The 70/30 Split

obedience preparing to show Jan 08, 2020

It certainly seems that after you teach your dog to perform the obedience exercises, you should be able to go to an obedience trial, and earn your title.  Unfortunately, simply learning the skills is not enough.  In fact, it’s probably only about 70% of your preparedness.  Preparing to enter the ring and then choreographing your performance play a large part toward your success.    

Skills (70%) + Warm-Up (10%) + Choreography (20%) = 100% Prepared!  

  1. Skills needed = 70%—Your obedience career begins as you teach your dog the necessary exercises to achieve a Companion Dog, Companion Dog Excellent, and Utility title.
  2. Warm-up = 10%– This constitutes how you prepare your dog to enter the ring.
  3. Choreography = 20%—this includes understanding the ring procedure, and your strategy for achieving the performance your dog is capable of while you are in the ring. 

Step 1: Developing Skills

Reams of material have been written about how to teach dogs the individual obedience exercises.  Personally, I have written “How to” articles about every exercise and produced almost 400 videos demonstrating those exercises.  How do I decide what method is best for me?  It must meet the following criteria;

  1. It must adhere to what I believe to be true about dogs and how they learn. Those principles are outlined in the article How Dogs Learn  
  2. The method must take into consideration the most common mistakes that dogs make, and safeguard against such pitfalls. For example; the most common mistake that dogs make on the go-out exercise is to stop short or go crooked, so the method chosen must insure, from the very first day, that the dog is learning the path to the correct location, and is learning that he is going to the barrier at the end of the ring. 

In a world of obedience clubs and training buildings, most competitors simply do not practice in enough different locations.  Dogs are Situational (see How Dogs Learn, so until they have practiced their obedience skills in a variety of locations, such as parks, parking lots, school yard, tennis court, or neighborhood cul-de-sacs, your dog will not be skilled enough to perform in the new location that the dog show represents.  There is no substitute for training in a new location.  If you have taught your dog the necessary exercises and have had success asking your dog to perform in lots of different locations, you have achieved 70% of your goal.   

Step II: Warm-up- Preparing to Enter the Ring

Arriving at the show and walking into the ring is more complicated than it seems.  You not only are asking the dog to perform in yet another new environment, you are asking for him to be at his best for the 5-7 minutes that performance requires.  How do you get your canine athlete ready to enter the ring? 

When you arrive at the show, your first goal needs to be to get comfortable.  What will that take –a parking place, a bathroom, a cup of coffee?  Deciding whether you’re leaving your dog and crate in your vehicle or hauling your equipment inside?  Do whatever you need to get “set up.”   Once set up, take your dog for a walk around the rings.   Let him look at everything and accustom himself to the sights and sounds.   Your goal is to give him time to get comfortable with his new surroundings.  When he has toured the obedience site, try a moment of heeling.  Don’t overdo it.  You are simply taking a moment to assess exactly what frame of mind your dog seems to be in.   

If your dog seems comfortable with the location and ready to work, let him rest in his crate while you wait your turn.  While your dog is resting, go acquaint yourself with your judge’s ring procedure.  If you are the first dog, ask the judge to share his heeling pattern with you.  If you are later in the class, sit down and watch a few dogs.  Familiarize yourself with the pattern and be aware of the judge’s commands or signals.   This is the necessary information that you need to choreograph your performance. 

The excited dog needs time to warm-up.  You are allowed to practice on leash.  Find a place to practice until you have your dog’s attention, and he has settled into heel position.   

More often, exhibitors complain that their dog is feeling dull and disinterested.  The warm-up with this dog needs to be very creative. 

1. Sometimes a special treat, toy or game will wake up a disinterested dog quite quickly. “Game Day” might be the time to have a treat that your dog adores, but does not get very often.  Perhaps your dog enjoys playing tug-o-war or some other silly game the two of you have devised.  Your goal is to the get your dog bright eyed and attentive, however, just a toy or treat may not be enough.  Many people teach their dogs tricks such as spin, touch, or speak to get the dog moving quickly and interested.  These are all great ideas; however, if you have trouble getting your dog to do these things, don’t despair, there are other strategies you can employ. 
2. Ask your dog to perform some short heeling, fronts, and finishes. If your dog still seems lethargic, perhaps you need to try a more difficult exercise to put your dog on notice that you are about to require all his energy and enthusiasm.  For a dog that understands that retrieving is required, a quick, difficult retrieve is often very effective, either on leash or on a retractable leash.  You might have some heeling drills that are difficult, and attention getting, like doing a fast-halt, or other unpredictable maneuver.  Remember, if you employ this strategy, you are the coach not the teacher.  Now is not the time to teach him to do this, but to fuss at him if he fails.  He needs to get his head in the game!   
3. Sometimes a dog that seems dull or disinterested will wake up immediately with a quick change in lifestyle. Ask a friend to hold your dog for you while you walk away for a few moments.  You might ask a training partner to warm the dog up for you.  Often dogs will wake right up as if to say, “Who is this guy?” or “Where did my boss go?”  When you reappear your dog might welcome you with an “I want to give my coach my all” attitude. 

If you are unhappy with your dog’s attitude, do not stop trying to change it until your number is called.  Ultimately, you may not do the right thing, and the dog may still perform poorly, but trying your best to change his attitude is better than giving up.    

As your turn draws near, maintain the attentive and energetic attitude you have worked so hard to achieve.  If you find that you are ready before it’s your turn, don’t panic.  Kill some time by putting your dog in a sphinx down position.  Talk to him and keep his attention, then release him enthusiastically.  You could also release him with a “front” or “heel” command.  Tell him “Down” again, and then talk to him as you move around.  Create an air of excitement.  Keeping him down, ready to spring up, conserves his energy, doesn’t overheat him, and keeps him focused. 

Step III: The Performance- It’s your turn!

If you find that you have trouble controlling your nerves when you go into the ring, you are not concentrating on the right things.  You simply do not have time to be nervous.  You need to be concentrating on how you are going to move your dog from one exercise to the next, keeping his attention as well as the momentum that you have just created ringside.  Think through the following list and plan ahead.  Before your turn you should know the answer to all of these questions:

1. How you are going to enter the ring, and move to the start of the first exercise? In Novice you are able to heel right in and to the starting point.  In Open and Utility you will need to stop and remove your leash and then move briskly to the start of the first exercise.  Are you going to tell your dog to heel or give him a more casual “let’s go” command?

2. Are you going to release your dog between exercises and move quickly in a relaxed fashion, or are you going to require your dog to heel from one location to the next?

3. Are you going to keep your hands off your dog or pet him between exercises? Do you need to do something different depending on which exercises you still have to perform? 

4. What are you going to do at the first sign that your dog is losing his momentum? Can you run to the next exercise? Play with him in a way that wakes him up? Give him a “Heel,” command to get his head back in the game?  What strategy do you have?

Some Additional Hints:

Concentrate on one exercise at a time.  Keep yourself focused on being the best handler you can be, don’t be distracted by what is still to come.  Any sports psychologist will tell you that the easiest time to lose your focus is right after you make a great shot.  So when your dog surprises you and does his most difficult exercise well, don’t take the next exercise for granted and fail due to a sloppy handling mistake. 

Do not use your praise to try to cheer up or cajole a dog that is lazy or disinterested.  Be sincere when you praise and interact with your dog.  If you can sincerely tell him that he did a good job, do it, but don’t lie to him if he’s not performing up to your expectations.  Coaches don’t cajole lazy players! 

You do not have to be happy when your dog fails.  If you cheerfully release a dog that has done a short go-out or act happy when he brings you the wrong article, you may inadvertently teach him that those mistakes are OK to make at a show.  It’s OK to let him know he made an error, and then you need to shake it off and continue.  If your dog fails one exercise, be determined not to fail another.  Get the most out of every performance.

After every show, carefully analyze your ring performance.  What mistakes were due to a lack of preparation?  Perhaps he failed an exercise because he simply does not understand it yet.  What mistakes could have been avoided with a more thoughtful warm-up?  Did you choreograph your performance and show your dog to the best of your ability- keeping him engaged, interested and concentrated throughout the performance?   Take all aspects of your performance equally seriously so that the next time you enter, you are 100% prepared! 

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