Dog Having Issues in the Show Ring? Do Something Else!
By: Vicki Ronchette

Yes, you heard that right. Hear me out, okay?

So very often, people have dogs that are having issues in the show ring. When the issue is general “puppyness” or excitement or minor training inconsistencies, entering shows while understanding your team may not be as competitive as they hope to become, is usually no problem. However, when dealing with a dog who is shy, worried, insecure, fearful, defensive or displaying behavior that indicates the dog is upset or “not okay”, it isn’t as simple as just muscling through or having fun. Dogs that are not enjoying their time in the ring, or more specifically are not feeling safe, comfortable and relaxed in the ring are not ready to be in the ring. Yes, I said it. These dogs are not ready for the show ring.

Show dogs absolutely MUST have some foundation skills on board and this goes beyond the basic “show dog” skills of moving or gaiting or understanding how to stay. Show dogs MUST also have the life skills that allow that dog to feel relaxed and comfortable in the show environment. The dog must feel comfortable with strangers touching him. The dog must feel safe in the presence of other dogs. The dog must feel relaxed in a variety of environments. Any dogs who do not have these skills, are simply not ready.

Can you still show these dogs? If the dog is eligible for the show ring, then yes, you can enter them, the question is, should you enter them? If you enter these dogs you must understand the following:

  • You risk damaging the relationship you have with the dog. This is because when the dog is displaying stress signals and trying to communicate that he is uncomfortable and those signals go ignored the dog has no reason to trust you.
  • The dog will likely not be competitive. Even if you think the dog looks amazing and very competitive, if he is slinking around the ring, with his tail tucked and scanning the environment or darting around on the lead he is not going to look showy or competitive.
  • If you ignored a dog’s repeated signals in the ring such as leaning away, backing away or trying to escape, for instance, you are now allowing the dog to practice behavior. You are allowing a habit to be created.

STOP! Dogs that are not comfortable in the ring are NOT ready for the ring. Period. End of report. Showing dogs that hate it does not represent your dog, your breeding program or yourself in the way you want to be represented.

Now I am going to give you something you CAN do to help your dog.

First, take a break from dog shows and handling classes. If the dog is uncomfortable with being handled, he doesn’t need to go to a group class or to dog shows to have the exact thing he doesn’t like done to him. He needs to learn how to feel safe and comfortable AT A DISTANCE before anyone attempts to touch the dog.

Rook learning about dog shows by just walking around and exploring the show venure.

I am currently going through this with one of my own dogs. I have helped people all over the world with their shy show dogs, getting them back into the ring…with happy show dogs. I have worked with many of my own dogs with various issues with people, other dogs, loud noises, etc, etc. But, right now, I am dealing with a show puppy of my own who is not comfortable with strangers touching him. Before I began to see his concern with people, I entered him in two shows which were held on the same day. I decided to take him just to hang out and observe his behavior. I dressed for the show in case I felt he felt okay. He was doing well, so I decided to show him in sweepstakes. He was not comfortable and I asked to be excused. I showed him in the first show and he was more relaxed and won his class. I pulled him for the afternoon show and have pulled him indefinitely for now as we work on his issues. My goal was to get a baseline while making sure he did not have a bad experience. I got my baseline, he is not ready. We have more work to do before he will be ready.

Rook learning “spot” or two paws up in a group class.

Right now, at this time, what he needs is to be able to observe and learn that the things that worry him (strangers) are safe. One of the best ways to deal with this and to help him is to go to training classes where the instructor doesn’t have to touch him and where we can work together, with lots of people around who aren’t interacting with him. I took him to a 90 minute class designed for dogs to learn skills while on walks. It was a WONDERFUL experience for him. At this time in his development, it is better for him to work around strangers in a fun and safe way, not work WITH strangers. If I force that on him before he feels safe, he may never feel safe with them. When dealing with fear, we frequently have to move more slowly and thoughtfully because fear can greatly impact a dog’s life. Not just emotionally, but his health too. Any being that lives in a constant state of stress is not a being that is in balance or healthy or their best.

Another way to deal with a sensitive dog during your show ring break is to do other sports with the dog. In particular, breed specific sports can be a great choice. Have a nosey dog? Try a nose work or scenting sport such as barn hunt or nose work or tracking. Have a dog who likes to chase? Try coursing or CAT (coursing ability test) or Fast CAT. Have a gun dog? Try field work. Have an active dog that enjoys jumping and climbing? Try parkour. Whether you choose an organized sport or you play the game at the park, these things can build a dog’s confidence, love for working and passion for the partnership between the two of you.

Valencia’s sport of choice is coursing and coursing after showing has improved her enjoyment of the show ring.

Additionally, pairing those activities with dog sports can do a world of good. Consider going to dog shows to visit, with the dog not entered to do a sport that the dog does like such as barn hunt or Fast CAT. Eventually, when your dog is back in the ring you can impact their feeling for the show ring by having them do their “sport” at the show ring.

You can practice your show ring skills so that WHEN your dog is ready to show, he is trained for the ring.

The point is, what is the rush? If the dog is not ready to be shown, don’t show the dog. Of course, you can still work with your dog on the show dog training at home on your own before you are actively entering shows. Gait training, stacking work, grooming and show prep can all be practiced and trained without having to put your dog through the stress of a show or class he is not ready for.  Do something else. If you are new to showing or even if you are a seasoned pro, showing a dog that hates it is NO FUN. Those dogs may squeak through a championship, but they will likely never develop into truly happy, ring owning show dogs.

So, if your dog isn’t enjoying the ring, take a step back and focus on teaching your dog to work around other people, in different environments and enjoy the journey knowing that you are truly doing what your dog needs from you.


Vicki Ronchette is the founder of Show Dog Prep School and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Vicki has been working with dogs professionally for over 30 years as a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, groomer and veterinary assistant. She is the author of Positive Training for Show Dogs, From Shy to Showy and Ready? Set. SHOW! Vicki presents workshops and seminars all over the country on how training show dogs.