If your dog knows exactly what to expect from the moment you step through the ring gates, and is comfortable with your ring entrance and setup routine, you’ll be much more likely to have a strong performance.
When I am thinking about this particular piece in my training, I focus on two things. First, I want my dog very comfortable with walking into the ring. This is not the time for the dog to get nervous. Second, I want to make sure we have a predictable setup routine that prepares the dog for our run.
Ring Entrance Routine
Walking into the ring can be scary for our dogs. Usually to enter the ring you and your dog have to move through a tight environment, past tables, chairs, people, and more. You walk through a narrow opening and right inside there is a person looking at you. Dogs can find this very nerve-wracking, not to mention how handlers feel! If you can set up a training environment in which you can work through some of these pressures, your dog (and you!) will be much more comfortable the day of the trial.
An easy way to start this preparation is to simply put a couple of large objects, like chairs or garbage cans, about 3-4 feet apart. Heel up to the objects and reward for attention. As your dog is comfortable, work on heeling through the opening, rewarding frequently. Then stick a chair near the objects and navigate through that, rewarding your dog for attention. You can have a person sit on the chair, or stand near the “entrance” to your ring. Use different objects to create your ring entrance. Eventually if you can set up something with gates to look like a real ring that can be beneficial.
I try to make the ring a very fun place to be, so I’ll often heel through the gates and have a party with my dog. I want a strong positive conditioned emotional response from my dog, so I spend a lot of time working on this.
Add the “Judge”
In addition to “stuff” near the entrance, dogs have to learn not to worry about people looking at them. It’s really weird the way a judge follows us around with a clipboard, so I want my dog to be okay with that picture. I start with a person standing next to me and my dog. If the dog looks at me instead of the person, I reward. If the dog looks at the person, I just wait patiently and mark/reward when my dog looks at me. Eventually I will have the judge start slowly moving, marking and rewarding when the dog looks at me. Finally, I will start heeling, rewarding for attention. I start with the judge a bit farther away and as the dog continues to pay attention to me and get comfortable with the judge, I have him/her come a bit closer.
While initially I work on these two things separately, as the dog is staying comfortable and doing well, I will start to combine ring entrances with people nearby. Be sure your dog is comfortable with each step of the process before making it more difficult.
My routine starts when I begin warming up my dog. Each dog is different in how much warm up he or she needs, so play around with your dog to get a feel for how much you need before going into the ring. Too little warm up and your dog might not be ready to work, but too much warm up may wear out your dog mentally. Be sure you don’t enter through those ring gates unless you have your dog’s attention.
Set Up in Heel
Another skill that I find essential is the ability for your dog to efficiently and attentively move to the starting area and set up in heel. Few people realize the importance of a setup routine! These moments start your performance and define how your run is going to go. If you don’t have your dog’s attention at the start, it’s unlikely that you will get it later on in the course.
Stay connected from the minute you walk into the ring. Some judges will get chatty and although I’m very polite and respectful, I don’t look at the judge. My attention is 100% on my dog. If the judge asks me a question I’ll respond while still staying connected to my dog. The last thing I want to do is disconnect right when our run begins!
Here’s an example of my start line routine in Rally. Many dogs do well with heeling into the ring and sitting to take the leash off, but my dog Strive found that demotivating, so I let her stand and look around briefly. You can see once I get the leash off and set up, she’s all business. The judge speaks to me and although I respond, I never look away from my dog. This is not the time you want to disconnect from your dog!
In addition to all the other tips, I teach my dogs a “Ready” cue to help get them back if they are looking around at the judge or the environment. I train this long before I even think about entering the ring. I set up the dog in heel, then say “Ready!” and treat the dog. I do this many times, until the dog perks up as soon as I say “Ready!” Then I’ll start the conversation that I’ll have with the judge. I’ll say “Are you ready?” and respond “Ready!” and treat. Then I’ll add more to the chain. I’ll say “Are you ready?” in a normal tone of voice, then “Ready!” the way I would say it in the ring, then I’ll say “forward” (which is what the judge says) and treat. Last I add heel. It looks like this:
“Are you ready?”
“Strive, heel!” left foot steps out, I do a high hand touch, and reward.
If my dog’s attention has wandered at all during our getting into the ring and setting up, my trained “Ready!” cue brings it back. It’s a very helpful cue to have.
When you’ve taken the time to work out a good warm up and ring entrance routine, both you and your dog will be so much more confident, which will translate to a better performance and higher scores!