Playing By The Rules

By Catherine Zinsky

  • Friday, April 01, 2016 12:30 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)

    What exactly is heel position?  Better still, where is it?  It's astonishing how many people really don’t know where heel position is. When asked, so many hesitate, are unsure about this very basic position that is crucial to obedience.  These people subsequently find it difficult  (a) to train for it properly and (b) be able to maintain consistency in heeling.

    So where is heel position?  Let’s clarify:

    I’m fairly certain that every exhibitor understands that the dog heels on the handler's left side.  I've yet to see a novice handler attempt to heel with the dog on the right, though I am not an AKC judge and therefore haven't had as much contact with beginners as an active judge would.  Heaven knows, chances are somewhere someone has tried it.  So for the record let it be known that dogs must heel on the handler's left side. 

    Let's now look at where the dog should be in relation to the handler while on the left side. The Rulebook states that "the area from the dog's head to shoulder is to be in line with the handler's left hip."  Sounds clear enough, right?  Yes and no…

    Take the "dog's head" for example: is AKC referring to the cranium area, ear placement, muzzle, nose?  With small dogs the 'head' could well incorporate all of these, but with a Great Dane it could become questionable.  A Dane's head can measure 12 inches long in and by itself, giving ‘heel position’ a great deal more wiggle room. 

    I asked numerous judges what the ‘head’ really meant to them, then finally asked an AKC Obedience Field Representative.  The consensus was.....drum roll....any one of the above.  Ear, muzzle, nose—all constitute parts of the 'head.'

    So heel position can be anywhere from the tip of the nose being in line with the handler’s left hip to the dog’s shoulders being in line with the handler’s left hip.  

    Dog is sitting in perfect heel position.

     However (!), once the team establishes heel position, they should maintain that position.  So if the dog vacillates back and forth from the nose to the shoulders at the handler’s left side, the judge will score the team appropriately.

    A dog that vacillates from nose to whither in its heel position is not achieving the consistency and smoothness a perfect score demands. The dog will be either lagging or forging from the established heel position.  (Lagging is when the dog walks behind the handler; forging is when the dog lunges ahead of the handler.) 

    A dog that forges or lags cannot be given the same number of points as a dog who heels consistently and smoothly.  So in order to judge honestly and fairly, a judge will deduct points for a dog that heels unevenly.

    AKC Regulations stipulate that in addition to the dog heeling by the handler's left hip, the dog must also be parallel to the handler.  Furthermore, the dog can neither too close, which is considered crowding, nor too distant, which would be scored as 'wide.' 

    ‘Parallel’ means the dog's body must be in a straight line with the direction the handler is facing.  The dog's tail end should not be either behind the handler nor thrown out and away from the handler.  All of this sounds simple, even logical, but is not as easy to achieve as one would think.  Again, any variations in this 'behind the scenes' activity can be scored.

    This dog is not sitting ‘parallel’ to the handler.  In this picture the
    dog is sitting with his back end tucked behind the handler’s left leg. 

    In this picture the dog is sitting with his rear
    end swung away from the handler. 

    If and when a dog is on the left side of the handler, the dog should be in heel position.  Being in heel position is not limited to only those times when the dog is heeling!  When the dog is on the left, he should be in heel position whether heeling, standing, lying down...or sitting! 

    Perhaps now you can better understand and appreciate why straight sits are so decisive in this sport.  Their importance is totally determined through the AKC Obedience Regulations’ definition of 'heel position.'  The dog sitting parallel to the handler, feet square, and neither too far behind, too far ahead, with the rear neither thrown out nor perched behing the heel of the handlers’ left shoe is sitting in proper heel position.  It's no easy task!

    This dog is sitting in perfect heel position
    and in a perfect ‘4-square’ sit. 

    In each and every level of obedience, be it Novice, Open or Utility, knowing heel position and striving to achieve it should be a significant part of your training. 

    Heel position is relevant to practically every exercise, just not  the heeling itself.  Consider the finish: the dog must return to heel position.  The Stand for Exam in Novice requires that the handler be in heel position before leaving the dog and upon returning to the dog.  The same applies for the Long Group exercises.  And so forth…

    When leaving or returning to your dog in the Novice
    Stand for Exam exercise, you should return to heel position.  

    Learning and growing with our canine partners is an integral part of why we do obedience. So next time you train, re-examine where you are establishing heel position and tweak it if you need to.   And always bear in mind: heel position counts!!!    

    Got treats?    

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  • Friday, April 01, 2016 12:00 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)

    Hello All!

    Below is an announcement for my new book!  If you'd like to receive more information or to order email me at or visit my website

  • Tuesday, March 01, 2016 12:30 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)
    A number of changes are now being put into practice in the Group Exercises, especially in the Novice Classes.

    Most notably, of course, is that in Novice the leash will remain on the dog throughout the entire exercise, both during the long sit and the long down.  The leash will remain attached to the dog's collar and will be placed on the ground alongside the dog with the armband weighted/secured by the leash, yet with the number visible to the judge.

    Basically there are no other principal changes to the execution of the group exercises, per se, though there are yet some changes to the overall logistics involved to these exercises in both Novice and Open.  They are:

    1.  Rather than the heretofore 12 dogs permitted in any given group, the maximum number now is to be 9 dogs--if and only if the ring length used is 50 feet.  If the ring side to be used is NOT 50', then fewer dogs would be permitted.  Dogs MUST BE  spaced with a minimum of 4' apart.  (example: if the 40' end of the ring is used, then the maximum number of dogs would be 7.) 

    2.  Another improvement is that judges should ensure that all positioning in the ring "will permit the competing dogs to keep the handlers in their direct line of vision as the handlers leave and return to the ring." When signaling the steward to bring the handlers back to the ring from the out of sight Open groups, AKC advises that the judge  not use a signal (like the waving of an arm) that might cause the dogs in the ring to react. Subtlety is the new approach:-)

    3.  If there are more dogs competing than can be handled in one group exercise, the judge will divide the class into approximately equal sections. Judges have the option of deciding if a set of group exercises will be conducted after a specified number of dogs have completed the individuals, or if the group exercises will be conducted after the last individual team in the class is judged. Once determined, the judge must post this information at the ring.

    (I must say I greatly appreciate this flexibility now offered with groups, and am especially partial to having all the groups performed at the end of the class.  It is my contention that doing so--having all the groups performed AFTER all teams have finished their individuals--greatly adds to the overall equalization and standardization of this exercise. No dog has the advantage of cooler weather, a more favorable group time that is more beneficial to a dog's success, or that gives the handler more flexibility and relaxation than those still hanging around to complete their groups.  Everybody is in the same boat, so to speak. 

    On the other hand, this approach could greatly impact those who have conformation conflicts.   It's all a balancing act.)

    4.  If during the individual exercises the judge decides that the dog is demonstrating uncontrolled behavior, the judge must excuse said dog from the group exercises.  In other words, any dog displaying uncontrolled behavior or aggressive behavior will not be permitted to perform the groups.

    5. Now this is a new one, so listen up:

    If you have qualified in the individual exercises YOU HAVE A CHOICE AS TO WHETHER OR NOT YOU WISH TO DO THE GROUPS!  This is also true for dogs who have not qualified and have not been excused.  The choice/decision of whether or not to perform the group exercise is left to the handler.  Three cheers!

    6.  You must inform the table steward of your choice to return for the group exercises after completing the individual exercises, no matter what your decision is.  If you plan to do the groups, let the table steward know; if you decide you are NOT returning for groups, let the table steward know. 

    7.  Should you tell the table steward that you will NOT be returning, you cannot later change your mind.  This is understandable and only fair to the already hard working steward. 

    As I stated previously, the judge's orders and the execution of the exercises themselves are to remain the same as before.  The only  judge's 'order' that is new is the one the judge will give after the 2nd group exercise is over, and that is "Exercise finished; maintain control of your dog."

    Obviously control during groups is of major concern to AKC. One last caveat to the regs. is that the handler exit the ring with the dog under control.   Should the judge conclude that your dog is NOT under control, points can be taken off for misbehavior.  And it's wise to remember that the judge's decision is final. 

    I have been to a few shows since the implementation of these new changes and must say that, overall, everyone I'm spoken to--including judges and ring stewards--are happy with them.


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  • Monday, February 01, 2016 12:30 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)

    As of Dec. 1, 2015 there are some new rules applicable to the use of collars and leashes in the obedience ring. Let's look at a general overview of their usage.  Next time we'll zero in on specifics, especially as is pertinent to the group exercises. 

    First let's discuss collars.  Pretty much anything goes here, folks, as long as it:

    • is not an electronic collar
    • is not a prong collar
    • is not any other special type of 'training' collar
    • is properly fitted (shouldn't be too loose or too tight, but just right.)
    • has nothing hanging from it (such as tags, brandy barrels, etc.)

    The collar I personally prefer to show my dogs in is the martingale type collar.  Attached to the collar itself is my dog's name tag and contact info.  Because this tag does not dangle from the collar, it is legitimate.  Some handlers use collars that have the dog's name and contact info embroidered onto the collar itself.  This, too, is quite acceptable.  The reg. merely stipulates that nothing must hang. 

    A martingale collar with a nametag. Note that nothing hangs!

    This pretty much covers collars.  I love that we can now have personalized collars, collars with rhinestones, collars with beads, whatever.  Helps the vendors, too!

    On to leashes: that you must have your dog on leash while on the show grounds and that you must enter and exit the obedience ring on leash has not changed.  This rule remains unaltered. 

    Also unchanged is that the leash must be made of fabric or leather.  Basically this means you can't take your dog into the ring on a fishing line, a chain, or the like.  Why?  I have no idea. However, I am open to suggestions...

    Simply remember that the leash must be made of leather or fabric.

    Just for jollies I asked a number of people at one of the obedience clubs I belong to this question: what kind of leash can you take into an obedience ring? Most answered more or less correctly, though not confidently. (I think they thought it was a trick question.) But then to a one each went on to qualify that the leash “must be six feet long.” Really? Must it? Is this true?

    Actually it is not true.

    Unless otherwise specified (which I’ll attend to shortly) the leash does not have to be six feet long. The Regulations no longer stipulate a prescribed length. The leash must simply “be long enough to provide adequate slack during the Heel on Leash exercise.”

    ‘Adequate slack’ is the determining phrase here. What does ‘adequate slack’ mean? Generally for most judges—and realize that there are always exceptions to the norm—this means that there should be a loop in the leash between the handler and dog when the leash is hanging naturally from the handler’s hold.

    *One major exception to the leash length occurs in the Beginning Novice rings. Beginning Novice is an optional titling class, one I believe to be a long time coming. Hurray for its inception! All heeling is done on leash, as is the “Sit for Exam Exercise.” The Sit for Exam requires that the handler sit the dog, then leave the dog and go out the appropriate six feet, then turn and face the dog.

    In order to do this on leash, obviously the leash MUST BE 6 feet long!

    The Sit for Exam exercise in the Beginner Novice classes mandates that the competitor bring his/her dog in on a six foot leash in order to be able to perform this particular exercise. Without a 6’ leash this exercise can not be performed, which means an automatic NQ. So take note of this exception!!!

    For the Beginner Novice class a 6 foot leash is mandatory. For all other classes the leash need only be long enough to provide for a loop between the handler and dog.

    But again, this is not a new rule.  Here's one of the major changes as regards the use of the leash--though it's importance rather eludes me:  "In a class where a leash is not required for the individual exercises, the dog may be brought into and taken out of the ring on a leash that slips through the dog’s collar."

    So what this boils down to is that in those classes where you are required to remove the leash immediately upon entering the ring, you don't have to have a leash that physically clips/snaps onto the collar. Now you can have a leash that you merely slip under the collar, then pull around and through such that you would be holding both ends of the tether. No clasps, no snaps, no clips.  


    The leash is slipped under the collar rather than clasped onto a ring.

    The handler then holds both open ends to enter and exit the ring for the individuals.

    NOTE: This applies solely to the individual exercises.  When entering the ring for groups or awards, the leash must be attached to the collar. 

    As a follow-up to this amazing and ever so progressive innovation to the rules, handlers who are required to remove their leashes upon entering the ring will ON THEIR OWN (no steward required) deposit said leash on the judge's table or other designated spot. 

    This adjustment to the Regs. at least makes sense: why should the poor steward be required to take the leash as we enter, then retrieve it once the individuals are finished?  From now on we are being made responsible--and it's important to realize that through all of these exchanges the dog must be kept under control. Surely giving the judge this added insight into the dog's behavior was an inherent factor to the decision-making process of  this new ruling, don't you think? 

    So that's about it for collars and leashes.  Next issue we'll look at the new 'leash law' for the group exercises.  Fun!

     Got Treats?

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  • Friday, January 01, 2016 12:30 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)


    Let's start out the New Year with a review of just what standardized judging is meant to be according to the AKC Regulations.

    To 'standardize' means that there is a standard--meaning qualitative and quantitative criterion--by which the judge judges, as well as that the conditions and exercises should be the same for every team and conform to the regulations as much as is possible.  In other words, that each team competing is given the same playing field and judged by the same standards as every other team. 

    The AKC is quite clear about how a ring is to be run and how each and every exercise is to be performed.  Naturally things happen that are not specifically clarified in the Regulations, but overall most behaviors (right and wrong) fall under umbrella statements that can be worked out and subsequently judged with great conformity and uniformity.

    One of the purposes of standardized judging is to permit any exhibitor to be able to compete in an AKC trial anywhere and under any judge and not be surprised by some variation to the exercise or the addition of a new twist.  Conditions and demands should remain constant for all exercises.  This is the essence of standardized judging and is the foundation of the AKC Regulations.

    Too often I have heard exhibitors complain that the judge moved and spooked their dog during a performance.  In other words, it was the judge's fault that they did not do as well as they had hoped.  Well the judge has to move. There is no getting around it.  The judge is not a statue. And in order to be able to properly see and fairly judge what each team is doing, the judge must be mobile!   

    Furthermore, it is specifically written in the AKC Regs that  "handlers should expect and train for a reasonable amount of movement by the judge while the dog is working."

    It all comes back to that old saying, "Train, don't complain." 

    The judge will need to move in order to judge as fairly and objectively as is possible. The Regs are very clear on this: part of the judge's responsibility is to be able to watch both the handler and dog at all times  without turning their heads.  No easy task--especially if they never move. 

    So yes, judges must move.   Proof your dog for this eventuality so that the judge's presence won't interfere with your overall performance. 

    On the flip side, according to the Regs, the judge is required to be considerate of the team and not move quickly or in any way impede the team's performance.   Nor are they supposed to follow 'too closely' during the heeling exercise.  So just make sure you don't get a myopic judge !

    Speaking of the heeling exercise, it's important to know that the same heeling pattern should be given to each team in the class.  By making the heeling exercise the same for everyone, no single team is given an advantage or disadvantage.  The pattern is 'standardized'.

    But realize that the heeling pattern can be changed from class to class!  Don't simply watch the first class and assume you will get the same pattern in the next class.  The heeling pattern simply needs to remain the same for all the teams in the same class. 

    Also, the judge is required to inform the first exhibitor in each class what the heeling pattern will be before that team enters the ring.  Again, this is done for fairness so that the first team is not going into the ring with an unfair disadvantage while everyone who follows would have foreknowledge of the pattern and so be able to practice and be more prepared. 

    The heeling pattern can be given verbally, posted ringside, or done by demonstration.  So if you are the first exhibitor in your class, be sure to check this out BEFORE going into the ring!

    The minimum heeling requirements for any class are normal heeling, a fast, a slow, a left turn, a right turn, an about-turn, and a halt with a sit. 


    The Regs specifically state that the heeling patterns should NOT be in the area of the table and/or gate.  I didn't know that.  Apparently some judges don't either.  Ha!

    Too, each heeling pattern should have only one element of an exercise on a leg. (For example, there should not be a halt and a slow on the same leg of an exercise.) A fast must always be on the long length of the ring and the slow may be either on the short or long side of the ring. The fast and slow should be of considerable length, not just several steps, and there should be only one of each in the heeling pattern. 

    It is suggested that excessively complex heeling patterns be avoided, which is in my estimation too bad.  I love to heel.  But I can understand why AKC supports this idea: the element of time.  A judge is given only so much time to get each team in and out.  A complex heeling pattern would no doubt prolong that time frame. 

    The new updated AKC Obedience Regulations are now available on line at the AKC website.  Click the link below to get yours!

    Remember, ladies and gentlemen: it is your duty to know what these regulations are!  Not only does knowing the Regs. give you a direction to train towards, it empowers you once you start competing.  You will understand how, where, what, and when rather than being lost in space.  You can then go into the ring and be the leader your dog needs you to be!

    Got Treats?

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  • Tuesday, December 01, 2015 12:30 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)

    Between exercises I like to keep my dog engaged—and this is both in training and in the ring.  I often use a toy in training, but sadly toys are not permitted in a competition ring.  What I want to have then, is an interactive skill that I can have at my fingertips that doesn't require food or a toy. To that end one of the many motivating and fun games I teach my up and coming obedience dog is to "Spin" or "Twist" to both the right and the left.  

    I begin teaching the spin/twist with a treat, which I use as a lure to teach my dog what it is I want him to do.  In other words, I teach him how to succeed right from the start.

    Here are the steps:

    • 1.  First decide what your command words will be.  You could use 'spin left' and 'spin right', while others might prefer 'twist'. Some say 'spin' for one direction and 'twist' for the other. Obviously you may choose whatever word you like, just be consistent.
    • 2.  Hold the treat to your dog's muzzle, but do not lift the head. (This can result in your dog sitting.)
    • 3.  Using the lure, give your command word while slowly guiding your dog's head toward his tail, keeping the head level. Be careful not to rush in moving your lure, which often results in leaving the dog behind bewildered and confused.  Make sure you have the lure near the muzzle the entire time so that your dog can easily follow it.  (Speed will come once your dog learns the concept.)
    • 4. Once your dog has completed the spin, raise your hand and tell your dog to 'touch' or 'get it' and give him the treat.  Praise copiously.
    • 5. Repeat at least 3 times to further ingrain the skill.
    • 6. Once completed in one direction, reverse the direction and repeat the steps above using whatever verbal command you've chosen.

    As soon as you see that your dog grasps this skill, remove the treat.  Do not bribe!  You can certainly randomly offer a treat as a reward periodically, but mostly use physical and verbal praise as your reward.

    I also like to use the spin and twist to limber up my dog's back before going into a ring.  Going both ways is very rewarding.  

    Keeping your dog engaged between exercises not only keeps your dog energized, it also keeps him from losing focus--or worse: learning unwanted behaviors in training as well as in the ring such as sniffing or wandering off or marking. 

    So teach your dog to twist--then shout your praise ☺!


    Click the following link to download & view the video demonstration.
    Teaching Twist & Shout

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  • Sunday, November 01, 2015 12:30 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)

    Teaching your dog to back up in a straight line is a skill that can be incorporated into many situations/behaviors, many of which can help clarify and emphasize a desired result.  Additionally, teaching the 'back' gives your dog greater awareness of how to use his hind legs.  This is no small realization.

    For example:  in training, should your dog travel while executing the drop during the Drop On Recall exercise, you can easily clarify for your dog that traveling is NOT acceptable by first immediately stopping the unwanted behavior while it is occurring, then having your dog do a 'Back, back, down.'  And if you have taught your dog the concertina down, adding the 'back' further reinforces this particular method.

    Another example: again during training the 'Signal Exercise,' should your dog move forward during any of  signal skills, you can have him do a 'back', letting him know that moving forward is not part of the program.  Having the dog actually correct himself is much more effective and understandable for the dog than simply repositioning him and repeating the error time and time again.

    When teaching my dogs to pivot to the left, I use the command "Stand back."  I want my dog to first 'stand' (no scooting on their butts!), then pivot backwards while remaining in heel position.  Understanding how to use their back legs is mandatory in order to execute this skill.

    Yet another instance where the 'back' can be utilized is during heeling.
    Should my dog forge a bit (and I'm talking minor forging, not a dog being totally out of heel position), I will often simply go into reverse and heel backwards, causing my dog to check himself and ultimately better understand heel position itself.  This maneuver is also a great aide in keeping my dog's attention focused.

    First of all it's important to remember that the dog's head is like a steering wheel: however and wherever you direct the head,  the tail is going to respond accordingly☺.  Keep this in mind when teaching the 'back'.

    Here's how to start teaching it:
    1.  Always start  with your dog in  a 'stand' in front of you.

    2.  Put a treat in your fist, but make it visible to your dog.

    3.  Using BOTH hands, one to stabilize the other, place them before your dog's muzzle with the treat forward so that your dog can lick it.

    4.  Keep your dog's head LEVEL!  (If you raise it too high, your dog will want to sit.  Too low, and your dog will want to back into a down.)

    5.  While keeping your feet together, shuffle towards your dog's front legs while saying your command word, such as 'back'. 

    6.  Start small and build.  Initially only do one to three steps, then praise and reward.

    7. Once your dog understands the skill, remove the food!  Only use the treat periodically as a reward.

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  • Saturday, August 01, 2015 12:30 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)
       Isn’t it remarkable how the top handlers look so in control and self-assured when performing in obedience? Granted, much of their poise is a result of lots of experience. But the bulk of this observable ease comes from inner strengths invisible to the casual onlooker. On top of this they each have an honest and deep understanding of their dog’s weaknesses and strengths—and they know how to control each for the ultimate in teamwork. 

    These handlers enter a ring with enormous confidence, determination, and years of training that allow for absolute understanding of their dog and the relationship that they have developed. But even these seasoned competitors feel anxious, understand pressure, experience tremors of excitement, even have stabs of trepidation. They simply know how to rewire these energies for positive results. Nervous electricity is redirected and made to work for the handler’s advantage. It becomes a strength rather than an impediment. Ring jitters actually become beneficial. 

    But how? 

    It begins in Novice A. This is where the seed is fertilized. This is where the spark, the desire to continue and learn and grow is discovered. This is where the handler recognizes that obedience is the sport they want to succeed in. It is often in Novice A that handlers are bitten by the obedience bug--and they find there is no turning back.

    Yet having a love of the sport doesn’t in and by itself mollify ring nerves, to be sure. Nevertheless it is a start. For those bitten, for those smitten, here are ten ways you can begin to redirect your fears into excitement, your insecurities into confidence, and your inexperience into determination:


    If you are not convinced that your canine buddy can fulfill the exercises to your satisfaction, then don’t enter a show until you are satisfied. It’s imperative that you believe in him. Once you believe, you as the team leader will be able to perform to the best of your capabilities. You will be freed from worry. You will also be free to focus on the moment: your posture will be correct, your footwork will be right on, and your pace will be enthusiastic. This, in turn, will greatly enhance Prince’s ability to strut proudly and confidently beside you. Your assurance will give him assurance.


    In any given exercise, any given class, push the limits of your training far beyond that which you will need to accomplish your goals in a ring. You’ll have greater success in a stressful situation when the requirements are less challenging than those you demand from yourself and your dog outside of the ring. For example: if you demand and successfully get attentive, fast right-270-degree turns in practice, an about-turn in the ring will be a breeze. Likewise, if Prince is trained to retrieve dumbbells that are hidden in bushes or on chairs, under chairs, and in the midst of his favorite toys,a retrieve in a ring situation will be a lark. No problem. In other words, the exercises in the ring should ultimately be easier to execute than those in practice outside of the ring. This contrast—conjoined with (1) above—can greatly enhance a handler’s confidence and subsequently moderate ring jitters.


    Training Prince to zero in on a dumbbell no matter what toys the dumbbell has landed among is one type of proofing: it’s to make the retrieve an absolute in Prince’s mind. Familiarizing and proofing Prince to the activities at a show or trial is another type, and one that too often is overlooked. It is very important that you not only introduce Prince to show environs early in his life, it is also essential that you teach him that he can/will work comfortably and reliably in show circumstances. Simulate potential distractions in your training regimen. For example, if Prince loves to retrieve, have a friend do retrieves near you while you heel around the commotion with Prince. Or have Prince do a Recall next to a dog doing retrieves, etc. It’s very likely that someone in an adjacent ring will be doing retrieves while you’re in the abutting ring with Prince. Prepare for that eventuality! Show noise can be horrific—and unnerving. Tape some show noise, replete with booming loudspeakers and carts pulling crates, etc., then play it back while training Prince. Have someone walk in behind Prince as Prince is coming to front, something a judge is apt to do. Get him accustomed to the audible distractions as well as the physical. Be inventive! Knowing that Prince can perform under almost any circumstances will give you added assurance and again, reduce ring jitters. 


    What you want to do as near as possible is simulate show conditions—in and out of the ring. Your canine buddy needs to become comfortable working in a show-like environment, and the ambiance at these events will contribute greatly to this end. When at a match or show ‘n go, SET YOURSELF UP. By this I mean speak to whomever is going to take you through your exercises before entering the ring and ask him/her to verbally judge you, to announce every crooked sit, wide turn, bump, whatever so that you know precisely when an error is happening so that you can apply the appropriate correction in a timely fashion. These are things you need to know. It’s also an excellent use of the venue, and getting a verbal blow by blow will increase your anxiety. This is important as it gives you the opportunity to learn how to deal with your unease in a positive fashion: focusing on your dog and rectifying his errors. 

    In addition to this, you should ask friends, colleagues, and/or family to stand ringside while you are in the ring. This will a.) put more pressure on you and so subsequently better simulate a true show, and b.) provide realistic distractions for your dog. People often stand ringside, erect, quiet, and staring , a posture that is frequently intimidating to a dog. It’s necessary to inure Prince to such diversions. (Maintaining his focused attention on you will greatly offset such ‘diversions.’) 

    The use of matches and such will also allow you to better grasp your dog’s weaknesses and strengths. Knowing them (and believe me: no dog is perfect. All dogs have strengths and weaknesses!) will afford you great flexibility: you as the handler can call upon and exaggerate the strengths while working to attenuate circumstances that would show his weaker areas. This takes experience, but it can and is done. Use matches and the like to teach you how to get started! In any event, the practice at these venues will afford you a stronger foundation for the actual AKC trial.


    Having someone videotape you and your canine companion going through the paces can often put things in perspective. You’re also made self-conscious and a little uneasy, which gives you the opportunity to willfully rise above these anxieties in order to focus on your job. Teach yourself to concentrate under self-imposed, apprehensive conditions. Working at mental control here will make it easier for you to achieve it in an obedience trial.

    Being videotaped also has the benefit of allowing you to recognize what areas need work. Seeing yourself and Prince performing on a big screen can have both a pleasant or jarring effect. A videotape is not as effectual as a match or show ‘n go, but if you do both—have yourself videotaped at a match—you will double your analytical powers. Again, knowing where you are and what to expect will give you an inner strength that ultimately will help abate ring nerves. 


    Wanting to take home a green ribbon (or better) is natural. But the idea mustn’t consume you. This ambition should not dominate your thoughts and purpose while in the ring. If it does, the hungry desire will actually deter your performance. This is not constructive. As a result you will neglect your part of the bargain with your dog: you won’t be able to concentrate and therefore will be less than an adequate leader. You’ll be fretting and worrying and wondering if Prince is going to lag, or miss a turn, or break groups. This is all negative thought, and totally unproductive. If you aren’t there with Prince (and you can’t be if you’re worried about what might happen: that’s the future, not the present,) there is no way you can expect Prince to be with you. A tumbling domino effect can result, with each consecutive time in the ring becoming more and more of a nightmare. 

    What you need to do is be positive. You need to be the leader Prince depends upon you for. You need to concentrate on those things that demand your attention and focus so that you can better assist your dog. Concentrate on your handling, of giving the appropriate body cues, etc.; concentrate on keeping your dog focused and alert; concentrate on where you need to be at any given moment; be alert to potential hazards. In other words, BE IN CONTROL! 


    You can best prepare for your performance by arriving early on the show grounds. Arriving early and setting up in a convenient, yet relatively calm place will allow your dog to acclimate and accept the sights, sounds and smells permeating the show site that day. It will also afford you time to train if desired, as well as to watch your judge and the way the ring is being conducted. You’ll be able to leisurely potty your dog, even play with him. Don’t arrive late, rush up to the ring gate and enter unprepared. This will result in a less than desired performance no matter what level you’re striving for. Nor will the experience be enjoyable, and it should be—despite ring nerves! Give yourself ample time to conclude all your busy work, greet friends, train Prince, and relax. Now you’re set to go. This can only help calm show nerves.


    Never, but never enter a ring without knowing the heel pattern. To do so is to leave this exercise to chance, which means you will not be in control. Sure, you’ll probably get through it well enough, but it will not have the smoothness nor fluidity that it could have were you familiar with how it is called. Don’t be caught off guard by a turn you didn’t expect. Don’t jerk into a halt that you didn’t know would be where the judge called it. 

    By knowing the ring pattern you do not need to focus all of your attentions on what the judge is calling, you merely need to hear the command to perform it. This gives you the invaluable ability to be there with your dog, to be the leader he expects, not an intermediary between the judge and him. By knowing the ring pattern you will have more confidence and control, both of which greatly depreciate ring nerves!


    Now that you know the heel pattern, have maybe even practiced it, take a breather. Sit down quietly and close your eyes. Mentally picture you and your dog performing each exercise, not just vaguely, but in its every step. Be positive. Feel its flow. Picture moving from the conclusion of one exercise to the setup for the next as well. (Seriously. Many dogs are lost during this transition.) By clearing your mind of everything save the visual imagery of the performance you are envisioning, you will discover that you have relaxed. Your breathing will be calmer and you will be more serene overall. By thinking about a positive performance and excluding concerns about disasters or NQs, you will take a giant step toward reducing ring nerves.


    The more often you enter a ring, the more confident and knowledgeable you will become. Your fellow teammates, friends, instructor, and trainer can talk to you about ring procedure until they’re blue in the face, but the bottom line is you won’t truly understand and appreciate the subtleties of showing until you’ve stepped into a ring many, many times. Like the dog, a handler, too, must become seasoned. Entering a ring repeatedly will give you an intuitive understanding and feel that I personally believe is individualistic: no two people understand or feel it exactly the same. 

    Succinctly put: there is no substitute for experience. Grow with the experience and learn to channel nervous energies such as anxiety and worry into positive energies such as self-assurance and self-control.

    Being excited is one thing: being a nervous wreck is another. To go into a ring as tense and rigid as a lightning rod can’t be fun in the long run, and showing in obedience should be fun. It is fun! And extremely satisfying. So learn to channel your nerves into positive energies. Then go into the ring and enjoy the adventure!


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  • Sunday, February 01, 2015 12:30 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)
    Written by Catherine Zinsky

    Recently a judge gave me a 199.5 in an Open B class. I asked the judge where I'd lost the ½ point and was told that I’d lost it for leaning into a left turn.

    Leaning into a left turn?  I mean, really.  Where in AKC Obedience Regulations does it say that this can be scored?  I ask you...

    On another occasion I again lost a 200, receiving a 199.5 because in the judge’s opinion I had leaned too far forward during the ‘fast’ portion of the heeling exercise. Apparently the Tower of Pisa paled by comparison!

    Actually there is nothing specifically written about either of the above offenses in the AKC Regulations, but on both counts the judges were well within their authority to deduct the ½ point for what they felt was less than a perfect performance.

    In order to understand how and why this is justifiable, it is first necessary to back track a bit and look at exactly what is meant by standardized judging.

    The AKC Obedience Regulations firmly state that the obedience exercises—no matter what class—be performed and judged exactly as described in the regulations.  In other words a judge is not permitted to vary any exercise. 

     Take the Novice Stand for Exam as an example.  The judge is supposed to approach the dog from the front and touch only the dog’s head, body and hindquarters with one hand.  No judge should come up from behind, for instance, or use both hands and press down or adjust the dog’s body, nor open the dog’s mouth to examine the teeth, etc.  This would certainly be an infraction to the Novice Stand Exercise judging guidelines, and an infringement of the Regs. as well.

    By the same token a judge is not permitted to introduce new exercises nor embellishments into a performance, such as asking a Novice class handler to call the dog to heel after the Stand for Exam.  Calling the dog to heel in a Novice Class  is not a requirement in the Novice Stand for Exam exercise.  Asking the handler to call the dog  to heel during this exercise would in effect be in violation of the AKC Obedience Regulations as well as to standardized judging.

    It’s important to understand that what AKC is striving hard to achieve is national consistency.  Any exhibitor should be able to enterany AKC obedience competition anywhere in the United States and not be confronted with surprises, alien exercises, or unexpected requirements of any sort. 

    This is good.

    The other point emphasized in the Regulations regarding standardized judging is that the judge make every effort to establish and maintain the same heeling pattern for every exhibitor in each class. 

    Again, AKC is making an enormous effort to level the playing field, meaning that as far as is humanly possible each exhibitor will be given the same framework and ground rules to work within, thereby making each performance and the sport as a whole as fair as possible.

    Given this level playing field, where then does this other side of judging come from?  How is it that in the two situations I alluded to earlier,  the ½ point deductions were lost for transgressions not expressly outlined in the Regulations?

    The answer is actually quite simple:

    There’s a small paragraph in the Obedience Regulations (Chapter 2, Section 2) entitled Standard of Perfection.  It is here that the door is opened for these small nuances in judging.  The first two sentences read:

    The judge must carry a mental picture of the theoretically perfect performance in each exercise and score each dog and handler against this standard.  This perfect picture must be according to the Regulations and shall combine the utmost in willingness, enjoyment and precision on the part of the dog with naturalness, gentleness and smoothness on the part of the handler.

    A great deal has been written in Front and Finish about the “utmost in willingness, enjoyment and precision on the part of the dog.”   What “utmost” means is the subject of much debate and one that’s been going on for some time—which is precisely the point.  That there is room for debate means that there is leeway in the interpretation.  

    This margin of flexibility immediately opens the door to another level of evaluation.

    So what does this mean, you ask?  Another level?  How can that be?

    It’s a degree beyond the objective.  In the particular sport of obedience 'being objective' would refer to the technical aspects such as heel position, straight sits, immaculate pick-ups, etc.    One could present a ‘clean’ performance, meaning that dog and handler make no technical errors (no crooked sits and fronts and finishes bang on, etc.) yet fall short of the “perfect picture.” 

    In other words, the 'Perfect Picture' can go beyond the standard measurement of simply conforming to the precision outlined in the AKC REGS: in this sphere it can become quite subjective and ask for more than straight fronts and correct finishes: at this level there is also a sort of beauty to the whole.

    A rigid, clinically correct performance does not necessarily satisfy the AKC requirement that the dog present the “utmost in willingness” and that the handler exhibit “naturalness, gentleness, and smoothness.”

    These last requirements—naturalness, gentleness, and smoothness—ask  for more than just technique: they are allowing room for individuality and for style.  When these requirements are satisfied, a performance goes way beyond straight fronts and finishes and becomes a work of art.  It is only here in this realm where performance and artistry occasionally unite.  It is here that 200 and near 200 scores become possible.

    So the two situations I referred to at the beginning where I lost ½ points due to handler errors fall precisely into this category.  Technically all went beautifully; artistically I fell somewhat short of the respective judge's “perfect picture.”

    Any given performance will be judged on its technical perfection as well as on the artistry—that is, the smoothness, naturalness, and gentleness desired to satisfy each judge's perfect picture.  

    Artistic evaluation allows for flexibility, individual styles, and discourages robotic routines.  It is the injection of this element that takes a stock obedience routine that could appear utterly mechanical and elevates it into something singularly unique and beautiful and memorable.

    A judge is given little choice as to how an exercise should be executed: however, within the framework of the Regs a judge does have the authority and responsibility of looking beyond technical precision and seeing the smoothness of teamwork and artistry as well, based on his or her mental picture of the perfect performance.

    I applaud this!  Not only is there a standardized baseline for the technical execution of each respective class exercise,  there is also room for individuality and virtuosity, exhibitors and judges alike.  Thank you, AKC.

    Got Treats?

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  • Thursday, January 01, 2015 12:30 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)

    Pass Thru:  "One way to stay connected with your dog between exercises is to have your dog pass (weave)."

    Spins:  "Another is to have your dog spin/twist left and right.  This is also a fun way to loosen up your dog's spine."

    Praise and the handling of your dog between exercises in the ring should not be haphazard considerations.  They are important for sustained control of your dog throughout your entire performance and to the overall impression you and your teammate are presenting to the judge.  And no matter how standardized judging is suppose to be, presenting a bad impression to the judge is not in your best interest!

    Praise is permitted between exercises.  'Between' means after the judge has said “Exercise finished” and before you’ve committed yourself to the start of a new exercise by uttering that magic word, “Ready.”  

    When you do praise, the praise should not be so exuberant that it stimulates the dog into unruly behavior, uncontrollable leaps and bounds, barking, nipping, or generally unloosed mayhem.  The Rulebook firmly states that the dog must be in “reasonable” control.  Reasonable for one judge may fall far short of reasonable for another. Moderation is always a safe area. 

    By all means praise, just don’t go bonkers.  It’s your job as the leader of the team to understand how much is too much for your dog.  And always remember that a dog in the ring is under stress and subsequently will respond with greater or lesser enthusiasm to your praise.  Learn to read your dog and adjust accordingly.

    Praise can be anything from issuing a quiet ‘Good dog’ to having the dog leap up to touch your palm.  Many trainers have their dogs do right spins or left spins, pass through their legs, or jump up on them for a head stroke.  No food or toys are allowed in the ring, and under no circumstances can a dog jump into the handler’s arms and be held or carried.

    The Rulebook does not touch upon how long  you can praise your dog between exercises.  ‘Reasonable’ would no doubt be the fashionable answer:-)  Still, don’t overdo the length of praise and take up the judge’s and other competitors’ time.  Get on with it!  You never want to hold up the class.  And you certainly don't want to tick off the judge! 

    If your dog needs more praise than most, be considerate and continue your praise WHILE YOU MOVE towards the starting point of your next exercise.  The judge will be happy, your fellow competitors will be happy, and your dog will be happy.

    When off leash, the only times you are allowed to handle your dog’s collar in the ring is between exercises in the Novice classes only!  Open and Utility dogs are presumed to be more advanced and therefore under greater control, and any handling or guiding of a dog in Open or Utility is substantially penalized, possibly even to the point of being excused if done too many times.  Moreover, if a dog does not respond promptly to its handler between exercises in these upper level classes, an additional deduction can be made. 

     Corrections are not permitted in the ring at any time.  

    It's not unheard of for a Novice handler to unwittingly go into the ring and nervously jerk up on the dog’s leash to get the dog to sit.  DON’T!  Be calm, and simply tell the dog to sit.  And should you choose to guide your dog by its collar between exercises, do not lift the collar up to ‘help’ your dog sit.  Simply tell him to sit.  The verbal is allowed.  

    Remember: the exercise does not begin until the judge gives you the first order. Take advantage of the free intervals between exercises to keep your dog engaged while maintaining control. 

    Which brings up another point:  when the judge does ask you if you are ready, and you suddenly realize your dog has laying upside down having a nice back scratch or whatever, politely tell the judge that you are not.  Don’t be intimidated or confused!  This is your green ribbon on the line!   Rectify whatever problem you’re having, and then and only then inform the judge that you are ready.  


    And if you are unsure about something, ask the judge before you ever tell the judge that you are 'Ready.'

    A judge may officially excuse a competitor for training or disciplining a dog in the ring.  This can be costly (you loose your entry fee) and extremely embarrassing.  Correcting a dog falls under this category.  No corrections, please!  And don’t even think of abusing your dog—a subject I won’t even go into as I’m sure no one reading this would fall so low to resort to such vile, debased, contemptible, repugnant treatment.

    On the bright side, you are now permitted to train on the show grounds---with limitations, of course.  

    • Firstly, the dog must remain on a leash.  A retractable line is acceptable if the host club permits them.  
    • Secondly, no harsh treatment--physically or verbally--is permitted. 
    • Thirdly, you may not set up a ring. 
    • And lastly, you don’t want to warm-up next to the obedience rings or anywhere else that might prove disruptive to your fellow competitors.  In other words, be polite.

    There is no longer a time stipulation given to your warm-up.  On top of this you can warm-up using any exercise you like, provided the dog is on a leash.  Some exhibitors have been known to even set up jumps—at some distance from the obedience rings—and work the retrieve or broad jump, whatever they wish, as long as the aforementioned rules are applied.  

    So actually anymore you can give your dog a refresher course before going into the ring, which further strengthens and supports AKC’s strong disfavor toward negativity in the sport.  So as the old saying goes, train, don’t complain—and don’t do either in the ring!

    Hand Touch:  "One of my favorites is having my boy do hand touches."


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