Training Tips for Performance Shih Tzu

by Judy Harding

I am currently training my third Shih Tzu. I started training in the early 90’s before Agility and Rally existed. My first dog Chanel was trained what most people would call old school (really the way most people trained back then). You used a chain choke collar, little to no treats and some praise. She was very smart and learned quickly and healed quite well (someone forgot to tell her she was a Shih Tzu). Back then it was not uncommon to have 60 or 70 dogs in a Novice class outside. Oh yes I said outside as most dog shows were outside, rain or shine. In fact Chanel got first place with almost 70 dogs after a run off with an Aussie on a chilly, rainy day. That is pretty impressive for a Shih Tzu! I feel guilty for leaving training with her, as she was mostly ready for Open. She learned her dumbbell with only two ear pinches. She was clear about what I wanted her to do. I stopped training as we moved and I lost the places I was training. Looking back it was dumb on my part as there are training places everywhere.

Next came Carissa, whom many people may know. She trained in a different era and in my new area. Our new training club had a completely different training style. They were the complete opposite of the way I trained Chanel--so many treats, a martingale collar, and tons of praise. Really, too much treat giving really becomes mostly bribing. Dogs will say “ No treats, I won’t do that.” And as you know, Obedience, Rally and Agility rings don’t allow food in the ring. It will lead to dogs doing well in training and performing poorly in an actual show. So you have to get away from over treating to be successful in the ring and for many, once you over treat, it is impossible to get your dog back.

Carissa did all right through Novice. Then came Open and time for her to learn to pick up the dumbbell. The new club did not use an ear pinch (gasp no) so we were 8 months begging her to pick it up. Frankly I think she just didn’t understand what I wanted her to do. I say that because when she finally figured it out she squealed and she was not a squealer.

Knowing that Utility loomed after Open, I quickly ordered articles as I thought, “If it took her 8 months to pickup a dumbbell, how long is it going to take her to pick up a metal article?” When the articles came, 6 metal and 6 leather, I set out a metal article a few feet away and told Carissa to get it. She went right out and grabbed it up and brought it to me. This told me that once she learned pick it up and bring it too me, she got it. Fantastic! The rest of that exercise I can train later, phew.

Carissa was going strong in her Utility training, thinking all of the exercises were like games at the carnival. In addition to the obedience she was also trained in tracking and agility and she had already finished her RAE in Rally, as high as you could go in Rally at the time. Then the unthinkable came along. Carissa was diagnosed with Cutaneous Lymphoma. Carissa began treatment. She seemed to being doing and feeling well and made it clear she wanted to continue to work. She had already finished her Open Agility and Open JWW titles and had completed her CDX in Obedience. She was already certified to test for her TD title. We knew if she did get her TD title she would be the first Shih Tzu to get a VCD2 title. She was able to get her TD title just two months before she passed away from lymphoma. She really seemed to feel pretty well through much of her treatment and was happily working till very close to the end.

Now there is Tova, whom I really think was sent from heaven! She almost immediately showed me how she could do any and all things I wanted her to do. She would drag big sticks equals carry a dumbbell. She found the dog walk in our yard and went on it herself without fear. She said, “I can do agility, run around in taller wet grass and I can track.” Of course then came the second part, “I am a Shih Tzu. I am very smart and I can be very stubborn!!!” Late in our training, after Carissa had passed, we tried to get our two standard poodles through their UD titles as the begging and bribing and way too many treats had really taken its toll on their training and we were really getting no where with them at shows. We moved our training to a new place. This place was completely different and used a combination of old school and treats. I started with a martingale with Tova, and it wasn’t long before the trainer was saying that Tova wasn’t understanding the correction she was getting (or she was ignoring it). The trainer suggested I might want to try a pinch collar on her. I went home and ordered one for her, as she needed a small one with a quick release clip. Well don’t you know the first time I put it on her she threw a tantrum every little bit during our heeling session, even flattening her self out like a rug (a very Shih Tzu move). Keep in mind this class had group heeling and not in a circle but in a pack, so everyone had to be on their toes. To use the collar correctly you should give her the command you want her to do then a small little correction if she does not respond. Trust me, she heard the correction loud and clear and it was a game changer. It was very quick so the collar was hardly used. If you think about it you can yank and yank on her neck with a martingale collar, not get the results you want but have more of a chance of causing harm than with the smaller corrections and quicker results of a pinch collar.

After Tova finished Novice we moved onto Open. I did Open training in two different places. I did have a problem that I was trying to fix. When heeling in her Novice off lead heeling Tova started stopping when I turned left and would wait for me to heel back toward her and resume heeling and finish great. The second place I trained helped me with this problem by putting more of the responsibility for being in proper position on her. By this point in her training she should know where the proper heeling position is (and she did) and I was able to fix the problem.

By this time we had transitioned back to the martingale collar and only returned to the pinch collar to fix a recurring problem. The second place also taught Rally and Tova was doing well in Rally. At this point we knew Tova would qualify for the Nationals in Rally Excellent. Even though Tova already had her RAE title I had not formally trained her in Rally as most of the foundation she needed in Rally she learned in her obedience training. Going to the Nationals we thought we should get more proficient with the signs and exercises as there were a lot of new signs since I had last taken a dog through Rally.

The AKC has been really shaking things up. Just as Tova was ready to do Open (including ready with out of sight stays), they changed it to command discrimination. This new exercise was required at the 2018 Shih Tzu Nationals. I did a rush job on my part for her to learn her command discrimination as I felt she was ready to at least try Open because her dumbbell training went very quickly compared to the 8 months that Carissa took to learn the dumbbell training. Our trainer uses an ear pinch to train dumbbell so no 8 months for Tova. Yeah! The command discrimination has been a thorn in the side of many of the upper trainers. Many have struggled to get through this change.

It is my belief that Rally can be done with a good obedience foundation with additional training later with a focus on some of the higher-level signs. Rally, like obedience, has had changes, like adding a Master class and a Championship title (RACH) that goes in the front of the dogs name like an OTCH does in obedience.

I did not start training Agility with Carissa or Tova until they were a year and a half old. This enables them to be fully grown and already have a great obedience foundation. In this venue that will mean a great start line stay!

When Carissa ran agility she had definite opinions on what were the right places to run agility. For many years of Carissa’s life the Shih Tzu Nationals were in places where Carissa said were a definite NO when it came to running agility. At a horse arena, it wasn’t the dirt it was the smell. We had to be selective on our venues. Carissa was also sensitive to rubber matting that smelled. We have all shown on the show mats that were not cleaned well before they were put away and have that ammonia smell. Something we had to work through in the obedience and Rally rings. Let’s face it, the small dogs are right in the smell. Fortunately Tova couldn’t care less where she runs agility. She acts like a child who gets to go to the playground when she does agility. I think adding agility really rounded out her training, as obedience can be so serious and tracking is all on her as well as being long and strenuous. I think she loves all the different venues and being able to switch around.

Tova really has been an excellent student. We started training agility 8 weeks before the 2018 National in Oklahoma. I told my trainer that if possible I wanted to enter her in the National as everyone wants to enter their National even if they aren’t quite ready. She laughed at the notion. Well Tova and I came home with a double Q and 1st place in Novice Agility and Novice JWW our first time out. Don’t underestimate what your Shih Tzu can do!

A special thank you to Judy for some tips that helped her train three Shih Tzu in Obedience, Rally, and Agility.