My last post about playing with Phoenix in the ring drew some comments, both public and private, about the potential for judges not appreciating that sort of thing. My immediate reaction is, “Are you freaking kidding?” What kind of judge would penalize a team for having fun? It's wonderful to watch a dog and handler enjoying themselves in the course of performing the exercises.
But it’s a legitimate concern. Handling between exercises can play a huge part in the outcome of an obedience run. It’s the only time you are allowed to praise your dog and if your dog enjoys a few seconds of play, it’s a reward that’s as valuable as any cookie or ball.
In all the years I’ve shown in AKC obedience, I’ve only seen one team get reprimanded in the ring for inappropriate play. And it was inappropriate. The dog was very large and very exuberant and borderline out of control while the handler made things worse by whooping and cheering and encouraging the dog to leap around when he released it from an exercise. After several such releases, the judge told him, rather severely, to tone it down or she would excuse him.
The fellow seemed genuinely remorseful. Apparently no one had ever told him that level of play would be considered not only inappropriate but disrespectful of teams in other rings. One would think an adult would be able to figure this out but apparently that was not the case.
However . . . a few years back, a friend got a substantial deduction for having her dog do leaping hand touches between exercises in Novice, even though the dog was quiet and under control and they were moving smoothly to set up for the next exercise. While this wasn’t my friend’s first time in the obedience ring, it was her last. Her dog got the last leg toward the title they were working on and they left obedience to compete in other venues. She asked me later, “Who wants to participate in a sport where you’re penalized for having fun?” It was the sort of unfortunate, negative experience that adds to obedience’s reputation as dull, regimented and “no fun.”
This is truly a catch-22. We’re constantly encouraged to make training fun for our dogs, yet when we go into the ring, there seems to be a great deal of pressure to conduct ourselves as if we’re attending some sort of court room proceeding. Especially at shows where obedience is sequestered in its own building, it’s often church quiet around the rings.
This makes it even harder to relax and have playful interaction with your dog because anything you do or say seems to be amplified by the hush-hush atmosphere. As a handler, I don’t want to deliberately draw attention to myself, so my own voice and body language amp down, becoming quieter and smaller. No wonder Phoenix shrinks into himself. He’s reflecting me.
So last weekend, I decided to change that. Wish I’d video’d our runs because I felt like I was exaggerating everything and being loud and wild. In truth, I probably looked and sounded pretty much like I would during an everyday training session. I’m not a loud person and am not likely to develop a booming persona simply by walking into the ring. But I can still be ME and pretend we’re training at the park or a local building, keeping my voice and body language the same.
I think play between exercises is one of those gray areas where it totally depends on the judge. As long as my dog is quiet, under control, not disturbing dogs in other rings (this is probably the biggest issue) and we are moving briskly to set up for the next exercise, I would guess 99 percent of judges don’t really care what you do. They’re busy writing on their score sheet and simply want you to get set up for the next exercise without delay.
Stop and think about what your goals are. My number one goal is to have a good time in the ring. If my dog isn’t having a good time, neither am I. Yes, I do have high performance goals but I’m not willing to sacrifice fun and a little silliness on the altar of First Place. If a judge chooses to mark me for asking my dog to leap and touch or do some spins, well, so be it. I may choose not to show to that judge again or I may choose to modify my ring presentation if I do show to him again.
Admittedly, Phoenix grabbing the leash and tugging me into the ring is NOT my preferred ring entry. When he did that on Sunday, I was so surprised that I just laughed and went with it because MY DOG WAS HAVING FUN and if it cost us 3 points or 5 points, I honestly did not care (it didn’t cost us anything, the judge didn’t even acknowledge it). I’ve worked so hard on bringing Phoenix UP, I have to be willing to pay the penalty if there is one.
Looking back, I never really played with my previous dogs in the ring. They all intrinsically enjoyed the experience so much there was no great need to work at keeping them “up.” Getting to do the next exercise did that just fine. As usual, Phoenix is teaching me something new.