It’s Not You, It’s Me – How Handling Can Make or Break Your Performance

Betsy Scapicchio and Linda Brennan

Obedience is a team sport. There is nothing better than watching a handler and dog who perform together as one. We often focus only on the dog’s job, but our responsibility as the handler is just as important, if not more so. When it comes to the dance of competition Obedience, it is up to us to lead.

At shows, handlers are quick to blame the external environment for the dog’s mistakes. However, we should be looking inward rather than outward. Ask yourself how the dog performed outside the ring compared to inside. If the dog was fine outside the ring, then the external environment is very similar and we need to ask a different question. Were you the same inside and outside the ring?

What we need to focus on here are the cues that you are giving the dog. That includes the cues that you are consciously using, but also the many cues that you may not even be aware that you give your dog when you train and show. For example, if you look at your dog in training but don’t look at your dog in the ring, that is a huge change in the picture that your dog sees. If you use a food lure or tight leash in training, when these aides are not there in the ring, the dog doesn’t know how to perform the exercise.

In training, we must prepare the dog for competition. That means using the same cues and handling that are required in the ring. We must be consistent and predicable. Any change will cause the dog to question his job and perhaps make a mistake. For example, if you give your signal or verbal command differently than you do in training, you can expect that your dog may not recognize it. This might happen if you tend to hold your down signal in training but give the signal quickly in the ring. When this happens, people are quick to say that their dog is “ring wise,” implying that their dog is deliberately performing differently in the ring than in training. However, it is not the dog’s fault if the handler is not performing the same in the ring as she does in training.

dog handling

When you are tempted to assume that an error is the dog’s fault, look at yourself first. Ask yourself whether you have given your dog the right information. Video can be very helpful. Film yourself in training as well as in the ring and compare the two. Focus just on your handling. What do you see that is different? Remember that dogs are masters of body language, so every gesture and difference in your posture can have meaning to the dog. Strive to keep the picture of yourself that your dog is seeing consistent. For example, when you watch video of yourself in training, you might discover that you are talking to your dog frequently during times when you cannot talk in the ring. Your dog will certainly notice the difference and it may affect his performance.

Heeling, in particular, requires the handler to do just as much work as the dog. If we are not smooth and precise, we cannot expect flawless heeling from the dog. We love heeling because it is the ultimate showcase for teamwork between dog and handler. The connection should be evident.

This is a fluid exercise as the team executes turns, halts, and changes of pace, so the handler must be constantly cuing the dog. These need to be practiced and perfected, and then it is up to the handler to lead the dog in the ring. Your heeling cannot be better than your ability to do your part in your performance. A very common example of the impact of handling on heeling in the ring is when the dog fails to sit on a halt. This is most often the handler’s fault for failing to cue the dog in the same way as in training.

Heeling is not the only part of your time in the ring that requires good handling. Every second that you spend in competition requires you to be on your game. Not only do you need to be consistent with your cues for the dog for each exercise, but the transitions in between are just as important. How you handle your dog between exercises can set the dog up for success or failure.

You need to practice all of those little pieces of your performance so that you and the dog can perform them in the ring. For example, in Novice, when the handler and dog move from the stand-for-exam exercise to the off-leash heeling, how they make the transition will affect how the dog performs on the exercise. If the handler allows the dog to just meander to the set-up point for the heeling, how likely is it that the dog will reconnect for the heeling? Practicing and executing a happy, connected transition from the stand-for-exam will greatly improve the dog’s chances of success in the off-leash heeling.

As the exercises get more complicated in Open and Utility, and the dog is required to do them in different orders, transitions are more important than ever. In addition, many exercises can be done in the same location in the ring, so it is imperative that the dog knows which exercise we are about to do.

For example, in Open, the command discrimination and drop on recall can be done in the same spot. If the dog doesn’t know which exercise we are doing, he may break position on the command exercise or fail to come on the recall. To help solve this problem, an additional piece of handling that we teach is to name each exercise for the dog. We tell the dog each time which exercise we will be doing on the way to the exercise and/or at the set-up point. For example, if the broad jump is the first exercise to be performed in Open, we tell the dog as we enter the ring that we are going to do the broad jump. This only helps if you are consistent in doing it all the time in training so that it is familiar to the dog when you do it in the ring.

Another very specific example of how transitions affect our performance is how we enter the ring with the dog. To help bridge the gap between outside the ring, when the dog and handler are more comfortable, and inside the ring, we must train the ring entrance. By perfecting this sequence in training, we can maintain the dog’s attention and motivation from outside the ring and bring it into the ring where it counts. If you struggle to get your dog into the ring and set up for the first exercise, you are already setting yourself up to fail. Not only is your dog not in the best position to perform successfully, but your confidence is probably not very high either. Take the time to train this piece and you’ll feel much more confident stepping into the ring.

The more thoroughly you train every aspect of what happens in the ring, paying careful attention to each detail, the more successful you will be. When all you have to do in the ring is to execute your handling just as you do it every time in training, then you can focus on yourself and allow your dog to show how well you have trained him. The best compliment that your dog can give you is to perform exactly the same way in the ring as he does in training. Then you know that you’ve done YOUR job.


Train the Top Dog Way

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