The first five parts in this series on “trial readiness” considered the variety of skills required of our dogs to be thoroughly prepared to compete.  As we begin to wrap up, I’d like to take a moment to consider you, the handler, and what you can do to make your team most likely to succeed.

What time do you plan to arrive at the show?  Does your dog need to arrive early to acclimate, or does your dog deflate the longer you are on the trial grounds?  The easiest way to figure this out is to attend matches and training classes, and then pay attention!  What works best for your dog?

How long before your turn should you take your dog out of her crate?  Again; it depends on your dog.  Figure it out before the show.  As a general rule, the less drive your dog has, the longer you should wait.

When the dog before you is in the ring, what do you plan to do with your dog?  A down stay?  Fronts and finishes?  Sitting in heel position at attention?  Heeling?  How much and for how long?  Keep in mind that most dogs do not “warm up” with picky training – they get tired and bored. If that is your dog, consider your alternatives.

What is your demeanor?  Having worked at a trial today, I can tell you that THE MAJORITY of handlers did a very poor job of connecting with their dogs before entering the ring.  Half sat their dogs in heel position and then proceeded to ignore them, and the other half bounced around and got hysterical and hyper – to no effect other than to create avoidance in their dogs.  Since I doubt that these same handlers behave this way in training, I can only imagine that it took about one show for their dogs to figure out that dog shows are weird and stressful places.

Novice exhibitors have a tendency to “hyper train” in the minutes before entering the ring.  100 leash pops and 100 cookies, all in the time it takes for the prior dog to complete their run.  Regardless of how you feel about leash pops and cookies, I can tell you that more often than not the team fell apart in the ring, and often the dog had been driven into complete handler avoidance.

If you want your dog to perceive you as a leader, then you need to behave like one.  Neither hysterical and intense handlers nor bored and disconnected ones inspire confidence and the desire to follow.

Before entering the ring, I use my “waiting” position (squishing – search this blog) and then we enter the ring quickly and with purpose.  With Brito it is extremely likely that I will carry him and not put him on the ground until we are walking through the ring entrance.

If there is a delay, what is your plan?   The judge needs about a minute between each dog to tabulate the last dog’s scores, and several dogs simply got tired of sitting there.  By the time those dogs entered the ring, there was no dog left to work.

Will you use rewards immediately before entering the ring?  The answer to this question depends on how you’ve trained your dog.  Some dogs are trained to understand that only great work in the ring leads to treats.  Other dogs are being “fooled” into performing for a cookie in the ring.  The answer to this question will determine if you use treats before you start your turn.

Now that the judge has called you into the ring, how do you plan to handle your dog?

Where will you look during each exercise? In heeling, you might look at your dog, the ground in front of you, or the horizon.  On the recall do you look at your feet or at your dog as she comes in towards you?  On the retrieves, do you look at your dog when you give your cues or where you want the dog to go?   The ring isn’t the time to figure that out – make a decision in advance and make sure your dog sees plenty of it before you compete.

Do you know the heeling pattern and exactly where the judge starts each exercise?  Several exhibitors did not seem to know, and as a result were unable to lead their dog with authority from exercise to exercise.  How will you move between exercises?  Formal heeling, informal movement and (in novice) guiding by the collar are options. Work that out before the show.

What is your plan for praising and interacting between exercises?  If the only time you praise your dog without a cookie attached is in the ring, I can tell you that your dog is not going to be impressed.  Your dog must see your plan in training so that it becomes comfortable.

And finally, what is your plan if it all goes to hell?  In the next (and final!) blog in this series, we’ll consider this one last issue and evaluate your options.