Dog shows can be exciting places for people and pups. For handlers, it’s helpful to develop specific plans for how to engage your dog between going into the ring. Each dog is unique in terms of what they need to stay occupied at a conformation show. Some dogs are overstimulated at shows and thrive on having private time in their crates. These dogs do best being brought out right before entering the ring. Often, a quick physical and mental warmup is all that’s needed before returning to the privacy of a crate after competing.
Other dogs need to hang with their handler and have the opportunity to experience more of what’s going on. Regardless, dog show priorities should always be on the dog and making sure their needs are being met, in and out of the ring. If you find your dog is overly distracted or overwhelmed while waiting to compete, learn tips for keeping your dog occupied while at dog shows.
1. Create A Routine
Dogs (and some superstitious handlers) thrive on routine. Figure out what’s best for your dog and stick to that as much as possible every time you compete. Try different strategies to figure out what works best for your dog. When you find what works, implement that routine each time you are at a dog show. Make it so your dog is able to depend on that consistency.
2. Warm Up
Taking your dog directly out of a crate to go into the ring without having any time to connect or warm up is not recommended. Warming up your dog’s body is especially important for physically strenuous sports like Agility. Obedience, Rally, and Agility trials often have a warm-up area. Take advantage of that. Practice a few skills your dog loves and excels at. Mix in some more challenging skills that your dog will need to execute in the ring. Remember while the warm-up area simulates competition, you can use treats and toys here to your advantage.
You’ll want to consider how to warm up and condition your dog for competition. Active stretching such as spins, bows, and other dog-led exercises are good ways to get your dog’s body warmed up and ready for the ring. Stretching is especially important if your dog has been resting in their crate and may be stiff.
Sometimes, dogs and handlers just need a break from stress to reconnect and focus on each other. Keep an eye on the schedule. But, if you know you have time before your next run, take the opportunity to get out of the building. A short potty walk, even around a parking lot, can be enough to give you and your dog a chance to clear your heads and refocus before you compete.
5. Focus Games
Warming up your dog’s mind is just as important as warming up their body. “Watch me” is an easy focus game where you reward your dog every time they look at you. “Charging” is another focus game option, where you charge your dog’s name the same way you would a clicker. Say their name, treat, say their name, treat, etc.
Tug is an especially good game for very high drive dogs to help channel energy when they are hyped up at a dog show. However, tug can also be very distracting and overwhelming to other dogs who are warming up or competing so for this game you’ll want to make sure you are away from other dogs and not near the ring. This is a good game to play while on a walk.
Trick training, while its own recognized discipline, is also a wonderful way to keep your dog occupied at dog shows between ring times. Tricks are a great way to channel physical as well as mental energy your dog might have pent-up at the show without being distracting to other dogs. In a distracting environment, you want to work tricks your dog is already familiar with or practice tricks that you are working on proofing in more distracting environments.
Consider hitting up the vendor area if your dog is a pup who likes to explore. If being out and about doesn’t add stress, bring your dog and let them pick a special treat or new toy to help keep occupied or as a reward for a job well done.
Sometimes what your dog needs to focus, connect, and relax at dog shows is to slow down and have some intentional time with you. Find a quiet corner in the crating area, or just an out of the way corner to sit with, pet, or even massage your dog. It might be what you and your dog need to reconnect and prepare for your next time in the ring.