When you are first learning a new sport, it is difficult to understand how to get to the end goal that the sport requires, because you haven’t made that journey before. This can be a frustrating aspect of learning a new sport.
I’ve spent the past four months training my two Flat-Coats for AKC hunt tests, pushing to get Gryffin and me to the Master level (we earned our first two Master passes in September) and Ty to the Senior level. Gryffin is my first hunt test dog, so each new level is new for both of us. He’s had to suffer my field-training learning curve. One of my frustrations with learning how to prepare us for hunt tests is figuring out what we should be training on a day-to-day basis. What have I done to ease this frustration? I pull out my many books and saved magazines and read (and read and read). By nature, I am inclined to think that if one book on a topic is good, six is better. I’m like this no matter what I’m trying to learn, whether gardening, parenting, organizing, or dog training. I like to read a lot of similar and different ideas, and sift through and figure out what is likely to make the most sense to me and to my dogs. What issues are they having? What drills can we work on by ourselves or with one training partner to advance my dogs’ understanding of a given concept? I also talk to different trainers who’ve done advanced work AND whose training makes sense to me, as well as spending time training with them if possible.
Before I finished my first OTCh title on my Flat-Coated Retriever Tramp in 1991, I was really unsure about reaching that pinnacle, even though she had the needed 1st places and 40+ points. With the subsequent dogs with which I’ve earned an OTCh., I really never doubted that we’d get there, as long as I was willing to keep plugging away at the training and showing. When I start training a new dog, an OTCh. title is usually one of my lifetime goals for that dog, but I also know that it will take me several years to get there. How do I keep myself training when I know it’s going to take me a long time to get where I’m going? First of all, I want to build a strong foundation for the various sports I plan to do with that dog. I love teaching foundation work. I enjoy the step-wise progression towards the advanced exercises. Because there are lower-level titles that need to be earned before getting to the OTCh. level, I have those as intermediate goals.
Of course, when you are new to a sport, you don’t even know what concepts you need to prepare your dog for. This is when having a mentor to help guide you along the way is immeasurably helpful. Gail Dapogny, who taught the first Puppy K class I took in 1985, took me under her wing about a year into my training endeavors, and helped me catch the fever for both competition obedience and working for excellence with my dogs. In my area of the country (southeast Michigan), there are now numerous trainers, training schools, and clubs offering excellent training for competition obedience and agility. But what if you aren’t in such a lucky locale? Take yourself and a chair to some local obedience trials. Sit outside the rings and watch. Even better, volunteer to steward at a trial or fun match. You will learn a lot about what makes up a good performance, a poor performance, and an excellent performance. See how different exhibitors are with their dog(s). Do you like the way they work together? Find out where and how they train. Chances are that the well-prepared teams are either experienced or are fortunate to train with someone who is experienced. If you don’t have many local trials that you can attend, look for obedience performances on YouTube.
We each have a unique idea of what we like to see in a performance team. By watching numerous performances, you will start to develop an eye for what you are aiming for with your own dog. It might not be the same thing as I’m aiming for with my dogs. That’s one of the great things about obedience - there’s lots of room for different levels of goals.
It’s also not just about the goal, but the journey to that goal. As I wrote about in Setting Training Goals, I spend far more time training than trialing, and I look at trials as a test of our day-to-day training.
If you take your time developing a solid foundation with your dog, even if it takes a while, it pays dividends in the long run. It will make your time competing at trials more productive and successful.
Until next time, happy training!