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Why Does Your Ring Performance Fall Sort of Your Expectation?

One of the greatest frustrations for obedience competitors is watching your dog perform poorly in the ring when he consistently looks better prepared in practice.

What causes that? I have several ideas for you.

Are you helping your dog too m uch in training?

Minor Adjustments:

Pointing to front, turning your shoulder on the finish, guiding back on the leash of a forging dog or encouraging the lagging dog to move forward are all examples of subtle help. If you are doing the work in training, your dog will not feel responsible for performing those details in the ring.

Today, start changing that habit. When your dog comes to front, let him sit, if he’s not straight, make him fix it. Far better that he gives you his best guess, and then find out if he’s right or wrong and needs to try harder, than that you help him be right every time.

Second Commands:

If your dog hesitates, do you quickly (without even noticing?) give him a second command? Second commands can become a habit, for both you and the dog, without your even noticing that you are giving one.

Today, refuse to give your dog a second command for any reason. Instead, physically touch him to make him do the right thing the first time you ask. If you call him and he fails to move, go get him. If you send him and he only goes part way, go put your hand on his collar and push him in the right direction. You don’t have to say “no,” or get angry, simply make him do what you ask on the first attempt.

Are you depending on treats, toys, and games in training?

In our efforts to be motivational and fun, we often train with hands full of treats and toys in our pockets. When these are gone, and we are in the ring, the performance suffers.

In the Digital Obedience Guide: Tricks that Transition to Obedience Exercises, in the last module in a section called “Find Heel,” I talk about secondary reinforcers (a word or a clicker) and how they cause a dopamine release in the pleasure center of the brain. Tricks that Transition is available free on my website.

Your dog can learn to enjoy the activity leading to the toy or treat as much as he enjoys the reward offered. Watch the dogs in the “Find Heel” section. You will see dogs learn to enjoy the game of finding heel position. I want you to understand that your dog does not have to be working to earn a toy or a treat; he can enjoy the activity that leads to the toy or the treat.

This is a complicated idea. We are all guilty of believing that our dogs need the toy or the treat to perform.

Try teaching your dog to “place,” and then “find heel.” Be mindful of how often you help your dog perform during training, and eliminate second commands. Watch him start to enjoy the activities, not just the reward.

Are you training like you show?

You must be able to practice for 8-10 minutes without a break.

All the obedience classes can be completed in less than 10 minutes. Typically, our training sessions are longer than that. Most of us take multiple breaks to offer treats or play games. Have you ever tried to practice for even 5-6 minutes, moving from one exercise to another, offering the praise and enthusiasm that you can offer in the ring, but nothing more?

You must perform each exercise the first time, not after multiple attempts.

A typical training session might involve you repeating one exercise several times, then moving on to another. Have you ever tried to practice several exercises, one time each, making sure your dog will perform the first time he attempts it, not after several repetitions?

You must be able to move between the exercises smoothly, going from one to the next.

Are you going to ask your dog to heel from one exercise to the next, or move around the ring in a more relaxed fashion? Practice several different strategies and decide what works best for you. You can talk to your dog while moving in the ring, so do so in practice, but do not let him go to the location of a new exercise in a distracted or uninterested fashion.

What does “training like you show” look like?

Does every training session need to look like this? No. Sometimes you will need to concentrate on a single exercise to improve your dog’s understanding of that exercise. However, you need to practice this way often enough so that when you enter the ring, your dog feels as if he is being asked to perform in a familiar way. You want your dog to believe he is doing exactly what he does in training.

Last night in class, four students were preparing to go into Graduate Novice. I asked them perform eight exercises in a row without taking a break. There are four exercises in the Graduate Novice class after the heeling; the drop on recall, recall with a dumbbell, recall over the high jump, and recall over the broad jump. I wanted each student to try to perform each exercise twice, but not to repeat any exercise twice in a row. You guessed it; no one made it through eight recall exercises without the dog anticipating at least one of them. The students received helpful information about their dog’s weakness.

After everyone had finished, we split up and worked on anticipation by giving the dog a command to “Sit,” or “Stay,” before asking him to “Come.” They acted as the judge for one another, exaggerating the “Call Your Dog,” command. This training session did not resemble showing, but it was appropriate to spend time concentrating on the problem we had encountered.

Set up some training sessions that looks more like showing by training for 5 or 6 minutes without a break; move between exercises like you would in the ring; try to perform each exercise just one time. As you do this, you will discover that some exercises need more work before you can confidently send in your entry.

Are you able to achieve a perfect performance on the first attempt?

I’m often asked if I fix my dogs mistakes when I am trying to make training and showing look alike. The answer is yes, consider the following scenario.

Imagine that you have thrown the dumbbell over the high jump. Your dog picks up the dumbbell and then returns around the jump. Tell him he’s wrong (stop him), take him back to where he was last right (put him in a sit in the location he picked up the dumbbell, with it in his mouth), return to where you were standing, and then give him a command and signal to jump.

Follow up with a different exercise and then return to the high jump to try it again. Purposefully throw the dumbbell off center in the direction your dog came around the jump. Can he do it right this time?

If you think you are ready to enter a show, it is important that your dog do the exercise correctly on the first attempt. By leaving the exercise and returning to try again, you are setting up another “first attempt.”

Imagine, that when you come back to try again, your dog fails a second time. Sometimes, as you try to make training and showing more similar, you discover that your dog simply does not have the skills you thought he had. You will discover that your dog is not thoroughly prepared.

Preparing for Your Ring Performance.

Teaching the exercises and preparing for competition involves three stages:

  1. Shaping the behavior.
  2. Performing each exercise in many different locations.
  3. Teaching your dog how NOT to perform.

For your dog to understand how to perform each exercise, he must also understand how not to perform. In the above example, this dog needs to know that the retrieve over the high jump involves jumping over the jump, retrieving the dumbbell, and returning over the jump with the dumbbell. If your dog has never tried coming back around the high jump, he probably does not understand that doing so is wrong.

Teaching a dog how not to perform is what “proofing” is all about. Although this article does not cover proofing, you can learn more about it from the video, Proofing is Not Hard or in the Digital Obedience Guide, Proofing: The Benefits of Mistakes.