that show poodles and head carriage is everything when you present a poodle.

So if your poodle naturally kind of drops their head and they look a little unsure, they're not gonna get a second look right? They are a proud breed, they should have head up, but you can work on conditioning components of that. So I think the biggest thing is really understanding that there's a lot of dog training that goes into conformation and knowing your specific breeds standard is huge for me.

I think you should know exactly what your ideal breed standard is and what the judge is looking for so that you can make sure that you're able to present your dog in in the best light when it comes to that.

Melissa Breau: You've got a webinar coming up on this stuff, so improving conformation ring skills, May 23rd, 3:00 PM Pacific time. Can you share a little more on the webinar, kind of what you'll cover and maybe who might wanna join us? Yes. So the webinar is going to go over the big components that go into the breed ring presentation. Everything from how to read your judge's premium. I get a lot of new people that will show up. Let's say for example, they're like, oh my ring time is 8:00 AM and they've been there since 7:30, but they're the fifth class from for the 8:00 AM So I, you know, you're gonna be seeing in there a while.

Ashley Escobar: So everything from reading the premium to what happens when you enter the ring. Some little tips and tricks that I have on preparing if you're unfamiliar with the judge, since they all kind of handle their classes differently. There are some, there's some things that I like to point out to people on how to just help give them an a leg up and just be a little more prepared for when they do go into the ring and some skills on their dog specifically that can help them with, let's say gating or getting their dog comfortable to be in the ring for that.

Melissa Breau: Okay. So you're also working on a class that's the webinar, but you're also doing a class. So share a little more on that. So how is it different from the webinar and then maybe who should consider that in addition to, or instead of the webinar, The class is going to, we're we're just, we're gonna take our gloves off and get really dirty. We're gonna do all we're, we're doing everything. We're gonna teach our dogs how to free stack. We're gonna teach the handlers how to hand stack or hard stack their dogs so that they're really comfortable in doing that.

Because again, you don't get a lot of time, especially the judges' time in the ring, we're going to learn conditioning exercises that help the dogs get into that balance stand because let's say you go to Royal Canin, like you might be in, they might split the class in half and your dog is in show mode for an hour or so, right? You're waiting to get in there or if you win, you're waiting to go into the next class.

Your dog really needs to be fit. I think there's a huge misconception that show dogs are just plump and out of shape and they don't really do any work 'cause they can't mess up their coats. But these dogs really need to be in tip top shape to be able to look their best and have that posture and movement. So lots of conditioning sprinkled in there, but by the end you should be able to comfortably enter your dog into a conformation breed show and you should know exactly what to expect, which I think is powerful and empowering for the handlers so that they're not going in there thinking, what do I do next? And why is that person doing this?

And just really wanting to empower people to have more confidence and get out there and try it with their dog. And I think there's so much value. I think conformation is one of those things where it's really hard when you don't have somebody else to give you a little bit of feedback because it's really easy to gait your dog improperly or stack your dog poorly. And if you don't have an outside eye, it's really hard to see what you're doing. It's really tough.

And you'd be surprised how many people teach their dogs to stack incorrectly. So they'll, they're completely not stacked and they, so they, but I mean they've got it. They feel really good that the dog is where it should be, but now it looks like the dog's back is a mile long or their hawks are too long because, you know, it's all about really knowing exactly how to do it.

And I tell people, you're, you're just one step ahead if you can just teach your dog how to get into that balance stand because then when all the nerves kick in and the pressure's on, you can just definitely ask your dog to get into that stand and you can feel confident knowing that they can put their feet where they are supposed to be and it won't be so reliant on you physically moving their feet.

And some dogs just don't like it. One of one of my girls now, she, if you move her feet, even to this day, she'll pick it up, she'll put it right back down where it was, but it throws you off because she's like, no, I wanna place it. You know, she's one of those very sassy, but she free stacks beautifully because that's where she was way more comfortable just learning how to get into that free stack position.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Just one thing that maybe hasn't come up yet, can you talk a little bit about bait and the fact that you, it's one of those games where you can actually have cookies in the ring.

Ashley Escobar: The best. It's the best. It's, I tell people, you know, so, so just so you have, you have to wear business clothes, right? You're not gonna go in, in your usual dog training attire of yoga pants and an old T-shirt. You're gonna look nice, you're gonna look presentable. The judge is almost always gonna be in a suit depending on what venue you do.

But this is, I'm speaking more of like AKC, your judge is gonna be in a suit. You're gonna wanna look your best and fancy clothes. The last thing you wanna do is try to tuck in a piece of hot dog on your cream colored suit sleeve underneath your armband. So you wanna make sure that you've played around with bait and what really works with your dog.

You can, some people even have decorative bait bags that they pin to their clothes if they don't have pockets. But this is a sport that's, it's just all about the dog. So if your dog just needs to be fed cookies the whole time to buy into this, they're, they're going to really enjoy the sport of conformation because it's all about just whatever it takes to present them in their best light.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. And everyone likes food. So any final thoughts or key points you wanna leave folks with?

Ashley Escobarr: I would like to just encourage everyone to at least watch like Westminster just happened, so they have lots of videos of Westminster on YouTube right now and maybe even some replays on Facebook and Social Media. Take a look at it, look, find your breed and watch their class and just see how they're being handled and presented.

And maybe it's something that you would consider trying with your dog. It's a huge bonding experience for your dog because it's just you and your dog doing very up close and personal task together. So it's really a lot of fun. And there's a lot of dog training that goes into it, which I'm always excited when people realize how much dog training is involved with conformation. 'Cause usually it's, oh, it's just left-handed circles. And I'm like, yeah, it's just a little bit more than that.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast to talk about it, Ashley.

Ashley Escobar: Thank you for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to all our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Petra Ford to talk about training engagement for competition.

If you haven't already subscribed to our podcast and iTunes or the podcast app of your choice, then our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast, music provided royalty free by bensound.com. The track featured here is called Buddy. Audio Editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in and happy training!


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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