In my opinion, two of the most important things to train your competition dog are ring entrances and setups. If showing in Open and Utility, I also consider removing the dog’s lead as part of a ring entrance, as well as preparing the dog for the possibility of being measured. Your ring entrance sets the tone for the entire run. While it should not influence scoring, the judge’s first impression of a team is extremely important and it is your job to make sure it is the best impression possible.
The next time you are at a show, sit back and watch these two specific items. Who walks into the ring with an attentive, focused dog? What is their body language saying to the judge? Who moves easily between exercises, setting up efficiently and quickly for the next exercise? While I may talk to my dog in an upbeat voice, I do not want to cheerlead or do a lot of clapping or extra body language. Personally, I will also not do a lot of “tricks” to get to a setup. I may throw in a spin or a hand touch, but I do not ask my dog to spin the entire way or walk with my dog between my legs.
Remember, you are being judged the ENTIRE time you are in the ring. While there is generally nothing to score on a ring entrance or setup, the main thing to remember is you should not slow down the judge’s ring. If you have difficulty setting up or controlling your dog, or if you use your hands to physically set up your dog (even in Novice), then the judge can choose to mark you below the line. Also, if you continue to reposition your dog on a setup, the judge can instruct you to stop and prepare for the exercise. While you are permitted to take your dog’s collar and guide him between exercises in Novice, I choose not to do this with my dogs. If I can not move between exercises without physically guiding them, then they are not ready to go into the ring.
Obviously, all dogs are different…some need to be formally heeled between exercises, while some need a chance to disconnect briefly and allowed to refocus (which is how my German Shepherd was). Experiment during matches or wildcard classes to see what works best for your dog.
Take the time to teach these skills, so your dog will know exactly what is expected on show day. Teach your dog some stress relieving behaviors in case you need to use them between exercises (spins, hand touches, bounces, front feet up on handler). These need to be practiced and reinforced OFTEN, not just taught, then forgotten. In practice, these behaviors (after taught) should be required. Meaning, if I tell my dog to put his front feet up on me, he must do it. If I tell him to do a hand push, he must get into position and push. It is not an option, it is a trained and required behavior. It is also heavily rewarded when done well.
While training, do not forget the perfect picture in your mind. My “picture” includes speed, effort and precision. So, if I call my dog to setup, I require he does it quickly and accurately. Anything that does not meet my expectations is addressed. Require 100% in practice, because you will likely not get 100% in the ring. Consistency is extremely important. Decide what you want from your dog and reinforce it…every….single….time. No exceptions!
Train hard. Play harder.