When a friend asked me recently how to know when she was ready to debut her dog in Novice, half a dozen answers flashed through my mind.
The first one was, “Why in the world are you asking me, the Queen of Disastrous Debuts?” Well, that’s not entirely true but let’s face it, you’re talking to the person who flunked the Heel On Leash her first time in the Novice ring with the dog who went on to get an OTCh. So, really, how important are debuts, anyway!
But she asked in all seriousness and that IS a serious question. No one wants to have their initial foray into obedience be so disappointing they never go back. No matter your goals, you want to look like you’re ready to be in the ring.
Given that you have realistically trained and proofed the exercises and can do successful (would have qualified at a trial) run-throughs in a number of different locations without cookies and toys, you should be ready to show.
Oh, if it were only that simple.
Everyone defines “ready” differently and this is where things start to get sticky. How ready do you need to be? Ready to get a 171? Ready to get a 199?
Be honest with yourself. Do your goals match your available time and resources?
My friend’s next question was, “Does your dog need to be perfect in training before you show?” This depends on your personality and your goals. The answer is going to be different for everyone but generally, no, your don't doesn't have to be perfect in training, or nobody would ever enter obedience trials — 99.9 percent of us enter knowing full well our dogs are not perfect. Yeah, there is that remaining .1 percent whose dogs ARE perfect. But I think they’re space aliens. Just kidding.
If you are an obsessive/compulsive Type A highly competitive perfection freak (and I say that in the kindest way possible) who wants to go High In Trial with a 200 the first time in the ring, yes — your dog had better be perfect in training because you’re not going to feel prepared going into the ring with anything less.
If it is truly your goal in life to have a dog who rarely makes errors in the ring, good luck with that but you’re talking to the wrong person if you want advice ‘cuz I’m totally not into that level of perfection. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just not my style.
But if your goal is to have fun with your dog in the ring and do your best and then go home and work on what needs to be improved and try it again next weekend, then no — no pre-perfection required. That is basically how I’ve finished two OTChs so I know it worked for me.
Perfection itself is a very difficult thing to pin down, regardless of the venue.
In agility, performance is essentially a pass/fail situation. The dog either hits his contacts or he doesn’t. He either makes time or he doesn’t. Sure, there are some judgment calls (Was that a fly-off or not?) but for the most part, judges’ decisions are black and white.
Obedience judging is much more subjective and there’s an entire range of points, from 170 to 200, that are considered qualifying. If three different judges were to observe the same performance, chances are they would come up with three different scores. That’s the nature of the beast. What one judge considers a forged heel position, another might feel is perfectly correct. One might deduct 2 points for a slow response on a retrieve while another might deduct 3.
You can drive yourself crazy in short order by trying to be perfect when the standards of perfection change from judge to judge.
With that in mind, most highly accomplished handlers will tell you there is no such thing as a perfect run in either obedience or agility. No matter how fast, clean and focused or no matter how high the score, most handlers can always find something they think they could have done better.
Thus, there is no perfection in the ring and “perfection” in training is not a requirement for me before I debut my dog at a new level. Not all trainers will agree with me on that, but I tend to view showing as “on the job training.” We go in the ring. We do our thing. We learn from it. We work to get better in training, then we go back in the ring and see if we’ve improved.
I’ve gotten incredible scores for performances I felt were a little lacking and I’ve gotten very disappointing scores for runs I felt were totally awesome. That’s the way the game is played. If I only showed when I could be guaranteed of brilliant, class-winning performances under judges who saw everything the same way I did, I wouldn’t show very much. Okay, I wouldn’t show ever.
Instead of focusing on things that are out of my control, such as how a judge may see our performance or who is going to win the class, I prefer to keep the focus on personal best achievement and steady improvement. It’s the journey that counts.
Remember, beautiful things take time to create.