Many problems or a combination of issues contribute to dogs leaving their handlers. Problems such as stress in the ring, lack of confidence, inconsistent handling, etc. can cause a dog to leave its handler when showing.
First, the Stress of the Show Ring can cause a dog to become un-confident, fearful, and to leave their handler. One way to help reduce show ring stress is to train your dog in “new” locations on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean other training facilities. This means going to new places to train. The new locations do not need ring gates nor jumps to be effective. Examples of new locations include store fronts (Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, etc.), outside dog park fences, business centers, schools on the weekends, etc. It is the “new” that gets the dog. Every show you attend is a “new” location. This even applies to a training facility in which you train frequently because the environment of the show is new and different. Why? Different dogs, different people, a new atmosphere, etc. all add to a heightened level of excitement and stress, and “newness” to your dog.
- Solution – Train in new locations on a regular basis. In fact train in new locations more than you train at home or in your training facility. Go to new locations and play with your dog before ever starting to train.
Second, the Stress of inconsistency. What does your criteria of a skill really mean? Are you consistent in asking your dog for skills to be performed the same way? Anytime or anywhere? Always the same???? For example, is your dog’s “sit” always performed the same? Does your dog sit with the same speed, the same attention, the same focus on you, every time regardless of if you are in the ring, out running and playing with other dogs or chasing a squirrel? If the sit is expected to occur in 3 seconds then the sit should always be 3 seconds, regardless of where you are.
- Solution – In order for your dog to perform a command/skill in the ring and under stress, that skill/command should be performed to the same criteria every time no matter where or when.
Third, the Stress of YOUR emotions. When going into the ring, are you nervous? Your dog picks up on your nervousness and feels that the ring must be a bad place. Make sure that the ring is “fun” for you and your dog so that he can perform in a confident, relaxed manner. How? You, the trainer, have to be able to control your emotions when in the ring.
- Solution – 2 ways – First, you, the handler, should practice mental toughness training. It is a MUST for anyone that shows. Second, be confident in what you have taught your dog. My question to students is “will you bet me $100 that your dog will perform all the skills needed for the ring if you enter?” If not, then your dog might need more training and proofing before he is ready to show.
Fourth, is the Stress of the lack of the reinforcement. Have you gone to the next step in training by randomizing your reinforcement? It is important to wean off giving your dog a reward every time he does a skill properly. Once your dog knows a skill, pick your dog’s best efforts and reinforce only those worth the reward. For example, if you ask your dog to sit five times, pick the best 2-3 sits to reward. Too often trainers get in the “habit” of rewarding their dog for every repetition. The result then becomes your dog will not work if not rewarded. In the ring your dog must be able to chain a number of skills together to create the performance. The reward only comes at the end of that chain of skills.
- Solution – Randomizing your rewards will help accomplish this goal. Once your dog understands a skill, pick the best efforts to reward.
Finally, there is the Stress of poor rapport. The one thing you take into the ring with you, besides your dog, is the relationship that you two have. Good rapport and steady, consistent leadership will be clear whether you win or qualify. You and your dog will look like a team. This includes your everyday life with your dog. Does he work for affection? Treats? To go outside or to play ball? How many times during your daily walks have you trained your dog? It is easy to incorporate training into everyday life. Ask your dog to do a skill or two before getting his meal. YES, change the skills on a regular basis. When out for a walk, ask your dog to do a trick or come to front or walk with you without sniffing. When playing ball, ask him for a drop or a sit while he is running to pick up the ball or coming back to you.
- Solution – It is easy and once you have established the habit of training 24/7, your dog will find the time with you reinforcing and fun.
The issues above are easy ones to fix. Take your time and consider how you can add and or adjust your training and everyday life with your dog to benefit your showing.