All dog and handler teams fail at one time or another. It’s no shame to fail a trial, or even to discover that you were much less well prepared than you thought you were, but you’ll want to give some thought to damage control before you go into the competition ring. Just in case.
Let’s start at the beginning. You get to the show site and you know that something is wrong. Your dog seems completely disinterested in you and working. Your dog has stress diarrhea. Your dog can’t get his nose off the ground no matter what motivators are available. Your dog won’t take your treats and could care less about his favorite toys.
I’d suggest waiting as long as possible to check in to your ring, and then see how much dog you have. If you can’t wait any longer and your dog will not engage, I’d pull out of the competition. It is a rare dog that cannot engage when you have your food and toys that suddenly engages when you step in front of a judge. Ok, maybe “rare” is the wrong word. “Unheard of” might be better.
But….you just couldn’t do it; you’re at the show and you have to try. Or maybe your dog didn’t fall apart until you were already in the ring. Or maybe your dog started out fine and was well along in the class before the downward slide began.
You have the option of leaving the ring – that is the rule. You politely tell the judge that you will be leaving. You do not ask because they might say no. You thank the judge, take your dog gently by the collar, and head for the exit. The steward will give you your leash. If the judge is upset and decides to “write you up”, they will quickly be informed of the rule – AKC has clarified that you have the right to leave with no repercussion.
This is a relatively new happening in the world of obedience, but leaving has been common in agility for a very long time. Your judge may be surprised by your decision and may even discourage you. How you proceed at that point it up to you, but do know that you have the right to leave the ring and there is no penalty. You will not affect the point schedule or the placements/rankings of any of the other dogs, because you are not excused. You are simply leaving. Basically, it is the same as in agility – and the sky has not fallen over there.
Until recently it was considered bad sportsmanship to leave. Now I see it as a good training decision and much kinder to the dog than finishing in misery. You are NOT negatively affecting any of your fellow competitors, and indeed you are doing them a favor if your dog’s behavior suggests that he might leave the ring and make mischief, soil the ring, or behave so poorly that judging is being dragged out as your dog wanders about and does everything but work with you.
How about if your dog simply fails an exercise but is not having a complete meltdown? Know the rules and do what is best for your dog. If you know the rules, you may well save the exercise. For example, if you start out heeling and your dog simply sits there, give a second cue! It’s points off, but if your dog never moves, then it’s failure for sure. If your dog starts to sniff and you know that your dog is going to get sucked in by the smells, help your dog by cuing “heel” again!
If your dog fails to respond to a first cue where this is a failure, I’d suggest giving the second cue immediately. You’ve already failed; might as well help your dog get through it with minimal trauma.
Know the rules – what is a failure, a substantial deduction, or no worry at all? This information is crucial to managing your ring performance to optimum effect. You don’t need to know exactly what every mistake will cost you, but you do need to know enough to make educated decisions “in the moment”.
Here are a few examples. How would you handle each of these?
You ask your dog to “stand” in novice and he simply sits there. Now what? Should you physically stand your dog? Give a second cue to stand? Or assume the exercise is over and looking pleadingly at the judge?
Because the exercise does not start until you leave your dog, simply keep calm and re-cue your dog, assisting as needed. If it is helpful to you, then you may gently physically position your dog – this is allowed without penalty.
You ask your dog to stay on the recall. When you turn around, your dog is now lying down. What should you do? Tell your dog to sit? Wait for the judge to cue you to call your dog? Return to your dog on your own?
Just wait – you have not failed unless your dog followed you in. While a substantial deduction, you should continue at the judge’s direction.
You have asked your dog to “heel” and he simply sits there as you set off without him. Now what? Should you cue again, return to your dog, or continue the heeling pattern without him?
Give a second command. You’ll lose points, but you’ll fail outright if you continue without him.
There are many examples of this type. If you’re not sure of the rules, get the rule book and read it carefully. Speak with a judge or an instructor who you trust to know the answers. You can also ask on FB or a chat group, but be aware that the first answer offered may not be correct (my experience is that errors are corrected very quickly) . If you simply want to qualify, knowing the answers to these types of questions will tell you exactly how to proceed.
Alright, you went through your individual round and your dog did not qualify. Maybe it was a simple matter like failure to recall on the first command in Novice (an NQ), or maybe it was a basic free-for-all, with your dog wandering and sniffing throughout the off leash heeling routine.
The judge invites you back for the group exercises. Should you return?
I’ll consider your options in the final blog in this series.