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Why do dogs fall apart in trials? Part 1: Ring Stress

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

Why do some dogs seem to fall apart when entering a competition? They look brilliant outside the ring and then once they step through those ring gates it's like they are a different dog!

You might struggle to get them set up at the start of the heeling pattern. Or maybe your dog who never dreams of breaking their stay in practice immediately takes off at the startline in a trial! He leaps from the top of the dogwalk. He runs around the ring sniffing. She stares blankly at you on the signal exercise.


Those issues that seem to happen "only in a trial" are definitely ones that I wish I had a magic wand for.

Sadly I'm still searching for it. If you find one, let me know!

I work with a lot of dogs each year who have issues trialing and can group trial issues into a small number of categories. Usually the categories overlap!

1. Stress issues

2. General focus issues, not ready to work

3. A weakly trained behavior

Stress Issues

This is the big category. It doesn't take long for dogs to realize that trials are different than practice. The atmosphere is different. Mom is likely behaving differently. There's no cookies/toys in the ring. Other people are clearly in charge and giving orders, and people are staring!

Even confident dogs are effected by the trial environment!

Not all stress is bad. A little bit of stress can actually help performance!

But if your dog is struggling to perform then likely their stress levels are too high!

Most dogs will stress DOWN in trials. This is the typical presentation we visualize when thinking of stressed dogs. Slow moving. Possibly doing lots of sniffing. Checking out. Looking like they want to be anywhere but the ring.

Other dogs stress UP. These dogs sometimes look like they're having a good time in that they might be running around wildly, jumping up at their handlers, or barking. But the dog is struggling to perform and some may be worried even if they don't look like it. Their arousal levels are certainly too high to fully process cues and perform at their best.

Regardless of how your dog stresses, we need to look at ways to lower that stress, increase their confidence, and find that sweet balance of arousal levels.

Here are just a few things I look at doing when addressing stress issues in a trial setting:

  1. Ring = Fun! Pure classically conditioning walking through the ring gates as a predictor of a good time. Start to erase the feelings of stress and get the dog learning to focus on you to have a party! Since we still need the dog to focus and not get too "high," emphasis needs to be placed on finding that level of play where the dog is in that perfect level of motivation and ability to think.

  2. Structure. Teach the dog exactly what to expect at a trial from how to wait outside the ring, how you will remove the leash and hand it off, how you will answer the judge or move to the startline, how to handle delays, etc.

  3. Ready to work signal. Without your dog seeing that you have food or toys on you or nearby can he choose to start the work?  Does he have some type of "ready button" that lets you know when he really means it?

  4. Delayed rewards.  When training can you do multiple behaviors without the reward on your or visibly close by?  After each "exercise" does your dog look to where the reward is hopefully or can he happily play with you and setup for something else?  Does he know how the reward sequence will work when you have to add in leashing up and heading out of the ring?!

  5. Formality. Not just the lack of talking and doing the full exercises in sequence, but the little glances at the judge for the next cue and the little bit of apprehension from you as you think about what is next and where you need to set up. Is your dog used to seeing silence=good?! Or for agility dogs, do you have a plan in how you're going to handle an error when you can't just reward and reset?

  6. More people pressure.  Breaking down the judges and stewards role (that structure piece listed above!) and getting the dog used to people coming into his space. So many dogs struggle with this piece! Even the wiggle butt dogs who love everyone will feel stress and conflict when someone approaches they know they are not supposed to greet!

Here is a quick video of Vito working on combining some of these concepts. I ask him if he's ready to work, I do a playful entrance into the ring and work on engaging him as I move from the entrance to a setup location. I then do a formal setup, with a nice pause as if I was waiting for the judge. And then I work on the reward sequence of going to the leash, walking towards the reward location without pulling me, and waiting while I deliver the reward to him. With Vito I work on him lying down on a mat to help structure his ring exit.

I hope that list gives you somewhere to start your dog's training and preparation for trials. Even if your dog is not yet trialing, make sure you teach the dog what to expect and have an answer for those questions!

If you need help, many of the above areas will be discussed in the upcoming Ring Confidence class starting April 1st at FDSA! See the sample lecture on removing the leash here!

The remaining issues that can effect trial performances such as general focus and a specific behavior will be talked about in the next blog post!

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