Dedication. Preston Costa's Bravo storms over the A-frame in the midst of a downpour. Photo: Brian Aghajani.
What characterizes handlers who trial successfully? Certainly they are dedicated, diligent, knowledgeable. But what actions create that difference between just trialing to pass, and trialing well? In order to trial well, we must be prepared, be flexible, be trial ready, and be a good sport!
1. Be Prepared.
To trial well, both handler and dog must prepare for what they will face on trial day: tough judges, strong and powerful helpers who truly pressure the dogs, pressure that comes from simply stepping on the field alone with just you and your dog, walking long distances to the track, experiencing different tracking conditions from normal training, and more.
Not only that, but handlers must also prepare for the weather! Schutzhund is not a fair-weather sport that has rain delays. When it is pouring down rain, the show still goes on. This means handlers must prepare themselves and their dogs for performing in the rain, doing a long down in the rain, tracking in the rain and in fields that have standing water (and may even have floating articles!!). When wind gusts are screaming across the trial field or tracking field, the dog and handler must still have the discipline to work through that distraction. For example, even when the handler's "Out" command can barely be heard above the wind after the re-attack on the long bite, the dog must still 'out!'
2. Be Flexible.
Things happen. Tracking fields get scrapped and changed last minute due to unforeseen circumstances. Dog/handler teams get DQ’d, causing a change to the schedule. Handlers get placed in round robins for obedience when someone pulls from the event suddenly and leaves an odd number of handlers, with no time to find a demo dog. Judges or helpers can get sick, requiring a change to a new judge or a new helper in order to hold the trial. Handlers must show flexibility in these situations so they don't get flustered and don't take themselves out of the game mentally before they even trial. Mental flexibility is a good thing in Schutzhund! And of course, being prepared for trial day will help us handle these changes with minimal frustration. But those who are unprepared may be completely caught off guard and may struggle to recover.
3. Be Trial Ready.
Your dog needs to be ready to trial. It is a handler’s worst nightmare to set foot on the field with another competitor who does not have good control over their dog, especially if there is a chance of dog aggression. For the safety of the judge, helper, and fellow competitors, your dog needs to be well-trained and trial-ready. This means the exercises are reliable, you have good control, and you have proofed your dog within the trial picture/setting (See “Are You Ready to Trial?” for a more in-depth look at trial readiness!).
To compete well, the training must also match the desired standard of trial day. The training should be consistent with how you want to trial, and should showcase the dog's strengths while minimizing the dog's weaknesses. If training is sloppy and permissive, the trial performance will be sloppy and barely under control (or even out of control!). Tight, structured, and good training should result in a solid performance, although DQs can still happen, even to the best! But stack the deck in your favor by training well, matching the trial picture,and ensuring your dog is trial ready.
4. Be a Good Sport.
It takes an immense amount of work to host a trial, whether club or championship event. Clubs work hard to ensure a level playing field and equitable conditions for all dog/handler teams. Judges strive diligently to judge each team fairly, and helpers do their best to work each dog consistently across the board. Even though we may not always get the results we want, we can still control our response to those results and show good sportsmanship and character. It is this excellent sportsmanship that often sets certain competitors apart from the rest, even if they aren't on the podium all the time.
Spectators should also show good sportsmanship by encouraging the competitors, and refraining from making mean or derogatory comments (some of which may be caught on video by those filming routines for their friends!). Lastly, be respectful during the critiques in order to show support of the dog/handler team and of the hard work they have done to get to this point. Schutzhund is a team effort, and we must support each other!
Best of luck in your training and trialing!