Solutions for the Ring Wise Dog

Ring Wise Agility Dogs
(Photo Credit: Katherine Martucci, Flickr)

Recently, I was asked for advice on dogs that shut down on the start line, or shortly before entering the ring, only at agility trials: commonly known as “ring wise” dogs. I think this is a topic worth discussing, so here goes.

Let’s start by assessing your dog’s behavior. You might observe your dog turning his head away from you when asked to do a cue that he “knows.” He might sniff the ground, lick his lips, pant excessively, get the “zoomies,” and/or whine.

Your dog is telling you that he’s not comfortable performing in a trial setting. The sniffing, yawning, sneezing, etc. is a stress response. These behaviors are often called calming signals.

It’s important to note that your dog is not “blowing you off.” Your dog either does not understand what you are asking him to do, or is too overwhelmed by the environment to respond. Blaming stress on the dog absolves the handler of her responsibility to improve the dog’s training level and/or work to make the dog more comfortable in a show environment.

(If there’s one thing I don’t tolerate, it’s blaming the dog for mediocre training. Around these parts, it’s “Train, don’t blame!“)

Now that we’ve taken a good guess at our dog’s internal state, let’s backtrack and try to figure out why he feels that way.

Considerations at the Trial

First, how is your dog outside of the ring at agility trials? If he will eagerly perform cues that he knows well, with few to no calming signals, right until you enter the ring, then your dog has made some sort of association with being “in the ring.”

From the dog’s perspective, “in the ring” might mean one of many things:

  • the physical act of entering the ring (generally marked with obedience ring gates or snow fencing)
  • lack of visible, available rewards from his handler
  • his handler acting strangely (generally because the handler is experiencing some ring stress herself)
  • leash/collar off, when he is generally not “naked in public”

If your dog has discovered there are no rewards in the ring, you have a couple of options. If your dog will tug, you’re in business – teach your dog to tug on his leash, and use that in the ring. If your dog is only motivated by food, clever use of matches, run-thrus, and drop-in classes can change your dog’s feelings about entering the ring.

Emphasis on clever. For this to work, you need your dog to honest-to-goodness believe that this is a trial run and you don’t have rewards on your body. You walk into the ring, set up, lead out, release the dog over an obstacle or two, and… OMG! Mom’s got a can of cat food for me!

Doesn’t take many repetitions of that for your dog to make the association that “getting in a ring = awesome!”

Dogs only become ring wise if their owners become ring wise. If you behave the same way in trials as you do in practice, your dog’s behavior will be consistent unless he is stressed out by the environment. (And if that’s the case, your dog needs to spend more time having enjoyable experiences at agility trials before you ask him to perform in the ring again.)

Let’s say your dog starts exhibiting calming signals before you get in the ring. This is much more common than a dog that is 100% sunshine-‘n-butterflies until he crosses the magical threshold of the ring. (Most handlers experiencing a problem think the dog is ring wise, but the dog isn’t actually behaving normally before he enters the ring.)

For some dogs, raising their arousal level by playing chase, tug, or other fast-paced games before a run may help. If your dog isn’t toy motivated, you can roll treats along the ground for the dog to chase, or jog with your dog, throwing in some front crosses and post turns to keep your dog chasing you.

Other dogs need quiet, “bonding” time before they go into the ring. Try massage, feeding your dog from a squeeze tube or a Kong, a Thundershirt, or teaching your dog to relax on a mat as part of your pre-run ritual.

Generally speaking, raising your dog’s arousal level helps if your dog tends to stress low (sniffing, yawning, moving slowly) and quiet time helps if your dog tends to stress high (zoomies, increased barking, moving faster) – but there are exceptions to both rules. Try both!

Train Smarter, Not Harder

Using Rewards Intelligently

In practice, get your rewards off your body, and make sure your dog knows you don’t have a reward. Fooling your dog into thinking you have secret pocket cookies only works for a run or two, if that.

Accomplish this by taking your treat pouch off unless you plan to interrupt the run to reward one specific behavior (i.e. a contact). If you use a toy, teach yourself to carry it in the waistband of your pants or in a pocket that makes it totally invisible to your dog.

Hannah Branigan has a technique for teaching the dog “cookies are available to you, I’m just not holding them” called Zen Bowl. If you need a visual, it’s outlined in her (phenomenal) Obedience FUNdamentals DVD, but that PDF I linked to is excellent. Give it a try!

Replicate the Ring

(Photo Credit: thestonesoup.com, Flickr)
(Photo Credit: thestonesoup.com, Flickr)

No matches or run-thrus in your area? Invest in some stick-in-the-ground posts and snow fencing, or a few sets of obedience ring gates and stanchions, and create a ring entrance in your backyard that leads to a couple of obstacles.

Again, convince your dog that you do not have food on you. Let him watch you set the cookie bag on the floor, or take off your bait bag. Replicate whatever you do at shows.

Bring him into the “ring” on leash, take the leash off, lead out, release, do 1-2 obstacles, and present the dog with high-value secret cookies! Small pop-top cans of dog/cat food or canned fish work well for this, because they can be concealed in a pocket or waist band.

(If you’re local, come on down to one of our upcoming matches or run-thrus and give this a try in the ring. Cookies are welcome!)

Leash On, Leash Off

Make sure you’re practicing taking your dog’s leash off at the start of each run, and putting it back on at the end of each run. If you’re working with a young dog or a dog that is “ring wise,” you should do this during at least half of your training runs. If you practice in a fenced-in backyard or a secure training building, I bet you’re not doing this, and it is such a salient cue to the dog that “this place is different – a leash means no cookies from mama!”

Agility Dog Tags on Collar
(Photo Credit: Kate Ter Haar, Flickr)

And while I’m on the topic of equipment, don’t practice in a collar with tags on! You definitely won’t bring that into the ring at a show, will you? It doesn’t take more than a few repetitions for your dog to figure out that if the ever-present “jingle jingle” around his neck disappears, that you are not going to dispense cookies today.

Removing your dog’s leash should mean, “focus on mama – we are gonna play hard now!” You can do this by taking your dog’s leash off and immediately cueing a fun game of tug or having the dog chase you down to earn a cookie. Once the dog starts to become hyper-focused on you when the leash comes off (instead of scanning the environment), you’ll know you’re in business.

Putting your dog’s leash back on should mean, “yay, gonna go get some cookies/tug now!” Pay special attention to this if you have trouble catching your dog at the end of a run or if your dog starts an agility run with gusto, but becomes increasingly stressed as the run continues. Having a clear, enjoyable end-of-run routine will make your dog easier to manage.

I teach this by putting my dog’s leash back on, praising him once – “gooood boy!” – and then giving him a treat. I do this a few times, then I draw out the process: leash on, “good boy,” take a few steps, “what a good dog,” then cookies. I want my dogs to understand that when the leash is back on, it begins the reward process – it might be delayed at times, but it’s coming!

Get Creative, Get Weird

Beagle with Balloons
(Photo Credit: Wai Keong, Flickr)

Finally, get weird! Proof your dog’s understanding with weird stuff in training, so your dog is downright unflappable in the ring. You need to get creative.

I think this is where most handlers are failing. They train in the same environment(s) week in and week out. The only thing that changes is the arrangement of the equipment. If your dog is used to such an unvaried practice space, going to an agility trial will be a big surprise!

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Buy a dozen balloons and tie them to the jumps, so they move around as you run past.
  • Turn on the radio and blast death metal while running a course.
  • Scatter a bag of craft feathers across the floor, then train.
  • Buy some scarecrows on fall decoration clearance and prop them up to make a “judge” and “ring crew.” Accessorize them as necessary with hats, sunglasses, pinwheels, floating balloon attachments, etc.
  • Leave a variety of toys and treats on “ring crew chairs” in your training area, and teach your dog that these things are not available for stealing using Susan Garrett’s It’s Yer Choice protocol.

Up the ante. Make it strange! Training needs to be harder than trialing, not easier. If you’ve got a “ring wise” dog, consider what you have done to contribute to that behavior. Ditch the label, get training, and your dog will be a joy to trial before you know it!