The Basic Philosophy of Ring Sport
French Ring sport is perhaps the most exciting dog sport for spectators to watch. Full of cliff hangers, it has high performance jumps, (especially the 7.5 foot palisade), that makes everyone hold their breath. The protect on work is a lightening-fast challenge between dog and decoy that provides all the classic thrills and spills that keep you on the edge of your seat.
For the players, dog-decoy-handler, it is an intensely exhilarating test of courage, training, skill and endurance. Not one of these elements can be missing in a successful, or even acceptable, performance from any of the players.
The attitudes, training techniques and underlying philosophy of French Ring participants is in many ways different than we find in other dog sports. This article will discuss those differences and the reasons for them. We'll examine the points of view and goals of the players and the game.
How to score
But before talking about the roles of the players, let's get an idea about how the game is scored.
It is the judge, acting as coordinator, referee and scorekeeper who runs the show. He is assisted by the deputy judge who follows the handler and dog, directing them what to do next and where to do it, as well as making sure no cheating occurs. The judge decides where on the field different exercises will take place. He is in charge of organizing the selection of the order of exercises. (The jumps are always first, the obedience second and the protection third; however, the order of the exercises within each discipline is different at each trial.)
He instructs the decoy, to a certain extent, in how he wants things done. And then he keeps careful watch as the competition occurs to see where the mistakes are. If you are accustomed to Schutzhund judging, you will be surprised at Ring Sport judging. The rules in Ring are so very specific as to procedure and scoring, that the judge does not really make an evaluation in the same sense as in Schutzhund. He cannot deduct any points at all from a competitor's score without a written explanation on the score sheet (which the competitor receives).
Simple & honest
The number of points deducted has nothing to do with style, attitude, value judgment, courage, etc. It has only to do with the printed rules for correct performance of whatever exercise, with specific deductions for precisely described errors by dog and/or handler. The judge must use a stopwatch in many cases to verify the time requirements.
In other words, what you do is what you get - or don't. What you do not get is someone's opinion or interpretation. If your dog doesn't bite soon enough or long enough on the face attack, he will not be rated as having insufficient courage; he will lose points for how much time he didn't bite. If he is slow to control an escape, you will not be told that he didn't guard closely enough. He will simply lose points for the distance the decoy escaped. There is still room for some error, as the system is not perfect and never will be. But you don't have the problem of being judged on style or having broad leeway in scoring. You and your dog either do it or don't do it. Period!
Having said this, we can talk about the players on the field.
Ring Sport has an element of true competition between dog and decoy that is not present in any of the other dog sports. A trial decoy would be mortally insulted to be called a "helper". His French titles translates "attack man", and in the trial, that is much of what he does. While the rules governing his actions are very strict to avoid physical brutality, he will do everything permitted to take points from the dog. His job is to be faster, tougher and more alert than the dog.
This work, of course, is tempered by the level of competition. Decoy work for the Brevet is much easier than for Ring II or III. Even at the III level, work at the championship or selective trials will be tougher than work at a regular trial. The decoy must find whatever weakness he can either in the dog's temperament or his training and exploit it to take as many points as possible from the dog. He attempts to control the dog's fight.
Decoys must pass very rigorous certification tests which prove their physical aptitudes, style, capabilities to be efficient in their opposition to the dog, and detailed knowledge of the rules. These certification tests are given by certain judges once per year in each region. First the decoy becomes regionally certified, then later he may try for his national certification (only national certified decoys are allowed to agitate at selective trials and championships). Every five years he must certify again to continue to do trial work.
Competition from the dog's point of view stresses fighting drive combined with instantaneous control. The really good dogs have an intense fighting drive and a love of the bite. They joyfully commit themselves to fight after fight despite the decoy's attempts to wear them down psychologically and wear them out physically. They are determined to win.
Often they seem to calculate how to make the decoy lose his balance by hitting hard in a "crumple zone." They, too, try to be in control of the fight. If that gives you the image of an out-of-control devil dog, you are far, far from the truth. These dogs have accepted the rules of the game better than most of our human athletes in body contact sports. For the most part, their outs are almost as fast as their entries; their recalls only a little slower than their attacks (more from fatigue). You only have to see a few stopped attacks where the dog already has his mouth open for the bite when he is recalled and you will be awed by the control aspect of the sport.
Long & grueling
The work is long and grueling. The dog must do the jumps first, then the obedience, then the protection without any break. This requires about 20 minutes for Ring l, 30 for Ring II and 40 for Ring III. Bites on the attacks are 15 seconds each of constant fight after a 30 to 70-meter dead gallop.
In Ring III, we see the face attack (meaning that the decoy is facing off against the dog) which is 30 to 50 meters with stick work, an out on recall; the revolver attack at 40 meters with two shots from a 9 mm before the bite, and another during the bite, with an out and guard followed by two escapes with two more guards; the fleeing attack at 50 to 70 meters with stick work; and the stopped attack done the same as the face attack but with a last second call off.
Veterinarians in France determined that a dog uses as much energy in one 15-second fight as a human doing the 100-yard dash.
Alertness & control
The protection "exercises" (everything that isn't an attack) put a premium on the dog's alertness and control. These include the defense of handler, wherein the dog must bite without command, but never until the decoy has actually hit the handler. To make things worse, the dog must certainly not consider the handshakes as aggressive moves.
There is the search and bark exercise that is a freestyle blind search, a hold and bark, an escape with gunshot and bite, a second escape with another shot, and a transport with two more escapes and a final guard.
Every escape step the decoy takes before being well bitten costs the dog 1 point. On the other hand, any extra bites will cost the dog 2.5 points each.
The most memorable Ring III exercise is the guarding of the object. This is where the handler asks his dog to guard some object, such as a basket, then goes out of sight of the dog. The decoy makes two and sometimes three or four attempts to steal the object from the dog without being bitten. The dog loses points not only for letting the object be stolen (30 points) or moved (1 point per meter), but also for biting too far from the object, not letting go soon enough, or walking away from the object. Meanwhile, the decoy is using every bit of psychology and knowledge of training techniques to try to steal the object.
Testing the training
The handler goes to trial to test the results of his training and the wisdom of his choices in handling the dog. The jumps come first. He can allow the dog to jump lower than the maximum heights and widths on his first attempt at each jump. This can be a help to a dog on a strange field but the extra energy required to jump again to clear a bigger jump for more points can sap some of his dog's stamina. This energy expenditure may cost him dearly during the last protection exercises when the dog is tiring.
He must also make decisions regarding the intensity of his psychological control during the obedience phase. On a really tough-to-control dog, the handler may need to exert a lot of power during the obedience exercises so that he will enjoy more control during the protection phase. On a more handler-sensitive dog, any pressure in the obedience can cause too much inhibition in the early protection exercises, allowing the decoy opportunity to pressure the dog enough to ruin the later protection exercises.
Even more calculations can be vital depending upon the order of the protection exercises at a given trial. With a very hot dog, having the stopped attack come first could be a real control problem. Another problem could be created if the fleeing attack is first and the dog downs the decoy. The dog could get so loaded from this that he wants to bully the decoy on subsequent exercises. Depending upon the individual dog, the handling problems can require an enormous amount of careful thought and true knowledge of the dog. No matter how good the dog is and how well trained, the handler's job in the trial is always complex and interesting.
The handler is part trainer, part coach and part manager to his contender, the dog. From the day he brings the dog home for the first time, everything he does will influence the dog's performance.
The joy of games
Daniel Debonduwe, eight times Ring Champion of France with three different dogs, speaks of raising a puppy for competition. "I multiply the occasions on which my puppy feels joy. It is necessary that the dog takes pleasure in the work. That's why I often use games. It's this pleasure that gives speed in the execution of the exercises. And later, he says, "I leave nothing to chance, progressing very systematically, step-by-step. I never skip a step."
The successful Ring trainers are in accordance with these principles. Ring puts an immense amount of pressure on the dog. One of the absolute, sine qua non, carved in stone necessities for Ring training is balance. Balance between motivation and compulsion; balance between drive and control; balance between formality and game; balance between confidence and level of difficulty; balance between technical abilities and stamina and the level of challenge to the dog. This sense of proportion in progressing in the training must remain foremost in the plan. With too much control, you lose drive. With too much drive, you lose control. This is true not only in the bitework, but in every phase of the training.
Motivating to jump
The jumps are very high performance jumps, so demanding of the dog's physical skills that they cannot be achieved by compulsion. Only joy can make a dog consistently execute such big jumps. That is why the performance aspect of the jump is taught separately from the obedience requirements of the jumping exercises. Only when the dog loves to do the full-size jumps is the formal routine incorporated into the final competition-style performance. A handler may have to experiment with different types of motivation to see which really inspires the dog.
Obedience is taught using as few corrections and repetitions as necessary, while using as many stress releasers (like a tennis ball) and play rewards as possible. The forced retrieve is almost unheard of in Ring, despite the fact that two of the three retrieve exercises are tricky. If a force retrieve is necessary, it should be the mildest possible effective version.
It must be kept in mind that each bit of control you put on the dog in obedience, whether it be pure obedience or the obedience required for the jumps and protection, will diminish the dogs raw potential for the protection work.
In Ring training it is not unusual that a young dog's first experience with formal, obedience commands occurs during the initial control phases of the bitework. Since the reward for obedience is yet another bite, they tend to take it in stride: No chance for boredom, no time for resentment. The bitework training itself sometimes begins when the puppy is 8 weeks old. In case that is a shock to you, think about how young some children are when they first go to karate school.
Ring training is not unlike the classic training of a martial art in many ways. Recall from the second paragraph of this article that Ring requires courage, training, skill and endurance. Keeping these elements in mind, consider the energy-intensive competition program, the extreme control necessary, the number of different exercises that require at once a great deal of initiative but also rapid control, the constant changing of the order of the exercises, the greatly varying styles of different decoys, the amount of threat, trickery and physical opposition of the decoys, and the sheer length of the program, plus the pressure from the handler.
Not the SchH way
Ring cannot be trained the same way that Schutzhund can be trained. The Schutzhund dog gets a rest between the three parts of the competition. Except for variations in the tracking problems, the exercises are always in the same order. The bites are short and always with the same target area. Every attempt is made to standardize the helper work. In short, the Schutzhund dog and handler generally know what to expect in the trial. Schutzhund is, therefore, not unreasonable in the degree of stylistic perfection required to score a "V" [Excellent] rating.
One could possibly make the following comparisons: Schutzhund is the classical symphony being played and Ring is jazz; Schutzhund is a play with strictly followed dialogue; Ring follows the plot but lets the actors adlib to some extent.
Ring is, in many ways, closer to real street work than most other forms of training, and most Ring dogs can be quickly switched to street work. As a matter of fact, at the time that I was training director for the Paris security firm, Cave Canem, many of us there were using the same dogs for street work during the week and competition on the weekends. My German Shepherd, "Lork," who was vice-champion in Ring and champion in Campagne, was also a working security dog. Daniel Debonduwe's dog, "Lento," Ring champion and Lork's brother "Lobo," another Campagne champion, were working in the same company. Besides, they were also fantastic pets. The French army canine trainers have turned to the Ring methodologies, having found that it provides a greater margin of success with a higher percentage of dogs.
Confidence & winning
If you are planning to train a dog for Ring, then you need to understand the fundamental approach and building blocks for success.
The general approach to agitation in Ring does not really focus on separating the dog's drives into prey and defense. In fact, in all my years working together with top Ring trainers, I never heard these words used until I came to America and talked to Schutzhund and K-9 trainers here. We speak of play and of fighting drive. We speak of dogs who bite and dogs who don't bite.
If you can get the dog to bite, you can teach him something about self-confidence and winning. With any given dog we find the spark that makes the dog want to bite, then we teach him to revel in that bite. It is during the bite that he learns to handle and overcome the increasingly threatening moves of the decoy. It is during the bite that he learns the taste of victory after a battle well fought, as the decoy tries his best (good acting), then weakens and loses.
Play out the game
The bites in training become increasingly long as the dog's muscles and stamina improve. The Ring trainer does as little agitation as necessary before the bite, so as not to sap the dog's energy during the fight. The dog enjoys the duration of the fight the same way a pet dog enjoys the tugging part of tug o'war. If the tug part doesn't go on long enough to satisfy the dog, he will keep bugging you until he is either satisfied or gives up on you as being a boring play partner.
A decent dog likes the challenge and loves to play out the game. We do not consider the winning of the rag, tube, sleeve or jambiere to be the victory, and we don't encourage a dog to carry it after the bite. (What big dogs we would need if they had to carry the suit, decoy and all!) We also don't prevent the dog from carrying or shaking the equipment, but we want him to be alert to the decoy and show a desire to engage in another game.
In Ring, the training decoy is akin to the dog's sparring partner. The dog comes to trust the decoy to be enough of a challenge to keep the game interesting, but not so unfair as to be a bully or to be vicious or hurtful. Under no circumstances do we want the dog to think about fear or mistrust.
A decent decoy develops a feel for just how much pressure to apply during the fight and when to lose. In addition, he will have a particular goal or goals for each biting encounter, gauged to teach the dog something new about his martial art each time.
The following steps must be accomplished before any of the biting exercises or attacks can be trained.
Build a good bite technique. Full grip, strength, endurance and targeting are the basics of bite technique. Full grip is taught from the beginning, and if the dog gets a bad grip in early training, the decoy should let go of the rag, tube, jambiere or sleeve and not proceed with that fight. Let the dog bite again with a better grip. Although it is common to see shallow grips in competition, that is because the decoy is doing his best not to be bitten and he doesn't give the dog the opportunity to bite with a full mouth. Training is a different matter and dogs should be taught a full grip from the beginning if you want them to have any grip at all in a trial.
The full grip combined with strength are necessary to enable the dog to fight the decoy in the trial, who, once the dog has bitten, will do everything he can to make the dog lose his grip. In training, the dog has to develop a very strong, full grip. Early in the training, and always in keeping with the dog's drive and confidence level, the decoy will start to turn or bend or twist the rag or tube after the dog has gripped full mouth. This will develop the dog's jaw, and neck muscles.
Endurance in the bite is another essential factor. The bites on the attacks in Ring are 15 seconds long, during which time the decoy is moving the dog, fighting the dog, and doing what he can to change his body position and the bending or stretching of the suit to make it difficult for the dog to maintain his grip. The dog's endurance in the bite must be built gradually along with other things he is learning. Obviously, you would not push a dog constantly beyond his means or you will lose drive and motivation when his jaws and neck are so tired as to not permit him to continue. But the training bites must be geared to building endurance.
Targeting is another extremely important factor. The decoy in the trial will never give the bite. If he can determine where the dog is targeting, he will try to make the dog miss his target in levels II and Ill. The dog has to become familiar with targeting different areas of the legs, body and arms so that he never needs to hesitate to think, "Where can I bite this guy?" It must become second nature to the dog to see his opening and take with the most efficient bite possible.
The time you will spend working on these techniques may make you feel that you are not progressing. This is especially true when you're really eager to train the interesting exercises. But stick to creating a solid foundation and you will later see that you actuary gained time in your training program rather than losing it.
Build confidence (on the man, his attitudes, stick, gun and handler). Decoys in the trial are the enemies. Your dog needs to be able to handle all the pressures he will meet from these guys. You cannot afford for him to be impressed by any man or the menacing or unusual attitudes he may project. Trial decoys spend years figuring out how to try to scare, intimidate, confuse or otherwise amaze your dog. They practice in front of mirrors and make video tapes to perfect their moves. The same kindly guy that uses all his talent to help train a dog, suddenly becomes ghoulishly possessed on the trial field.
You begin to accustom the dog to unusual moves as soon as he shows a confident, motivated bite on the rag. Little by little, while he is still at arm's length from the decoy, the decoy begins to make different moves with his hand, arms, legs, and upper body.
The stick is used differently than in Schutzhund training. First, it is introduced gradually and unobtrusively. It's just there, not doing anything. Then once in a while it makes a noise, behind the decoy's back. Then it swings quietly through the air, nonthreateningly, at different angles during the bites. It approaches the dog, and the head; it caresses, it goes away again. It might fall on the ground, underfoot. Little by little it makes more noise. Later it becomes more present in the work. When the dog is fighting well, it is used carefully, rhythmically to make body contact.
Stick-cue to bitework
One of the primary things the dog is taught is that the noise of the baton is a cue that the fun will begin. All of our dogs clamor to go to work when they hear the bamboo baton.
The gun must also be introduced very carefully. A gunshy dog cannot possibly make it in Ring because the decoy will be firing a 9 mm pistol while the dog is biting, even at the Brevet level. The gun shots should be introduced with great care from a distance to first determine what the dog's reaction might be. Some people feel that it is safer to use a .22 first. This may or may not be the case with an individual dog. We've seen dogs who were bothered by the .22 but not by the 9 mm or .38. Ideally, you'll want the dog to either ignore the gunshot or think of it as another cue sound in the same way as the stick.
The handler bond
The last point about building confidence is confidence with his handler. This is not such a simple matter as you may think. The dog must trust his handler and truly believe that his handler backs him up. In the advanced training, the handler will have to be able to teach, guide and correct his dog. In other words, the handler will have to interfere a lot in the dog's bitework to teach control in many different situations: Stay for the departure, out, recall, guard, defense of handler, transport on the decoy, search and bark, guard of object and stopped attack. At the same time, the dog has to deal with pressure from the decoy. To achieve all this and still have left a dog who wants to do the work fast and hard, the handler must have earned his dog's complete trust and confidence.
Start building this by being very supportive of your dog during the build-up phases of the bitework. The dog must know your praise, your presence, your touch in that context. He must know that you are a team and you are fair.
Build speed. Slowness in Ring equals loss of points: Late to bite = 2 pts. per second; late to control an escape = 1 pt. per meter; late to bite on the guard of object can result in a stolen object = 30 pts. Worse yet, slowness on the attack gives the decoy too much time to make your dog insecure or confused. For a detailed discussion of how to build speed, see our article in Dog Sports Magazine's March, 1992 issue titled: "No Speed Limit."
Try to get speed from the very beginning of your training. Build the dog's enthusiasm for the bite without making the work too hard in terms of targeting difficulties or pressure before or during the bite. Don't make him overly tired. Don't overtrain.
Specific techniques for beginner dogs will be discussed in more detail in future articles.
Styles of alertness
Build alertness. The trial decoy is always watching for that split second of inattention that lets him escape for meters and meters to steal many points from the dog. Individual dogs will have different ways of being alert. Some will look at the decoy, some will try to keep body contact with the decoy. Others try to position themselves so that the decoy can't escape away from them, only into them. We've seen seasoned dogs with the most sloppy, ineffective looking styles of guarding, but whose abilities to control escapes is uncanny. But we've also seen dogs who really look the part of an effective and stylistically perfect guard who consistently allow the decoy to win many meters.
In future articles we will discuss ways of building alertness in the young dog and rebuilding alertness in dogs who have perhaps become confused during the training of the routines of the different exercises.
Bark on command required
Teach to bark. There is only one exercise in Ring that requires barking: In Ring II and Ill, there is the search and bark exercise. It is worth 40 points. The dog can execute everything else in the exercise perfectly (search, hold, escapes, gunshots, transports, more escapes and guards), but if he does not bark, he loses 10 points.
Since barking requires so much energy from the dog, Ring trainers do not necessarily encourage a lot of barking in general. However, under some circumstances, an individual dog will be more motivated by his own barking, and this motivation can be used in diverse areas of training. It has been used to encourage jumping, retrieving, and alertness, amongst other things.
Even if used just for the essential in the search and bark, barking on command should still be taught before attempting to teach the search exercise.
Some dogs are natural barkers in such situations and it is easy to associate a command. Others tend to be more and more silent the more they concentrate on something they want. Teaching these dogs to bark on command is absolutely essential.
Once these basic skills and attitudes have been developed, one can begin training the exercises.
Pressure of the fight
During the training of the exercises there will be times when the pressure of the control from the handler will require that the decoy back off a bit on the pressure of opposition to the dog. He will have to do just enough to keep the dog interested. Sometimes the situation will demand a temporary return to just the basics, relaxing some control, rebuilding motivation, speed or alertness.
It is here, at the beginning of the real control so necessary in Ring, that we often see major setbacks in dogs that take the bitework too seriously, either by their nature or due to too much defense work in the build-up. To understand this we can extend our comparison to the martial arts. On the one hand, you have a person who does karate, etc. as a cultivated sport or art. If this person has learned his lessons well (including attitude), he will confront a real situation with calm and self-confidence, being able to think, pay attention, and take his command of the moves he must make for granted.
On the other hand, we can have a person who has honed his fighting skills in the street under real threat and pressure to survive. This person is probably very tough and has more than his share of natural skills or he wouldn't still be around to fight. This person, however, knows that his opponent probably won't fight fair, definitely won't observe any rules, and may well win and do serious harm in the process. This person will be fighting in some fear for his life. He will be unlikely to show any control or fight etiquette until he is sure he is the victor, if then.
Trust in handler important
If a dog is the naturally serious, suspicious, sharp type of personality, or if he has learned too much suspicion and mistrust of the decoy by defense training, then he feels a lot of pressure from the decoy. When you start to add a lot of pressure from the handler to gain control in the exercises, you can have a situation where a dog can be broken. Only a very strong dog will get through it well.
With such a handicap in the training, it is necessary to use special techniques in the training. Somewhat different progressions are used than in the training program of a dog whose training and personality are based more on fighting drive and play drive.
We have found that it is necessary to make really sure of the bond of trust with handler and possibly do some rebuilding in basic biting with focus on making the dog happier and more secure about the decoys moves. Also build speed on the entries.
When all this has been accomplished, the exercises have to be taught piece by piece very slowly, making sure that the dog is not in any way confused. More will be said about these techniques in future articles as they are very well suited to the majority of Bouviers, Dobermans and some other breeds and individuals.
Fun & mastery of skills
Notice that we have spoken of specific attitudes and techniques in the development of the dog. The most abstract concept we've talked of is self-confidence. We have not spoken of courage or hardness or style. We have stuck to primarily observable, measurable technical and athletic abilities.
The reason for this approach is that often a Ring dog is very advanced in its training long before it is mature. This is the same for young children that begin karate or Golden Gloves-type training when they are still immature. We don't focus on their aggression, we focus on whether they are having fun and mastering their basic skills. In fact, we do everything we can to guide their development, promote their stability and shape their skills to give them every advantage. That way they have the best chance of success in spite of whatever shortcomings they may have in the natural talent department.
We know that if we put them to the test too soon, we will risk destroying their joy and enthusiasm for the sport, and probably their self-confidence and any future possibility of success. While there will always be those rare individuals who will overcome all obstacles no matter what, and bounce back after every adversity, we don't generally want to risk the possibility of breaking them, nor do we assume that they wouldn't have been even better if they had had a more sound foundation.
The varieties of style
Another reason for thinking about, talking about and training Ring with these attitudes is that Ring allows a great deal of variation in individual styles of dogs and decoys. This is augmented by the fact that the exercises come in a different order in each trial. When you watch a Ring trial, you will notice that no two dogs work with the same style.
It is a goal-oriented program which allows enormous individual leeway within the rules. French Ring was designed to improve the utility of working/herding breeds in terms of temperament, trainability and physical aptitudes without requiring changes in any breed's specific behavioral traits or natural style of working.
Although at the very top levels of championship Ring in France you will currently see more Malinois than anything else, the other breeds are still competing regularly at all levels. It is a tribute to the skill and determination of the Malinois breeders that they have improved the working qualities of their breed so quickly. (The breeders of other breeds could have done it too, and should do it now.) When reading trial results from France one will notice German Shepherds, Beaucerons, Briards, Boxers, Rottweilers, Dobermans, Bouviers, Picardies, Belgian Sheepdogs, Tervueren, Border Collies, and even Rough Collies.
See before you speak
Now in North America there is every opportunity for all of the breeds to begin on an even footing in Ring. Using the basic philosophy outlined here, our enthusiastic young trainers can begin to think about shaping their dogs' training to earn titles in this exciting Sport.
Just as in any new sport, many people already have a "hearsay" opinion before they've even had the occasion to see for themselves. We've have heard the most outrageous things said about Ring by people who have never even seen a trial. Ring is not something to be frightened of; it is an achievable challenge. It is not some thing to replace Schutzhund; it is something to add to the catalog of working dog accomplishments. Come to a trial, visit a club. See what it's all about and have fun.
The philosophy is different: the training techniques are different: this is the spice of life.