Sometimes novice exhibitors aren’t sure what is expected in terms of etiquette at competition dog events and indeed, there are a few unwritten courtesies that make it much easier to manage a lot of dogs in a small space.  This blog will address the topic of “dog show etiquette.”

It is absolutely possible that your dog loves everyone, doesn’t notice being stared at, and has no objections to being approached by rambunctious dogs.  It is also possible that your dog does even better in the ring when there is a dog thrashing his toy next to the entrance, but for others, any of the above scenarios can literally ruin their chances of qualifying.

It’s helpful if we manage our dogs and our behavior so that everyone can have the best possible chances of success.  We all make mistakes, so if you realize that you were playing too close to a ring and now the dog in the ring is staring at you…hey, it happens.  Apologize to the owner when the time is right, and be a little more mindful next time.

While some of you might consider this a training issue, keep in mind that a person at the dog show may already be quite nervous, so why make it harder for them than it needs to be?  Yes, dogs should be trained to tolerate normal levels of distraction, but good manners and basic sportsmanship suggests that it’s not your place to create them.

It’s not that there are things you cannot do, it’s just that we’re all in this together, so take a moment to be aware that other people may have different needs than you. Try and take their perspective.

I have owned friendly dogs, unfriendly dogs, crate guarders, worriers, rambunctious dogs, etc, and all of them took forms of management.  I do not ‘relax” at the dog show when my dogs are out; I pay attention, manage behavior as required and put them away when I need a rest.  I am responsible for my dog’s well being, both physical and mental, and I am also responsible for not causing harm to you or your dog’s physical or mental well being.

As you read through the rest of this article, one thing should begin to stand out for you….you must pay attention.  Always.  If your dog is out of his crate, then pay attention to what he is doing and where he is looking.  That’s your number one responsibility when you are in public with your dog.  So if you take nothing else from this blog, hold onto that one thought.  Pay attention.

1.  Keep your dog under control at all times.

Your dog should not be staring at other dogs or lunging (whether friendly or threatening) anywhere at a dog show.  This includes the parking lot, walking in to the building, where you set up your crate and when you move through the common spaces.  That means a short leash – 4 feet is pushing it.  Your dog should be walking nicely with you or held close if you don’t have LLW.  There is no reason why your dog should be scampering around 15 or more feet away from you on a Flexi.  If you are pulling a dolly and walking three dogs all at the same time, give some thought to whether or not you are in control.  If not, you’ll need to make more than one trip to your car or take fewer dogs to the show.

Your dog might be social but not all dogs want to visit with your dog and most handlers do not want their dogs visiting, regardless of how friendly they might be.  If you really really really want your dog to meet another dog then ask first!   If I want to talk to another person and we both have our dogs, then I put my dog on a reliable down stay a few feet away so that I can approach.  Most people take the hint nicely and keep their dog with them.

2.  Be aware of where you are standing

When entering or leaving a ring, give as much room to the next dog as possible.  The last thing the next exhibitor wants is a dog to dog interaction as they enter the ring.  You should not be “on deck” until it is your turn to be there, nor should you be standing in such a way that others have to get around you when it is their turn.  Move!

3.  Manage your dog’s crate behavior.

If your dog whines or barks in the crate, cover it!  If that doesn’t do the trick, then learn how to keep your dog quiet in the crate. That might mean sitting with your dog, dropping treats in the top at random intervals, or relocating your crate to a quieter (and possibly less convenient) location.  Better yet, train your dog to accept periods of crating, but while you work on that, you are responsible for managing your dog’s behavior.

Not only is it hard on the other exhibitors to have a dog nearby that is incessantly barking or whining, it’s also quite hard on your own dog.  Keep in mind that poor crate behavior is a sign of distress – if your dog is worked up and agitated at the show then it’s not likely that you’ll do very well in the ring.  Solve the problem!  It will make your own dog more successful and comfortable, and it will be much appreciated by your fellow exhibitors.  A bark here and there is no big deal – it’s a dog and dogs do vocalize.  But non-stop whining, barking, or even occasional lunging is a problem and you are responsible for controlling it.

If your dog crate guards, cover your crate, or isolate your dog so that others aren’t being lunged at every time they walk by.  If space is at a premium, place your chair immediately in front of your crate and then sit there, effectively blocking your dog’s view of other dogs and making guarding behavior much less likely.  If that is not sufficient to do the trick, then ask yourself if you’re really ready to be at the show.  Maybe you should be working on this issue in training instead of focusing on the actual behaviors required in the ring.

Along those same lines, do not assume that just because your dog doesn’t mind other dogs looking in his crate that this is universally the case.  Most dogs do not appreciate another dog looking in their crate when they are resting.  That is their home!  It would be like someone looking in your house windows when you are inside!  Give as much room as possible to other people’s occupied crates when you and your dog walk by.

4.  Consider Where and How you Play with your dog.

There is no problem with playing with your dog at a show, but be aware of the intensity of your play when you are near the rings.  That doesn’t mean you need to tiptoe and whisper, but take a moment to look around and see where you are before you start throwing food or playing a crazy game of tug in a small space.  Agility trials are more relaxed, but even there you should restrict the intensity of your play where the dog in the ring can see you.  Not only is this more fair for the person in the ring, it also prevents your dog from becoming a target – don’t ask for trouble!  Check with your instructor to get a sense of what is reasonable and what will be considered obnoxious by your fellow competitors.

5.  Is this a good time to Chat?

Some times are better to talk to people than others, so give some thought to when you approach someone to start up a conversation.   Remember, the other exhibitors may be nervous or very focused on their dog at a given moment.  If you wait until they are relaxed and not interacting with their dog, and definitely not when they are about to enter or leave a ring, you’ll find that most people are very happy to chat.

6.  Handling Other People’s Ignorance

Realistically, you are going to encounter people who aren’t paying close attention, and as a result their behavior will cause problems for others.  Here are some phrases that might be helpful:

“Your dog seems really agitated in the crate.  Have you considered moving a bit further away from the other dogs to help him calm down?  I’m also concerned that he appears to be upsetting some of the dogs that are going in the ring”

“My dog doesn’t like other dogs looking at him in his crate.  Could you tighten up your leash a bit?  Thanks; I really appreciate that”

“I need to get by you but your dog is on a long leash and my dog won’t be comfortable if they interact.  Thank you.”

You get the idea.  Tell the person what the problem is, offer gentle advice if they appear receptive, and be kind and appreciative if they make appropriate changes.

Do not EVER discipline or feed someone else’s dog without explicit permission, no matter how obnoxious their dog’s behavior is.  Talk to the trial secretary if you have a serious complaint, or speak with the exhibitor in a gentle fashion. Screaming at them may make you feel better but it sure won’t do anything to help the reputation of our sport.  And anyway, it’s mean and it makes you look ugly.  Let’s aim a little higher.

New competitors aren’t bad, stupid or deserving of humiliation; they simply don’t know better yet. We all did things when we were first starting out – we had to learn.  Help them!  And if you are an instructor, take a few moments with your new exhibitor and review these basic rules.  Better yet, practice and model them in your classes so that they become second nature.  We’ll all benefit and with time, maybe we can see more growth in our dog sports.

And on another note, instruction will begin for the October 1st term at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy in a couple of days!  Get registered now; we are offering 27 classes in just about every topic under the sun.  I’m teaching two very popular foundation courses,  “Precision Heeling” and “Relationship Building Through Play.”  We love to see new faces, so feel free to take a class and then join our very supportive Facebook group for Alumni of the academy!  Send me a note through Facebook if you need some help choosing the right course for your situation.