A lot of people think that if their dog knows all the exercises, he’s ready to compete. Denise would argue that not only is this not true, but also that you’ve failed to prepare him for the most important part: dealing with the stress inevitable in a new environment. I touched on this a little in my last seminar post, but today let’s explore this idea just a little more.
To recap, to be successful in a trial environment, your dog should either be confident with chaos going on around you or he should be willing to take your word for it when you tell him he’s safe. Either way, you’re going to have to do some work, whether that’s doing planned exposure to a trial site or developing a trusting relationship. The latter requires that you actually step up and protect your dog, both at trials and in the rest of his life.
But the environment isn’t the only stress inherent in competition. For most dogs, the sudden cessation of classic rewards (food, toys, etc.) is frustrating. Dogs who think the lack of reward means they’re wrong can start to worry. Others will become demotivated and not see the point of working that hard. Because of this, you should both build up playful interactions that can be used as a reward in the ring and practice using these during trainings. Your dog needs to be able to work for long periods of time without toys or food.
Another stress is the sudden change in the way you’re acting. This is especially important if you tend to do most of your training alone. Most people act differently by merely having an audience, but you will also go from having your sole focus on your dog to needing to split attention between dog and the judge. At the very least, have an “invisible judge” in training with you. Look at and listen to the invisible judge. Take directions from the invisible judge. Talk out loud. Bonus points if you can play trial sounds while training. (You can totally get these free, by the way. Most smart phones will allow you to record and playback audio. Set your phone down at a trial and let it run for ten minutes or so.)
You will also need to find a way to recreate stress in yourself so that your dog learns that it’s no big deal if you tense up. I’ve heard many suggestions for this over the years, but I liked Denise’s: get a metronome (again, smart phones are awesome; download a free app), set it for between 125-135 beats per minute, and heel to that beat. This will force you to concentrate on something external, which will replicate that face you’re going to be making when listening for a judge to call instructions during a trial.
Finally, teach your dog to learn how to wait. Most people never do this in training, but dude. We do it all the time at trials. You wait for your turn. You wait for runoffs. You wait for awards. It’s helpful to practice by watching another team, but if you train alone, simply practice standing around for 5 or so minutes at a time. Denise recommended using “squishing” during this time. She recently wrote about this on her blog far better than I could, so go read about it here.
Once your dog knows how to wait, how to work for long periods without food or toys, is comfortable with you acting weird, and trusts that you’ll protect him, then you can consider competing. What do you do to prepare your dog for the ring? Do you have other suggestions? Please let us know in the comments!