Have you ever said the following words out of frustration? “He only does this at a trial!” Why does your dog act so differently in the ring than he does in training? What steps can you take to improve ring performance?
For each team the answers to these questions will be slightly different, but there are some common reasons that dogs don’t perform the same in a trial as they do in training. For many teams, there will be more than one answer.
Where is the Reward?
For most dogs, systematically reducing reinforcement over a period of time is really important. In training, we can use as many reinforcers as we’d like, and it’s easy to just keep rewarding those behaviors. In the ring, however, your dog must work for an extended period of time without any reinforcement at all, except occasionally your praise. This is HARD for a lot of dogs!
Think about a recent training session. How many times did you reward your dog? Where were the treats or toys during your session? If the dog is used to getting treats after every exercise, or having the toy on your body for quick tug sessions after each behavior, going into the ring and working without constant reinforcement and without any visual reinforcers is going to be tough! Add on other layers – pressure, distractions, handler nerves – and you have a totally different dog at the end of the leash!
Who is that Scary Man?!?
How many times in training do you have a weird looking person with a clipboard follow you around? That is tough for a lot of dogs! Some dogs want to go say hi to the judge, but most are uncomfortable with someone peering at them. Many judges stay pretty close during the heeling pattern and while checking fronts and finishes, and that adds a lot of pressure to your dog.
So what can you do? Have people follow you around! Start with the person a little farther away to help your dog get used to having people look at him and moving in the same area. Give your “judge” a clipboard. Be sure to reward your dog throughout this process.
Tables, Chairs, and Stewards – Oh My!
Judges aren’t the only pressure your dog feels in the ring. Often you and the dog will have to move through tight areas to enter the ring, past tables, chairs, and stewards. That can be tough for your dog and if you haven’t trained for it, asking him to pay attention while you move through those areas may be more than he can handle.
Each ring entrance and setup looks a little different, so how can we train for that? Show your dog several different setups! If your dog is comfortable moving through 4-5 different types of thresholds, it’s much more likely he will be okay with what he encounters as he enters the ring. It’s okay if you don’t have tables and official-looking ring gates! You can use garbage cans, baby gates, any type of chair, totes, lawn furniture, or whatever else you have around the house! Teach your dog how to move through narrow areas while still paying attention.
But He’s Great at Home!!
Generalization. Such an important concept in dog training! Combine that with the fact that dogs don’t generalize well and you can see how essential this step is!
So what is generalization? Simply put, it’s teaching your dog that the behavior means the same thing regardless of your location or distractions. Teach the behaviors in a familiar area – your house, yard, or training building. When your dog is doing well with those behaviors, go to another location! Start with easier less distracting environments and work your way up to more distracting situations. Think about how many distractions are at a dog show, with people and dogs walking around. If your dog has learned to do the behaviors well in five or six different environments prior to the dog show, it will be so much easier for your dog on the day of the trial.
I Get So Nervous!!
Most handlers get pretty nervous in the ring. It’s a completely normal response and telling someone to “get over it” or “don’t get nervous – it’s no big deal” is counter-productive. You can’t just turn off nerves, although you can learn ways to help control them.
To help my dog learn to deal with my nerves, I try to put myself into situations during training that might cause me to feel a bit nervous. Maybe you can demo something in front of a whole class. Sometimes at seminars you might feel nervous. Oftentimes videoing your training will cause nerves! With all of the virtual titling opportunities available now, you can do a “dog show” in your own backyard. Set up one of the virtual titling runs and video that. Invite some friends or family over to watch you.
It All Adds Up! Improving Ring Performance
Unless you’re fortunate enough to have regular run-throughs in your area, it’s going to be hard to duplicate a trial situation. Even with run-throughs, it’s not quite the same. Thankfully most dogs are fairly resilient and can handle one or two of these pressures. The problem starts when the dog has to experience multiple layers of stress.
You’re getting ready to go in the ring. You feel nervous. Your heart rate is elevated and your palms are sweaty. You are having trouble concentrating. You and your dog have to move through the stewards and past a table and two chairs to get in the ring. There’s a judge waiting for you right through the threshold, holding the clipboard. You don’t have any reinforcement on your body. You realize you’ve only trained in your yard and during the weekly classes you attend.
Add these all together and you can see how it turns into a much bigger issue! The good news is, you can break most of this stuff down before you ever get to the show. You can reduce reinforcement through a specific process. You can work in tight quarters with judges holding clipboards following you around. You can push yourself out of your comfort zone during training to incite some nerves. Go through these steps, and you and your dog will be much more likely to have a positive experience in the ring!