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Rising to the Top: How to Influence Your Score in Trials

At a CACIT competition recently held in Germany, Silke Kelpen and her canine partner My Destiny du Baudet Rouge (a.k.a. Xena) impressed audience with a fantastic 97 points performance. Judge Andre Fermum commented that Kelpen's routine “is characterized above all by absolute team harmony”.

Although the focus may often be more on the canine athletes, their handlers play an equally important role. We have gathered insights from three experienced judges on how handlers can positively influence their own and their dog's performance in trials.

Johannes Eitler, SV/SVO Performance Judge and Breeder

Trial and assessment regulations are strict and must be adhered to. Yet, Mr. Eitler emphasizes that harmony between dog and handler are most important for a perfect score. Dogs should not be treated as a necessary accessory for the sport, they are team members. The team needs to work together on an equal basis. Significant handler help is not considered to be a form of teamwork. Handler help and handler errors will surely reduce the total number of points earned in a routine. When handler and dog work together, they will perform well in a trial.


Dave Grant, GSSCC President, Performance Judge

Excellent IGP routines are characterized by bringing together, integrating, and synchronizing dog and handler actions under the leadership of the handler. While some performances by dogs may make the crowds roar, handlers never fade into the background. Dogs can perform well because of their training, but the correct set of circumstances for the dog to impress were established by the handler well before the trial. In Mr. Grant's words: “Harmony is key: both partners are dancing; you should not be able to tell who is leading…”

At every handler meeting, Mr. Grant emphasizes sportsmanship and enjoyment of the sport. Sportsmanship is an absolute must for him, there is little tolerance for any deviation from that. He has an eye for handlers who enjoy working with their dogs and are proud of what they are doing. He can also see whether handlers are nervous, angry, or disappointed. At certain points in the trial a judge is at close proximity to the handler, and facial expressions of both handlers and dogs can be observed. In those moments a judge can pick up little things that go unnoticed to those in the audience.

While handlers go to great lengths to train their dogs, they also have an obligation to train themselves. A well-presented team tells him that they care. Knowing the routine requirements and performing these in the correct manner is important to make a good overall impression on a judge. Furthermore, handlers and dogs need to be presented in a professional manner. Dress with proper attire, footwear, and equipment, irrespective of being at a Club, a National, or an International Trial. Also, dogs need to be neatly groomed; shaggy dogs are a real pet peeve for Mr. Grant.

When a team has a perfect performance, they can score 100 points. Both handler and dog errors take away points from this maximum. On a trial scoresheet there is no section to add points for handler performance. However, impressions left by the team in individual and/or the trial as a whole will be taken into account. For example, most judges (if not all) will find themselves in the position of having to decide on very close category scores, i.e., 69/70, 79/80, 89-90. Overall impressions on professional presentation, confidence, and cohesive teamwork can be a deciding factor to round up a score. Albeit only a small influence, Mr. Grant always strives to put the right dogs on the podium, in the right order.


Heidi Theis, USCA Performance Judge, USCA Breed Judge/Breed Master, USCA National Breed Warden, Breeder

Ms. Theis views a trial performance as it was originally intended, a breed test. Her main focus tends to be on the dog and its genetic abilities, drives and movements. When a genetically capable and nicely trained dog lacks harmony with the handler, she sees a leader and a follower. On the other hand, when a genetically capable and nicely trained dog performs a routine in true harmony with its handler, she sees a team at work. That teamwork is absolutely noticed.

Ms. Theis much appreciates handlers who enjoy presenting their dog, care for their dog, show respect for the work their dog puts in, and put their dog first. It is the team that shows they want to achieve the working title or be on the podium.

Whether a handler's performance may positively influence scoring, Ms. Theis cannot confirm. However, she does admit there may be a difference between the same dog being presented by a skilled handler versus perhaps a more novice handler; it may be possible for such scores to vary. Skilled and well-balanced handling and performing are definitely a joy to watch for the judge and spectators alike.


Working your Audience

Although not directly adding to a perfect trial score, handlers are in a position to positively influence their own and their dog's performance in trials. By prioritizing teamwork, professionalism, and sportsmanship, handlers will leave a lasting impression on judges and spectators alike. It may just be a quick dog brush before entering the trial field,or overcoming the arduous challenge of keeping trial emotions at bay, mastering the art of influencing perceptions is key to rising to the top of the pack.


K9Force (2024, April). Rising to the Top: How to Influence Your Score in Trials.

© K9Force WDC 2024. For permission to reproduce any article in this blog, contact

Images courtesy of Titled Perspective Photography & Blond Photography

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