We call them “Backyard Champions”. When our dog or puppy has learned his lessons so fantastically well that we are ready to take him into the show ring and prove to everyone how smart he is. No one warned us what is likely to happen instead.
We have spent 3 months, more or less, working our puppy on- and off-lead every day for at least 15 minutes. We have worked him at home, in the park, alone and with other dogs nearby, near children playing, every single distracting situation we can come up with. We are sure he is ready. One way we know is every time he sits at our side at the end of a command, a big long yawn comes whining out of his mouth. This long yawn does NOT mean he is bored or sleepy, it means he is sure what is going to happen next.
Dogs love to show us how well they know what is going to happen, this is the basis for obedience training. So we pack him up and take him to a practice obedience trial. It is more informal and less expensive than the real thing, and it gets us and our dog used to the tension and excitement. But little did we know that our backyard champion would stare at us like we just met, and we are giving his well-known commands in a foreign language!
We are horrified, we whisper his name to get his attention. Though he seems sane and healthy, he has turned into wood and plastic, an alien creature that will not obey a single word! Take heart. This happens to every single dog in training. Part of the problem, depending on what stage you are in in his training, is he is transferring his lessons from short-term to long-term memory. Until this is accomplished the stress of being in a strange place with many new dogs and people will short-circuit what you thought was a sure thing.
Another part of the problem is you, fair trainer. Every tense muscle, every frayed nerve, has its own scent to your dog, who spends his entire existence learning your every move, body language and smell. Try to stay as calm as you possibly can. Remember, every other dog and trainer at the show is in the same condition and the calmest ones always win the ribbons.
Remember it is all just practice and is a fun game you are sharing with your best friend, not the life and death situation it feels like when it is your turn to be judged. Make sure you do everything you can to plant the image of FUN in your dog’s mind. Reassure him of what a good dog he is, praise him and love him up, even bring treats. Let him know how special he is. You do not want anything to happen that will make him dread his next show. You need a few practice shows before he is ready for the real thing. Of course that will be another new and tense situation, but by then, he will be used to the newness and the tension and will honestly look forward to the fun.
Take him home after his first fiasco (it will be, trust me) and just go back to doing all the lessons you THOUGHT he knew so well. He will be the Amazing Backyard Champion now, so much so you will laugh at him. Enjoy your best buddy and know that the next time will be better for both of you. Do not give up, his first ribbon will be the memory of a lifetime.