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Why is it that some dogs look fabulous outside of the ring, but perform poorly in the ring, or worse yet, fall completely apart?

There is more to achieving a stunning performance than simply teaching the exercises.

I believe that 70% of our preparedness comes from teaching our dogs the obedience exercises, and the other 30% is determined by how we conduct ourselves as our dog’s coach on the day of the event.

Interestingly, after writing an article titled “The 70/30 Split,” I asked my Dad, a lifelong coach, how much of his team’s success depended on “practice,” and how much depended on how well he coached his team on the day of the event. Without prompting from me, he replied, “70/30.”

So, what does that 30% look like?

You are no longer the teacher on the day of the show, you are the coach. Your responsibility as the coach includes:

1. Planning your warm up.
You are not guaranteed a lot of space nor are you at liberty to do all the things you might do on a normal training day. Have a plan that will put your dog in a frame of mind that is animated and accurate.

2. Managing your anxiety.
No coach ever tells his team or an individual athlete that he is nervous about the event! It is impossible to be a good leader when you are overcome with performance anxiety. As coach, you are leading the team, you don’t have time to be nervous!

3. Choreographing your performance.

Decide ahead of time how to move around the ring from one exercise to the next. Create a plan to keep your dog engaged in what you are doing together.

10 Ideas for an Effective Warm-up
No athlete jumps off the bench and runs on to the field, so you and your dog shouldn’t do that either. How do you warm your dog up before going into the ring?

The following 10 ideas come straight from my training bag. Experiment with them until you discover the ones that bring out the best in your dog. Your goal is to elicit the attitude of a bright, alert dog that is paying attention to you.
  1. Before you start, walk around the ring. Give your dog a chance to look around. 
  2. Your first goal is to engage with your dog. Perhaps you should start with a fun game your dog enjoys, or a quick retrieve. 
  3. If your dog seems excited, give yourself plenty of time for your warm-up. If your dog seems dull or disinterested, consider handing him off to a friend while you disappear for a few seconds! 
  4. Heel in a straight line for 25 to 30 feet and halt. Establish a rhythm; require attention and a prompt sit just like you would in training. 
  5. Add a change of pace to your straight line heeling to emphasize attention and rhythm. Expect your dog to slow down and speed up when you do. Avoid the temptation to do an about turn. 
  6. Try a few fronts. Let your dog move toward you as you back up. Your goal is to have fun and maintain your dog’s attention. 
  7. Try a few finishes. Require your dog’s attention and accuracy just like you would in training. 
  8. Practice the “find heel” game (Tricks that Transition to Obedience Exercises) and use a conditioned reinforcer to reward him for effort and accuracy
  9. Heel at a slow pace as it gets closer to your turn in the ring. Heel slowly in Figure-8 sized circles. Remember, keeping your dog engaged and attentive is your ultimate goal. 
  10. If you find you have extra time, put your dog in a down and stand at a leash-length. Using the principles of “ready, set, go,” have him jump up from the down and “find heel.” 
This week, pick a day to practice a “warm up.”
  • Pretend you are outside the ring. 
  • Think about the space you might have available and what you will do to prepare for your turn. 
  • Practice a warm-up and then do the first two or three exercises of the class you will be competing in. 
  • Evaluate how you did. 
  • Make a list of changes you can make to address the problems you encountered? 
Try these ideas. You may discover that focusing on your warm up and the choreography of your performance will not only provide you with a bright, alert dog, but may also give you confidence and help to control the ring nerves you are feeling.

What are the best strategies for controlling your nerves?
It’s rather a fascinating conundrum. We love our dogs, we love training our dogs, our goal is to get obedience titles, yet when we get to a dog show, our own nervousness interferes with our ability to perform.

Competing is, and should be exciting. The goal is to feel the thrill of competition, not gut wrenching, sick to your stomach, I can’t breathe emotions. How do you do that?

Prior to entering the ring, consider these five tips:

  1. Arrive on time or early to give yourself time to set-up, and get yourself and your dog comfortable. 
  2. Familiarize yourself with the ring procedure. Close your eyes and picture yourself performing as if you were watching a video of your best performance. Do not imagine your dog failing! 
  3. Avoid watching other dogs in your class. If another dog does poorly, we tend to think, “My dog might do that too!” If another does well, we think, “My dog can’t do that!” Do not scrutinize the performance of other teams if you think it might impact your confidence. 
  4. Practice your very best posture. Stand up straight, relax your shoulders, put your hands on your hips, and take deep breaths rather than slouching and putting your hands in your pockets. 
  5. Gently remind yourself that you are at a dog show and the worst thing that can happen is that you might fail. 
In the ring, remember these five tips:
  1. Step into the ring with confidence. 
  2. Smile, act relaxed and confident. If you act relaxed and confident, you will start to feel that way too. In turn, your dog will react confidently as well. 
  3. Your mantra should be, “One exercise at a time.” Don’t let your mind wander to the exercises yet to come. 
  4. Stay in the moment. The easiest exercise to fail is the one immediately following the exercise you thought you might fail. 
  5. If you do fail an exercise, immediately tell yourself you will not fail another! Make it your goal to have the best performance possible, even with an NQ on the scorecard. 
Examples for Choreographing Your Performance
Choreography involves knowing where you are going and how you intend to get there just like a good actor knows his lines and where to move on the stage. The ring is your stage. Every dog is different. Some dogs need you to be relaxed and enjoy the moment with them. Others need you to keep them focused and attentive. What is the temperament of the dog you are showing, and what does he need from you?

I recently showed both of my dogs in Utility B. As I was leaving the ring with the second dog, the judge said to me, “That was like watching Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You don’t look like the same handler when showing those two dogs!”

The judge was correct. I plan my warm-up and choreography based on the temperament of the dog I am showing.

Micah needs me to be relaxed and focused. Watch how I move from one exercise to another with him in the following video. I treat the heeling and figure 8 as one continuous exercise. I sometimes move formally and sometimes less formally. The Day of the Show - Choreography of an Open Routine 

Contrast that to my other dog, Nate. I move around the ring purposefully to keep him calm. Watch this video of Nate winning the Novice class at the AKC Obedience Classic in 2015. When I take a break, I’m touching him. Nate is a dog with a lot of energy and my goal throughout this performance was to help him maintain his composure. At one point, I pause to regain my own composure! Can you identify the technique I use to check my own nerves? You may notice that I put my hands on my hips and took a few deep breaths after the figure 8. Even an obedience veteran like myself has to control her ring nerves!

I believe that 30% of your success depends on the ability to coach your dog on the day of the show. You will become the coach your dog needs by mastering the skills you need to warm-up, control your nerves, and choreograph your performance.

Ring Preparation: The Day of the Show
includes: 6 modules with extensive videos covering all aspects of preparing for and performing in the obedience ring; and 3 one-hour webinars.

If you’d like to receive regular training tips from Connie, please sign up for the free Digital Obedience Guide, Tricks That Transition into Obedience Exercises: