By Mary Horne, CPDT-KA, Competition Obedience Training Director
As “dog trainers,” we tend to place a lot of focus on our dog’s skills as we prepare to compete; are her stays reliable? Will he run around the high jump? Have we proofed her enough to perform outdoors? These things are certainly important, but we would also be wise to consider how our own behavior impacts our dog’s performance. There are many things we can do to improve our chances of success in the ring. Here are a few:
1. Read the rule book! The AKC Obedience Regulations – available as a download online at www.akc.org or in book form from the AKC’s online store – is an invaluable resource. Not only does it contain general showing guidelines and detailed rules and scoring for each obedience class, it lets an exhibitor in on key elements judges are to look for in each performance. Read it, and then read it again!
2. Train like you trial, and trial like you train. If you’re a chatter box to your dog in training and become silent in the ring (as you must), your dog is likely to become stressed and confused. Similarly, if you give a treat every 5th step in heeling– or worse, lure your dog around the exercises in training -- don’t be surprised if your dog gives up midway through the class. Well before you send your show entry in, make sure your dog is used to working intently and for longer periods than you’ll actually need for praise and petting between exercises and a nice jackpot at the end.
3. Learn the best pre-trial routine for your individual dog. Some dogs need an active warm up, while others do better to rest before their turn. Some need a lot of time to take in the show environment while others acclimate immediately. Some need training reminders the week before the show, while others do better if they have a mental break. Know your dog and how best to help him before the performance.
4. Get to your ring early and watch a few dogs before you so you will know where to set up, what the heeling pattern is, and where each exercise will take place. Visualize the two of you moving smoothly around the ring together before you go in.
5. Have a plan for entering and exiting the ring. Your performance effectively begins before you cross the ring gates and doesn’t end until you are well outside the area. Stay connected with your dog throughout.
6. Once you begin an exercise, let the dog make the mistakes. A classic error of new exhibitors is slowing down to wait for their lagging dogs during heeling. It’s too late to fix a training problem once you’re at the show, so if your dog lags, just keep moving and follow the judge’s instructions. Both of you are scored in obedience, so if you at least do your job, you might still qualify.
7. Use time between exercises wisely. Take this time to reconnect with your dog and relax him by praising and petting him, telling him how handsome he is, or doing some discreet tricks like touch or spin. Stay connected as you move to the next exercise.
8. Once you’ve completed all the exercises and leave the ring, don’t just put the dog away. Pay special attention to her before you reconvene with friends or take a break yourself. Play with her, take her for a walk, give her a special bone, etc. Each time you show, you are setting up for the next time, so make sure your dog leaves every show – however well or badly it went – with an upbeat attitude.
9. Remember you decided to do this sport, not your dog. He has no idea about qualifying scores, blue ribbons or OTCH points. .
10. Smile! It’s only a dog show.