The Space Between: Dog and Handler’s Journey to Trialing

As students, when we begin training, Obedience and/or Agility, many of us envision the day that we start competing.  Our expectations are high; we picture perfect runs, complete understanding, and no mistakes. Well, as novice competitors, or even experienced competitors with novice dogs, this rarely happens.

We think about the skills of weave poles, or heeling sequences and try to perfect them in class. Yet, even with the understanding of these skills, there is still a large divide between our training classes and actually getting out and competing.

From the dog’s perspective everything is different at the trial: the location is different, there are different dogs, different people, commotion, rewards aren’t allowed in the ring, there’s a ring crew and a judge. “Oh, and that smell over in the corner, it’s just calling my name.”

From the person’s perspective there are a couple of big differences: 1. We start to worry about what can go wrong. 2. Expectation and yearning for the ribbon or qualifying creep in.  In class, we don’t have much pressure, we don’t get as wrapped up in ourselves, in a word, in our first few trials, we can get nervous.

So, how do we start to get the reality to look more like our dream state? What can take the pressure off us, and our dogs?

Trialing, like in all things, the way to reduce the number of possible outcomes, is to reduce the number of variables.  So, for my first trial I’ll make an announcement “Okay spectators, it’s my dog’s turn; please proceed to your nearest exit”?  Unfortunately, that is not an option, but being dog trainers, we can help our dogs to generalize behaviors.

“How do I know if my dog can complete a see saw, while another dog is barking?” To have comfort in how your dog will react, and work in a different environment, you have to give your dog a level of exposure, and help them to understand: it is your (the handler’s) expectation that I (the dog) maintain my trained behaviors.  Mistakes don’t mean failing or punishment, they just mean that the dog may need to be reminded of their job, the dog may need more reinforcement value for the behavior, or they need more training because they don’t truly understand what’s expected.

So where do you go to fill this gap?  The Academy and other dog training facilities offer Show and Goes or Fun Matches, which help with the steps between classes and trialing.  These events offer more of a trial atmosphere, but the comfort of knowing you can still train and reward if that’s what is more beneficial for you/your dog.   And rehearsals of success are what we want, as a team team, before our first or next trial.

The Show and Go is also good for the handlers, because there may be more expectation than in class, but not as much pressure as a formal trial.

Why would you go to a show and go where you train?  Environmental changes aren’t all physical location.  Show and Goes at the Academy aren’t limited to its members/students; they are open to the training community at large.  This opens you and your dog up to those same changes in environment discussed earlier, and the same potential to have positive rehearsals and to halt behaviors which could represent negative rehearsals if un-remedied.  And you can do this all before the day you step into your first competition ring.

When should a dog/handler team start to attend show and goes/fun matches?  The best time to start is dependent on the dog and the handler.  The basics that should be present before the team enters an event are: 1. The dog should understand at least some of the obstacles/behaviors. (This is not the best environment to train a completely new behavior to your dog.  If your dog doesn’t know it, skip it.) 2. You can generally maintain control of your dog in your normal training environment. (An uncontrolled dog running around a ring is a rehearsal of unwanted behavior.  The more times the dog rehearses this behavior, the harder it will be to train the correct behavior.  This is not to say that you cannot have connection session with you dog, and foster that relationship /increase focus through play, tug, or treats. )

Now you think you’re just about ready to compete: talk to instructors or people who compete at the Show and Goes or at the Academy in general.  They can give you advice, and stories that let you know, none of us are perfect.  Once your done having a laugh with them, they can let you know where and when they compete in trials, so you can check it out with your dog.  You should make any trip to a trial a positive experience for you/your dog.  Think, lots of treats/play, and basic cues over the course of a small amount of time.

Finally, you’ve done everything, it’s time to trial.  Trust your dogs and your training.  Don’t measure your success with your outcome.  At my first trial, the only expectation I set is: I will ensure my dog, Kody will not visit the judge or ring crew.  My first weekend was a success, not because my dog qualified in 3 of 4 events, or he received 3 ribbons for placing in his classes, but because we as a team reached the goal I had set going in.  Also, don’t be afraid of or beat yourself/your dog up for the failures either, they are only learning experiences.  In those same qualifying runs, I gave late and muddled cues which confused my dog, and he missed behaviors he knows in his sleep, because of his over-arousal, but we continually re-grouped, got through, and made a few more points for our future training list.

While your first trial may not be the thing of beauty you dream of in those early days of training, you can set yourself up for success through generalizing behaviors, and environmental exposure.

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2 Responses to The Space Between: Dog and Handler’s Journey to Trialing

  1. Christine Sheffer says:

    Lots to think about in this article. 🙂

  2. Lauri says:

    Main thing is to have fun and be positive. Don’t even think about ribbons and Q’s or looking silly. Everyone watching has been there, experienced that and are supporting you!

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