I went to an Obedience Fun Match Today; best $36 I've spent in awhile.  Lyra was calm, friendly and curious.  She sniffed around, visited a few people, calmly watched dogs working, and had two hours to acclimate to the smells, sights, and sounds.  For Lyra, being in the presence of dogs and remaining calm is a very big deal.

When it was my turn to enter the ring, I said Lyra's name.  One time.  Quietly.  She turned to me with both ears up, tail wagging, and expectant. I allowed her into heel position.  Lyra is not allowed into heel position if I do not have two ears up, tail wagging and an expectant face.

I approached the ring.  Lyra was perfect.  She showed tension throughout her body as she worked to maintain perfect position.  We passed spectators, dogs, the table, and the entrance to the ring. Perfect.  Lyra is not allowed to enter the ring if I do not have perfect attention.

The steward brought me to the judge;  Lyra remained perfect.  Never took her eyes off of me; never twitched an ear. Removed the leash and handed it to the steward.  Just excellent.

As the judge took over, Lyra did not waver.

Five steps into the heeling and she was exactly what I have trained for - engaged, accurate and beautiful.  That was enough; I took my toy off the table and we commenced a party - a very big one in recognition of her tremendous success at her first match.  We ran. We did "thru's" and "fly".  We did directed jumping with no fronts .  A few quick flip finishes, some pushes and turns; a party for a lovely dog who met criteria.

Another short stretch of formal work - heeling, a bit of backing, and a signal or two.  Again Lyra met criteria and earned herself another first class party.

And one last attempt.  As we approached the table, I saw an ear flicker; a bit of interest in what was happening over there.  I slowed my pace a bit to catch her and then she looked away from me.  First mistake; one retry.  I backed up and redid exactly that same movement in that same spot.  She did it again; coming into the about turn she lost attention at the steward's table - maybe .5 seconds worth.  She did not meet criteria.

I went to this match fully expecting Lyra to fail; indeed I had already told the judge that we'd be lucky to get five seconds worth of work. I know she can do the work. I know she is trained to my level of expectation.  I know she cares about working with me - when she doesn't  find something better to do.  I know Lyra, and I had a plan.

Working for me is a privilege.  I do not "make" my dogs do anything - I saw plenty of that with other teams, and I'm surely not going back to that picture.  So I punished her by taking away what she cared about; I took away the chance to work. I handed her to my friend (who was waiting for just this moment), and I took out another dog who was crated at ringside for this purpose.  And the party continued - with a different dog.

When time was up, it  was over.  I chose not to give Lyra a second chance.  This was her first match ever, and I wanted this lesson to stick.

No training outside the ring - that is not where the party takes place at this stage of training.   No physical corrections, cajoling, begging, bribing, or cheering. I took my trained dog to a match, and I expect her to perform to the level that her maturity and training allows.  Set your criteria to a reasonable point and stick with your plan.  Slipping criteria that have a way of degrading further over time, so think twice before letting something go that you care about.

Lyra is trained to orient on her name.  Lyra is trained to enter a ring.  She is trained to approach a judge with attention. She is trained to maintain attention in heeling at all times. All things considered, I could not have had a better day at the match.  When she worked she was at 100%, and when she slipped she learned a valuable lesson - there is exactly one way to perform, and it applies at the dog show too.  If you fail to meet criteria, someone else will take your place.

Set criteria.  Good criteria should be reachable most of the time, or you've likely asked more than you've really trained for. (Indeed, I'm already asking myself if I've worked Lyra near enough steward's tables - will focus on that this week)

Obviously this will not work for you unless your dog values training, so start there.  Do everything in your power to convince your dog that training, working and playing with you are the best part of the day.

When criteria are not met - include consequences that you have predetermined and hold the line.  Every time you help your dog - pull on the collar, redirect back to work, ignore loss of attention - you are telling your dog that their decision to lower criteria was ok with you - you allowed criteria to slip, and dogs don't  work harder than you expect - they only give you what you train for.  This is the single most difficult concept for my students to apply, even after years of coaching.

If I've done a good job, Lyra will be significantly stronger next time.  If she is not, I'll need to re-evaluate whether she's emotionally mature enough for the pressure of a dog event.  I'll have to consider if heeling towards the steward's table was outside of what I've taught.  I'll have to make sure she's not stressed or nervous; or that she simply does not care very much about my rewards in relation to her interest in the environment.  I'll study her and our training, every day, making changes as appropriate until I feel confident that we're ready for a real show.  Because when we head to a real show, I'll get what I've trained for.  Maybe less, but never more.

No hurry on that.


On an unrelated note, if you're interested in Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, sign up here to receive the class schedule every other month.



Unfortunately, dealing with human nerves is a little outside of my specialty. I do have a friend who will be teaching a class on that topic at Fenzi Academy at some point – keep an eye out for Classes by Dr. Darlene Francis on stress.

Sam Tatters

Great post, and a great reminder! I’ve recently started “record keeping”, so that I can know where both of my dogs are in relation to my ‘plan’, and I’m finding it really useful – especially to note what needs more of my attention.


I wonder whether this is something I’ll ever be able to expect from my dog.

He’s fearful, he’s stressy, he shuts down a lot because, well, he’s fearful — a shelter mutt with shaky genes and a history of undersocialization, neglect, and possible abuse. I cheer him on a LOT, because right now my goal is just to have a dog who can function and have fun in the ring. For the same reason, we do Rally, not obedience; he is not currently able to tolerate a stranger touching him or even approaching to do the Stand for Exam, and he needs the extra reassurance that the Rally ring allows.

Am I being unreasonable in helping him? Am I softening the criteria too much by encouraging him to get his focus back when I see him sliding into distress? I don’t think so — our scores are steadily improving, and he’s gone from barely functional to placing in the top five semi-consistently; most importantly, I can SEE the change in his attitude from terror at approaching the ring (8 months ago) to positive, happy, smiling focus at the start line (today, at least on our good days) — but now I wonder.

Where’s the line between splitting a behavior to encourage your dog to do what he CAN do (while recognizing that it’s incomplete, and with an eye toward shaping that imperfect partial performance toward something better) vs. softening criteria to accept an imperfect performance as adequate? In training a new behavior this is pretty obvious, but what about actual trial attitude and performance? Is it different?


sadly there is no video (that I know of).


Awesome, good girls!!

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