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.