Choosing Your Performance Puppy

by Ashley B. L. Fischer
This article was originally written for the Pug, but would apply equally to selecting a Shih Tzu puppy to participate in obedience, rally, agility, or other performance events.

I have Pugs. I love Pugs. I show them in Conformation and as if that isn’t enough of a challenge, I also compete with them in Agility and Rally. I have been blessed with dogs who are trainable and driven making them fun teammates in the ring, regardless of our results. What makes them good candidates for performance? I never ignore a “feeling” I get when I meet them, and I can share some observations and techniques that have worked for me to identify Pugs who show potential to obtain titles on both ends of their names.

First, look at structure. If a dog is not put together correctly, he won’t be happy doing straight sits or climbing A-frames. He won’t be able to maintain his stack in the show ring. Watch puppies move and play. The puppy who is constantly bouncing, “cantering” and moving inconsistently might be cute but he might not be the one who is put together well. Look for the puppy who is gaiting around the yard, trotting up and down hills. Look for one who can gait at speed without breaking. I remember an old timer telling me at ringside, “If they move right, they are put together right.”

Talk to the breeder about the litter. Who was the first puppy to do things? Who is the problem solver, the thinker? My first special, Spike, was the first to do everything. As soon as he could walk on all fours, he climbed out of the whelping box after a nap and proceeded as fast as he could to the training pads to relieve himself. He was also exploring things like the inside of rolled up rugs by 5 weeks old. He was curious and confident. He turned out to be my most trainable dog and he loves to show and play in agility.

I find the clicker to be a great way to test aptitude. All I do is click/treat, clicker in one hand and treats in the other. I watch to see how long it takes the puppy to look at the treat hand when he hears the click. That tells me he is figuring out the connection. Then I try some simple nose touches. Most puppies will explore your palm if you put it in front of their faces. As soon as the puppy looks at my palm, click/treat. When I have a feeling he gets that, I hold out for a nose touch. When the puppy is consistently touching my palm with his nose for the click/treat, I watch closely. Does he turn his attention to the treat hand after the click? Does he enjoy the game and try to keep it going? Keep in mind that puppies can only be worked in short segments so this might have to happen over several sessions.

This is how I picked out my Daphne. She got it immediately. Another bitch in the litter got it too but without the same enthusiasm. I came back the next day and the breeder asked me to try again with the other bitch. I took her to the next room. As soon as Daphne heard that first click, she ran over to the baby gate, whining and trying to get into the room with us. I knew right then that she was the girl for me. She too went on to being a great show dog and is now burning up the agility courses. She also marched through both her Novice and Advanced Rally titles in no time.

Have fun finding that right performance puppy and even if you never do performance, that enthusiastic, confident and trainable puppy will also show well in conformation and could well become your next special!

CREDIT: This article first appeared in the Pug breed column in the September 2011 issue of the American Kennel Club Gazette and is reprinted with permission. The Gazette is now available online at