As many of you know, I now teach classes on-line at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. One of the courses I’m about to teach is a Ring Confidence Class. In the process of preparing for this course, I realized just how many behaviors we can teach our dogs in order to allow them to attend their first competitions with maximum confidence and sureness in the ring. Quite a few, really.
Some of us do this without thinking about it too much. If you attend dog training clubs, then you are helping your dog with generalization of behaviors. If you practice your behaviors in the face of increasingly complex challenges, then you are proofing those behaviors. If you use a “routine” to cue your dog that work is about to begin (hopefully not the presence of cookies and toys!), then you are teaching your dog ‘Work cues” - a predictable series of behaviors that allow your dog to gear up for the competition ahead.
This blog is taken straight from the first lesson of the Ring Confidence Course. If you choose to teach this lesson, or if you recognize the value of training your dog to enter a ring with maximum confidence and sureness, then don’t stop here! Think carefully about what you will ask of your dog in the ring - what generalization is required, what proofing should be complete and what reinforcement schedule needs to be attained. Change only one thing at a time! Set your dog up for success rather than failure.
If I could ask one thing of you, it would be this: Do not enter your dog into a competition with the “hope” that it will be ok. Take a dog into the ring that is ready to be there. Much as you would not like to give a speech before you knew the words, your dog does not wish to perform without knowing the required behaviors. More dogs are permanently soured on competition by hopeful owners pushing their dog before it is ready than anything else I know of. Take your time - there is no race here. Teach your dog all of the necessary behaviors, and teach your dog what is expected both before entering the ring and as you move around the ring. Finally, train for emotional comfort on the show grounds.
To get you started, here’s lesson #1 from my upcoming course on ring confidence. If you wish to join the class, check it out at:
If you don’t enjoy structured classes or if you prefer to train alone, you can do this without a course. Simply think carefully about exactly what happens at the dog show, and put a plan in place to help your dog be successful. It may seem like a time consuming process in the beginning but it is much less time consuming than trying to recover a dog that already hates the ring.
Here is the first lesson:
Lesson #1: Teach a work/no work cue.
Supplies needed: None
Rationale: Your dog needs to know when they are working, when they are not working and when they are about to work but have not begun yet; this is black and white for a dog and allows them to rest or wait expectantly, as appropriate. If you rely on food or toys to create engagement, you will struggle at the ring entrance when you no longer have your special props. If you rely on commands to create engagement, then you are banking on your dog’s ability to verbally turn on quickly – most dogs do not do this well. Instead, teach your dog a specific work/no work cue that allows your dog to wait expectantly (but without real focus) for the two minutes before entering the ring. By using applying body pressure and then removing it, it will be hard for your dog to “miss” the fact that you have changed your position and now wish to begin work.
You do not want to leave this to chance.
Goal: Your dog goes from relaxed or patiently waiting to completely ready in one second.
Method: To teach a dog to understand that work is going to start RIGHT NOW, we pick a position for the dog to wait. In the “waiting” position, the dog is never asked to work, and is never rewarded. The two most common positions that I use for waiting are between the legs or across the front of the body. I call these positions “squishing”, because the dog is squished safely against the handler. For small dogs or for handlers who are not comfortable bending, I recommend between the legs. For larger dogs, or dogs that have learned that ‘between the legs’ means another form of work (such as flyball), I recommend across the front of the body, with the head facing your right. Pick what works best for you.
Both positions allow your dog to feel very safe and protected. By holding the dog firmly in either position, the dog can look out at the world and knows that you “have their back”. Dogs learn to love this position – it acts as a thundershirt or mobile crate for many dogs, and allows them to soak in the environment of the dog show without being overly stressed. If it’s hard for you to understand this, imagine if you went to a new place which had you overwhelmed. Imagine how you would feel if you were there with a friend who had been there before and had their arm tightly around your shoulders, versus. how you would feel if you were standing a few feet away and connected only by a string?
Physical proximity is very important to creating a sense of security in your dog. It doesn’t hurt that your dog is also learning to rely on you; if you say this place is safe then it IS safe!
It is your responsibility to never let anything happen to your dog in this comfort position (which I call squishing). Neither dogs nor people should be allowed to approach when your dog is placed in this manner. This is your dog’s safe space – to look out and adapt to the environment.
So far I have described the first value of this position – a safe place for your dog to wait and soak up the environment. By squishing near the rings or wherever your dog will be asked to work, your dog also has a chance to adapt to wherever they will be asked to work.
Now we’ll talk about the second use of squishing. We also need to teach the dog that squishing always ends with a high energy interaction with you – whatever your dog cares about. When we release from squishing, we turn quickly away from the dog and either reward heavily or go into work.
In the teaching phase, we release from squishing and always go straight to food or a toy and make the dog catch up to us to get that reward. We want to create a sense of urgency in our dog; when the dog feels the release of the pressure position, they need to instantly turn and move towards us, as fast as they can, to get their reward.
This becomes a game that serves us well. Squish means relax. But be ready for an instant on! If you ever release a dog from squishing and then do nothing, you will totally ruin the value of this position.
You can use squishing anytime you need to wait – while you speak with an instructor, while you explain something to another person, or while you wait for your turn. Squishing might be ten seconds or it might be several minutes. The longer your dog can stay in this position comfortably, the better, because then you can use it outside of the obedience ring when you aren’t sure how long you’ll have to wait before your turn. When your number is called, your dog is released and you immediately heel towards the ring; ideally with a very powerful and driven dog at your side.
To teach squishing:
1) between your legs.
- Place dog between your legs for no more than two seconds – it’s ok if you lure your dog there if they are not comfortable, but as soon as they accept this position readily then get rid of the lure. You don’t want your dog to panic, so make this position well accepted. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NlrHJEizaM
- To release your dog, take several steps backwards so that you are walking backwards off the rear end of your dog. Your dog will almost always turn to face you – if not then call to them. Keep moving backwards and reward in the front of your body with your wrist still touching your body. Your dog will effectively be in a ‘front’ position. Repeat until your dog instantly turns towards you expecting a cookie – moving quickly to get their reward. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=393mHvEl4Bg
- When this is going well, back off of your dog as described above, but also turn to the right so that your dog ends up in heel position and gets rewarded in heel position there. You will do this exercise for the career of the dog since we want squishing to be highly desirable to your dog. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvmzQO9mwCw
- When this going well, back off dog as described above, but go into active heeling work. This is how you would enter the ring! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxEHOmfKQXA
2) In front across your body
a) Place dog across your body with the dog’s head facing your right hand. Use a lure if needed to get your dog comfortable in that position but that is the only use of the lure – eliminate as soon as possible. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nk-oztwU_II
b) When you release your dog, turn 90 degrees so that you are facing the same direction as your dog ,and simultaneously back up so the dog is coming towards you – reward with your hands touching your body in “front” position. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97sqo3sXJpU
c) When this is mastered, release your dog as described above, but instead of turning 90 degrees you will turn 270 degrees so you are walking away from your dog – your dog should catch up and then you reward in heel position. This is how you would enter the ring. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zi0m8j9t1Z0
When your dog is extremely solid on one of the above methods, you should notice that your dog whips around into heel position very fast when released. Over time, your dog will learn to relax in the squish position, since there is neither work nor reward there.
When your dog is absolutely solid, you can begin to alternate squishing to work (without a reward) and squishing to a reward. You would want to practice squishing in as many environments as possible so that your dog can generalize. To go into the ring, you will squish. When your number is called, you will squish and then heel into the ring, hopefully with a very attentive dog! Here is Lyra in a ring prep class – practicing this skill: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMBL9AQcMec
Video/class Assignment for Gold level: Send me a video of your squishing efforts! Keep this up through the next few weeks – we’ll be integrating it with your ring entrances soon. The more you squish to an exciting reward, the stronger your dog will be. Remember to make the dog catch up for the reward – don’t slow down!