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Obedience – Getting in the Ring

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There will come a point in your training when your dog will be well trained – the exercises will be reasonably fluent and your dog will be comfortable working in a range of training situations.  You’re considering competition, and your instructor is encouraging you to move forward.

Time for a bit of finishing.  There are dozens of behaviors that you can train to make your dog better prepared to compete.  The obvious ones are envirommental generalization for the dog show atmosphere, proofing the individual exercises, and reducing the reward schedule – this post will not address these issues.

The less obvious behaviors are quite specific to the competition ring, and should be trained just like the behaviors required to complete the exercises.

Does your dog know that the ring is ALWAYS a working space?  If you condition your dog to understand that entering a ring leads to work or play 100% of the time, then entering a trial ring will be  a good deal easier for both of you.

Does your dog know that a person (judge) standing a few feet off to your side or in front of you signals the start of an exercise?  Does your dog know that when this person asks you a question and you respond, that work is about to begin?  You can communicate this by training it – set up this picture and help your dog be successful by remaining engaged and offering interesting work or attractive motivators when he succeeds.

Does your dog know that when you move around the ring to “set up” for an exercise, that the next thing that happens is work?  Teach this by doing training sessions of “set-ups”; remember this is boring for most dogs so the reward schedule should be generous.

You TEACH these things; you don’t take them for granted.

If you teach your dog these expectations, then you won’t find yourself trying to get your dog’s attention back as you walk through the ring gate, nor will your dog check out when you have to move from one exercise to another.  The only thing that happens in a ring with your dog should be connection – you and your dog as a team while another person directs the start of the behaviors that you must perform.

If you have a habit of “chatting” with the judge or your instructor before you begin, you are teaching your dog to check out when you should be paying attention to your dog.  Worse, if you rely on the judge to assist with YOUR ring nerves, then your dog has no support system.  Next thing you know everyone is looking at the judge, including your dog!

If you do not practice moving around in your training space , then you are teaching your dog to check out when one exercise ends (without a classic reward) rather than preparing for another one.  Make sure you blend the possibility of rewards with the possibility of more work.  Sometimes an exercise ends with a reward.  Sometimes an exercise ends with a celebration.  And sometimes an exercise ends and you move to a new spot – where you reward there or simply begin the next exercise.

Good trainers prepare their dogs for more than the exercises.  They prepare for competition.

This video offers a possible starting point.  This is Ollie; a young German Shepherd getting ready to compete in Novice A.  He knows the exercises; he can heel, recall and perform the stays with relative proficiency as long as his trainer is actively interacting with him.  Now Ollie’s trainer is  teaching Ollie that stepping through a ring entrance always means work, play, or food is about to begin.  To teach this, Darlene steps through the gates and immediately rewards.  In the very beginning it doesn’t matter if he is paying attention when she steps through the gates; after he’s passed through those gate a few times, he’ll figure it out and he’ll start to volunteer attention. At that point, she should refuse to step through those gates until he offers attention – she must not ask for attention because that is putting one of his responsibilities on her.  Attention is Ollie’s responsibility.  At this point in training, he “pulls” her through the gates by looking up at her and offering to heel.

Ollie is learning several things here.  He is learning that the way to earn  a treat is to offer work.  He is learning that getting into rings is a good thing.  He is learning that he has power; if he engages his trainer through attention then she’ll respond.  He is also learning that losing attention causes Darlene to back up away from the ring entrance.  Who’s training who here?  In this case, being “worked” by your dog is a good thing.

When he shows the beginnings of understanding then we added the garbage can as a distraction.  When he apppraches the can, he is pulled back and given another chance to perform correctly.

The next step would be to add signficant distractions to the ring entrace; people; tables, chairs, dogs, etc – much like a dog show.  His handler will not allow him into the ring until he works his way through this “guantlet” of distractions.  Soon Ollie will take responsiblity for paying attention to his trainer regardless of the distractions that he must overcome.

At this point, getting into the ring is part of the reward.  It”s relatively quiet and the distractions are minimal compared to what he has to go through to get into the ring.

The final step would be substituting the opportunity to work for the cookie once he makes it into the ring.  If you have trained each exercise well and with joy; this step is a natural extension of the training he already has.

Get out a couple of ring gates and give it a try!

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

16 responses »

  1. Great reminder! I have tried to tell steward and judges who want to rush me into a ring at a workshop or fun match that I want to work on entering the ring.

  2. Very useful post. A great way to think of attention – that it is the dog’s responsibility to offer us attention. So often we’re told that we need “to get” the dog’s attention. “Getting” my dog’s attention has always backfired for me. It makes them lazy and they will often stay somewhat tuned-out the entire time in the ring. Getting mad doesn’t help either, because then they shut-down and hate being in the ring and, once again, the performances are terrible. Thanks for a great post.

  3. Also, what I like about the post is that is says, “Dogs can be taught to be responsible for their actions” and “dogs can ‘make us’ do things.” We just want to make sure they are making us to the right things. Turning the table a bit here. Nice!

  4. Thank you for yet another piece of training “gold.” It’s like you can read my mind, and each recent post has dealt with an exact question I have been wishing I could ask you, either at the last seminar or the next one coming our way. I feel very lucky to attend the seminars, but have always wished for a spot of “private lesson” to address my weekly issue. And here you are, giving me that “private” lesson, in a well written piece that appears (in my mind) to have been written with my little dog in mind. You’re an amazing person, Denise. Thank you very much for all of your insight and practical magic;0)

  5. I have thought a lot lately about how top obedience competitors are good choreographers, because a lot of what we (meaning those in ob. in general – I am not a top competitor!) do with our dogs to help contribute to a good performance is essentially choreography. When obedience first started, do you think anyone thought about doing stuff like this? And do you think stuff like this is more associated with trainers who don’t use physical aversives?

    • I think when obedience first started, generalization was taken for granted and I doubt anyone worked through these issues. I’m not sure what other trainers do now, but I would say that the more “thoughtful” a trainer is about breaking down the behaviors, the more likely it is that they would train for these details. Bob Bailey once said that 10% of your time should be spent teaching behaviors and 90% should be spent on generalization. I never forgot that, and while I’m nowhere near a 10 – 90
      split, I’m certainly more aware of the need to train ring preparation.

      • I still think most trainers need to reach the thoughtfulness stage to begin with. If I still see 90% of people using pinch collars, chain collars and electronic collars while training and in the ring, sometimes I don’t think we have come too far. I get comments from trainers, not Denise, for not training with a leash, and that I need to put a leash on to do “this and that.” I still have hope we can progress away from leashes and collars for training someday and reach the thoughtfulness stage.

      • That’s a “Bailey-ism” I haven’t heard before – thanks!

  6. Helen Gruenhut

    I could not see this video. Utube said it is restricted. I guess too many other people have already viewed.
    I think the article is great, and I am filing it for later and now use.
    thanks, Helen Gruenhut

  7. I just stumbled across your website via Forrest’s comments on FB. Great useful video! Thanks for sharing it!

  8. Connie Kaplan

    Super post! I got a working spot for your next workshop in SD, really excited. Forrest said you’ll rock my world!

  9. Love the comment in the video: “People need to KNOW this!” This is brilliant advice. I can’t wait to get back to training with you.

  10. Denise, How would you handle “stress/disengagement” from the pressure of the judge? This exercise helped a lot for ring entry and we are okay with this. As well as if we are in a stationary position and the judge approaches. But there is disengagement if we are in the process of setting up and the judge is close or approaching. Same as the set up in between exercises. The pressure of the judge approaching or standing near causes the disengagement.

  11. I have the same problem as Melissa. Not only is stress disengagement a problem but also the stand for exam. My GSD is not comfortable with strangers close let alone touching him. I have a very hard time getting him back to me when he is uncomfortable. I love the ring entry exercise and this is going well, but can we take this even further to help with these issues?
    Please keep the helpful ideas coming. The ring entry exercise made a big difference in our show and go today.

  12. this is a GREAT article Denise-just now getting a chance to get caught up with emails and love this!!!!

  13. love the video as my dog does perfect outside the ring we go in and it all falls apart. I know she can do it so would love more behavior ideas. I have tried making it fun in the ring she looks at me in training outside the ring but thats it. figure 8 she runs to catch up in the ring she drags so I know she can do it. its so frustrating!!


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