An illustration in the lack of belief in the handlers TOP DOG status.

An illustration in the lack of belief in the handlers TOP DOG status.

There can be any number of triggers that cause a dog to be wary but it’s not what causes this to happen as much as what you do about it that matters.  

Judges with hats. Judges in raincoats. Judges in long, flowing skirts. Judges who stare. Judges who hurl headlong toward your dog. These are just some of the scenarios that your dog has to face when a judge approaches them. If we leave the decision as to whether they should be fearful or not, then the decision our dog makes, might not be the decision we were hoping for in the show ring.

Consider this, for example. A team of zoologists following a pack of wild wolves on a hunt in Northern Europe were amazed to observe exactly how influential the decision making of the alpha of the pack can be while observing a challenge by a bull reindeer to protect the herd. Now, bull reindeer are not “Bambi”. They can weigh upwards of 600Kg (1200 pounds) and are capable of killing wolves with a single kick let alone what they can do using their antlers. What amazed the zoologists was when a bull reindeer charged the herding wolves, if the alpha wolf held its ground, then all of the hunting pack would also hold their ground. Just as amazing, if the alpha wolf decided discretion was the better part of valour and left the hunt, all the pack would leave the hunt too. Even a young wolf that had previously challenged the alpha to lead the hunt (and lost) would not turn and bark at the bull reindeer. This illustrates just how reliant the pack is on the judgment of the alpha even when it comes to life and death.

The point is, if your dog is prone to backing away from the judge, then it’s up to you to assume the role of TOP DOG. You can do this by applying the following.

YOUR POSTURE Stand tall: Do not lower yourself to nurture or console your dog of the impending danger i.e. the approaching judge, or reduce your height to the dog like you might if you are consoling a small child.Dogs interpret this human signal as a dog, not as a human and, to them, lowering yourself is an indication that you’re fearful and don’t want to be the leader. If this happens, then they must assume the role as TOP DOG. This means they must decide whether to run or stay. If you are the TOP DOG then this decision is yours – not your dog’s.

POSITION Do not stand back behind your dog when the judge is approaching. This positioning puts your dog in the lead and thus in the role of decision maker. Place yourself as near to the front left eye line of your dog as you can. This lets your dog see that you’re there and assessing what danger the judge represents. While you’re doing this, make sure that you give the complete appearance of being calm and confident. 

SIGNAL Your first signal should be a calming, voice aid to gain your dog’s attention. Then, as outlined above, you use a sight aid to project stillness and calm. The  third signal is touch (remember, all your signals should be calming), which requires you to gently apply pressure on the lead until your dog can feel the contact. You can then ease off the lead so that it is taut but not tight. 

SHOW THE TEETH Distract your dog’s attention away from the approaching judge and back to you by making a calming sound and exposing the bite. Make sure that you indicate your intention of showing the teeth to the judge when they are no closer than one metre (yard) away from your dog. You can find out more about showing the teeth here.

USE THE YOKE Once you’ve shown the judge your dog’s teeth, place your hand with thumb and forefinger open behind your dog’s occiput to display their head in the manner of being very proud of such a quality specimen.  PERSISTENCE Keep practicing. Remember, the TOP DOG is the one who never, never, EVER gives up  Make this promise to your dog: If a situation is dangerous and you run away, your dog can run with you BUT if you decide that it’s safe to stand your ground, then your dog must stand with you.  


11 thoughts on “Backing away: Why some dogs fear Judges

  1. Wolves are not dogs. Domestication is a biological process which causes major changes to an animals genetic makeup. Physical, mental, and behavioral changes occur. Comparing dogs to wolves is short changing dogs very real emotions like fear and mistrust. If your dog is backing away from judges you need to take the time to condition an appropriate response and reward the dog for making the right choice. Forcing an uncomfortable dog to remain in place is more likely to cause the dog to growl or snap than convince it that you are “alpha” since such a thing does not exist in dog-world. The “alpha theory” has been disproven many times over, most notably by David Mech. I recommend the book ‘Bones Would Rain From the Sky’ by Suzanne Clothier and ‘The Culture Clash’ by Jean Donaldson for further information about the science behind understanding our dogs.

    • Thank you for your comment. I agree. Dog’s most certainly aren’t wolves. Our modern domesticated breeds are the result of generations of more or less selective breeding aimed at promoting and developing certain characteristics over others. These include physical traits i.e. size, as well as instinctual traits i.e. herding, hunting, nurturing etc. I know there is ongoing debate about when and if the ancestors of our domestic canines split from wolves, but on a practical level I have found wolf studies very useful in making sense of dog behavior. While you are correct in saying that Mech prefers not to use the term ‘alpha’ due to its connotation of aggressive infighting to assume the role of ‘top dog’, he does still refer to the importance of leadership within wolf packs. As I’m not a scientist, for me this is more of a semantic issue than a practical one, as I don’t advocate force or aggression in any shape way or form when it comes to dog handling. In fact, my very first post on this blog was primarily an argument against using force and for the positive reinforcement model that you refer to. I should add that all of the philosophies and techniques I share on this blog are based on years of my own personal reading, observation and experience with what, through trial and error, I am confident are tried, tested and proven methods that work in the show ring. Again, thank you for taking the time to comment and sharing some further references.

  2. Pingback: Backing away: Why some dogs fear Judges | Gordon Setter Expert

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