Fri, 06/02/2023 - 3:47pm

It Wasn’t the Dog’s Fault

Handlers take a fair share of the blame when it comes to performance flubs

There are a lot of ways that dogs can turn a seemingly successful run in any dog sport into a total train wreck.

Over the years, both as a competitor and a judge, I have often been awed by the creativity of dogs when it came to creating such a “fubar,” as it’s known among all active-duty and reserve military personnel, that it would result in not qualifying or being dropped from the competition. (Editor’s note: If you don’t know already know the words that make up that acronym, you’ll either have to look it up or ask a veteran, as this is a family-friendly publication.)

While it is true that the greatest number of these major foul-ups are the result of dog mistakes and thus, for the most part, are unavoidable, a significant number of “fatal” errors can be prevented because they are the result of a handler’s blunder. 


While it is true that the greatest number of major foul-ups are the result of dog mistakes, a significant number of “fatal” errors can be prevented on the handler’s end. 


More often than I care to recall, in the 15 years I judged all three types of hunt tests, the final notation after a zero in some category on the score sheet was “HE,” for “handler error.” Folks I know who’ve judged obedience for a few years tell me that they’ve had similar experiences, and agility judges have said they can’t remember the number of times a handler has forgotten the course. A herding judge I know said she had to dump several dogs because their handler dropped the rope on the pen gate or walked through an obstacle.  

Handler error is caused by a lot of different things and is known by a lot of different terms: woolgathering, mental hiccup, synapse lapse, scatterbrain, absent-minded, mental block, blunder, goof-up, senior moment, bonehead move, misfire, brain freeze and so on. Whatever name is attached, it almost always means you managed to mess something up so badly that you’ve caused the dog to non-qualify or be dropped. Either way, the end results are the same: You’ve just blown a lot of entry-fee and travel money for zilch, and you can’t blame the dog because what happened is entirely your own fault. 

Most times, handler error results from not knowing the rules, forgetting them or a loss of situational awareness. While there is a fairly long and complex definition for situational awareness, reduced to its essence it means knowing what’s going on around you: In other words, staying focused and keeping your wits about you. Handler error also results when you haven’t trained a dog for a situation that the rules say you will encounter at an event.

In the 15 years I judged all three types of hunt tests, it almost became a mantra with me when handlers came to the line to caution them, in tests where steadiness was required, to not release their dog until I said their number, and where the rules called for a retrieve to hand, to not pick the bird up off the ground if the dog dropped it prior to delivering it to hand. This was especially true for people handling dogs at the junior level and doubly true for folks who were obviously rookies at running hunt tests.  

Numerous times after I’d issued my cautions, it was clear that the handler hadn’t heard a word I’d said. On those occasions, I’d stop the test and ask the handler, “What did I just tell you?” Nine times out of ten, they hadn’t a clue. So, I’d slow everything down, ask the handler to take a couple of deep breaths, pay attention while I repeated my cautions, and then repeat those instructions back to me. 

If the handler was one of the overly distracted or extremely nervous types, sometimes I’d have the marshal or my co-judge hold their dog while I did my “calm down” routine, and sometimes I’d just talk with them. It was effective most of the time, but, sadly, there were still some folks who were either so rattled they failed to remember the cautions, had a momentary brain freeze or had never bothered to read the rules.

A nearly disastrous example of not knowing the rules occurred one time when, of all things, I was judging a master retriever test. A dog sent for the last bird of the last test for his final qualifying score for his master hunter title had done a wonderful job on all the previous birds and blinds. He didn’t have a single mark lower than a “9" anywhere on either my or my co-judge’s score sheets. 

But on the last bird of a triple mark, he had a very long hunt for the bird while his handler did nothing. Finally, when the dog was in grave danger of leaving the area of the fall and thus failing to qualify, my co-judge, who was a professional trainer and had finished numerous field champions, hissed, “For Godsakes, Ted, handle him to the mark!”

Fortunately, the handler obeyed that command. When the dog delivered the bird, the handler turned to my co-judge and said, “I didn’t know you could handle to a mark in master.” While the reaction to the handler’s admission from both of us was an incredulous head shake, my co-judge followed up by reaching into his hip pocket, pulling out a copy of the hunt-test regulations, handing the booklet to the dog’s handler and disgustedly saying, “Read the damned rules, Ted.”

Believe it or not, sometimes what a judge is telling you can be really important. It also may be useful. The judge may be giving you more than just the basic instructions. If there is something you do not understand about either the test/course design or what the judges want you and the dog to do, this is the time to ask questions. Sometimes judges will even tell you where trouble spots may be.  


Believe it or not, sometimes what a judge is telling you can be really important and may offer more than just basic instructions. 


It’s not unusual for handlers to experience some nervousness when they go to the line or walk into the ring. In fact, a few butterflies are good because they generally heighten a person’s awareness and focus on the situation. That’s why it’s always important to keep things in perspective. The dog will either do the test or it won’t. If it fails, it is not the end of the world. The sun will come up in the east the next morning. Dogs have good days and bad days. Most of the folks watching your dog run have been there, done that and have the T-shirt. There are some days when dogs come out of their crates and just don’t feel like working. 

The important thing is that the dog is the one making the mistakes, and that your nervousness isn’t the cause of the dog’s difficulties. Believe me, the time to be oh-please-God-no-wet-your-skivvies-scared should be reserved for those occasions when folks whose intentions are not friendly are lobbing mortars, artillery and small arms fire in your direction or some other equally dramatic life-threatening situation — not when you and the dog are walking up to the line, entering the ring or arena, or on the way to the tally-ho at a test or trial. 

One really good way to prevent common handler errors is to operate under the rules for the sport in training. For example, if the dog sport you are doing has a retrieve, never pick up the object the dog is supposed to retrieve — bird, dummy, dumbbell, article, glove — if he drops it in training. This has a twofold benefit. First, it teaches the dog that you won’t tolerate sloppy deliveries. Second, it conditions you to not pick up something the dog drops. When you never do it in training, the odds are substantially improved that you won’t do it in competition.

Another example of something you can do in training that will help prevent a common handler error: If the sport requires a verbal command from the judge before you can release the dog, have one of your training partners give that command sometimes in training. That teaches dogs to not take off when they hear a word from the judge, as well as also training you to not release the dog until you hear the command from the judge.  


If the sport requires a verbal command from the judge before you can release the dog, have one of your training partners give that command sometimes in training. 


If herding is your sport, even in training make sure there’s a knot in the end of the rope on the pen so you can feel when you are at the end of it without looking down and never walk through an obstacle. For agility participants, it’s a good idea to look at the map and walk the course, even if you were the one who set it up, just to teach yourself to always firmly set the route in mind. 

Retriever field trials or spaniel or retriever hunt tests are what you do? Then, when training just as in competition, be sure you know exactly what the set-up is before you run it and try to figure out where the trouble spots may be. If you always do these things in training, you’ll very likely do them in competition.


If herding is your sport, even in training make sure there’s a knot in the end of the rope on the pen so you can feel when you are at the end of it without looking down and never walk through an obstacle.


Something else you can do to help avoid both handler and dog errors is keep a judges book. You probably already do that with conformation judges, and you need to do something similar with field or performance judges. If judges set tests or courses that are ludicrous, don’t run your dogs when they are judging. If they have proven in the past to be incompetent, don’t run your dogs when they are judging. If they have a propensity to ignore the rules, don’t run your dogs when they are judging. If you are frustrated and angry over judging incompetence, the odds of you making a major handler error increase substantially.  


If certain judges set unreasonable tests or courses, have shown themselves to be incompetent or have a propensity to ignore the rules, your response should be simple: Don’t run your dogs when they are judging. 


With several dog sports, it is important to be able to think ahead and have a plan. Be prepared to be flexible in your management of the dog and do the test/trial one step at a time. My old master hunter Brittany was an independent, arrogant dog who always ran right on the edge of being out of control and was convinced she knew better than anyone else what needed to be done. Her attitude in the field was “If I want help, I’ll let you know. Until then, don’t bother me.”

At least twice when she was running a master test, I attempted to call her out of an area to direct her to a section of the bird field where I had heard a quail, and both times she ignored me. However, by the time we’d reached the master level, I had learned from bitter experience that if she failed to respond immediately to one whistle, the best course of action was to put the whistles away and let her alone because she was in one of her haughty, imperialistic moods. If I persisted, it would only show the judges that she was thumbing her nose at me. On both occasions, because I had a plan and stuck to it, the judges were not aware that she was paying absolutely no attention to me, and the result was that she earned a qualifying score.  

There are enough weird things that can happen during the course of a test or a trial that affect whether or not the dog gets a qualifying score, a win or a placement. If your dogs are anything like mine, they need all the points they can get. What they don’t need is having their handler’s blunders knock them out of the event.



© Dog News. This article may not be reposted, reprinted, rewritten, excerpted or otherwise duplicated in any medium without the express written permission of the publisher.

Stay Connected

YES! Send me Dog News' free newsletter!