If I had a dollar for every time someone said they were showing for ring experience, I’d be a very rich woman.
“Experience” can be a wonderful thing for creating comfort and enthusiasm for a task. When you train your dog on a regular basis and it’s really fun for both of you, then your dog is developing “experience” with training – which will create increased comfort and joy every time you do it.
If you train in a way that is unpleasant for the dog, then that dog is also developing “experience” but it will not be a positive one. Over time the dog will show more and more avoidance of training.
Both are forms of experience. So what about the dog show? Well, a lot of dogs are taken in the ring with the promise of cookies. The owner has the cookies outside the ring and the dog is encouraged to assume that they will be available inside the ring as well. Unfortunately, your dog is about to learn that the rules are different inside the ring.
Okay, so no cookies but still praise, right? Yes, but not very often – only between exercises. And often the owner is so nervous that they forget. Plus, praise is actually punishing if the dog learns that it means no cookie is coming, a reasonably common result with too many training programs.
And the owner? Well, if the owner is nervous then there’s not much room left over to look out for the dog, who is starting to feel a little anxious. And what if it goes badly? Maybe the dog gets nervous because it is all so new, or maybe the dog never really had proper generalization and now begins to fail? There’s not much you can do except leave the ring, which most competitors are unlikely to do, even when they probably should. So the dog gets no help to be successful, no cookies, very little interaction, and a scared owner – all while being stared at by a judge. What, exactly, is there to recommend this experience to the dog? The promise of cookies? Who cares about a promise if it doesn’t materialize? Now you have disappointment to go along with the worry.
So how about for the owner; does the ring experience benefit them? It depends. Did the dog wander off? Refuse to work? Pee in the ring? Go into avoidance? Shut down? Run amuck? None of those are good experiences for the owner either.
How about if the first show is okay – the dog is still operating on the premise that the cookies will materialize, so sticks it out? Does that mean you made a good choice after all? Not really. How many shows until the dog figures it out? And if it begins to go badly, is the owner going to be more or less anxious at the next show? Probably more. Not to mention how the dog is feeling about the whole trialing thing.
Ring experience is no benefit at all unless it is a net positive.
So if ring experience isn’t the ticket to comfort, then what is? A well trained and prepared dog. A dog who knows what to do in a new environment. A dog that knows what the ring is for and looks forward to being there. A dog who has experienced every aspect of a show before that day (including no reinforcement, a stiff owner, silence, staring judges, tables, distractions, performing in silence, etc.)
There is no way we can (or should) try to make every training session like a trial – that makes no sense at all. What we SHOULD do is make sure that we introduce all of the possibilities, so that the overall impact of the show is as minor as possible. That is what creates comfort, not random experiences.
And let’s not forget about genetics. The more stable and confident your dog, and the higher the will to please and working drive of the dog, the better off you’ll be. If your dog can learn to love working – simply to work and to be with you, you’ll have a lot more flexibility than a dog that is less enthusiastic about work or less interested in what you think about his performance.
Are you ready to show?
Ah, the million dollar question! Before I show, I look for three things:
1. I’m downright surprised that my dog fails an exercise in a familiar space.
2 I’m downright surprised that my dog loses more than a second’s worth of attention at a match or run through.
3. I can’t think up any more excuses not to show.
Now, someone out there is thinking…it worked for me! My dog was terrified and i just kept doing it…and he got better!
All I can say is that the exception proves the rule. Try not to use your personal experience to influence others who are much less likely to have your luck. It’s a numbers game and when it comes to numbers, consider this:
The most common topic that people want to talk to me about in obedience seminars is…ring stress. Their dog is falling apart in the ring. Started out fine and…got worse and worse. I can count on one hand how many people said their dog started out a mess and got better.
Think about that. The number one thing obedience competitors want to talk to me about. And…the answer I give?
It’s the hardest problem to solve once it’s an established pattern.
Starting February first, I will teach a class called “Bridging the Gap; Reducing Reinforcers, Proofing and Generalization“. The goal of this class is to PREVENT ring stress and enter the ring with a well-prepared dog, but the route is the same if you already have ring stress and are trying to address it. This class is targeted at obedience and rally students, since ring preparation is particularly important in these sports, though the concepts apply to many other sports as well. This is the last time I plan to teach this class ‘live’, so if the topic is of importance to you then this is the time to take it.
I hope to see some of you in class!