Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Setting Training Goals

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a goal-setter. I wouldn’t have the training building in my back yard if I wasn’t. My dogs wouldn’t have advanced titles, nor would I have finished several other long-term projects over the years. Although goal setting is not for everyone, it is for me, and I’d like to share some of how I use goals to achieve what I have with my dogs in the various title-earning venues in which I’ve participated.

One of the wonderful aspects of obedience is the title progression. While there are certainly success stories of someone finishing an OTCh. (Obedience Trial Champion) title in 2-3 weekends, this is far from the norm. For most of us, getting to a UD (Utility Dog) title or beyond is a multiple-year project.

When I am helping someone new, I usually ask her what goal(s) she is aiming for. If she hasn’t titled a dog before, this will be harder to answer, but I like to know what would satisfy her in terms of a title level and a score level. Say she says that she would like to earn a CD on her 7 year old Golden Retriever and she would be thrilled to get a score above 190. Since she’s starting with a middle-aged (or beyond) dog, and she hasn’t done a lot of training, getting this particular dog trained all the way to the Utility level probably isn’t a realistic goal because of the dog’s age. So we concentrate on the Novice exercises and work on her handling so that she’s not losing points for handler errors. We work to eliminate as many substantial deductions (those of 3 points or more) as possible, but don’t focus as much on the little errors. We might introduce the retrieve and jumping if the dog is physically able to add some variety and spice to their training.

If someone comes to me with their new puppy and tells me their goal is an OTCh. title, my first and foremost goal is to help them build a very strong foundation with attention to critical details, including solid attention, excellent heeling, accurate position changes, solid stays, fast recalls, and retrieving and jumping skills. While I do stress these details in my early competition classes, not everyone tunes into them nor is everyone interested in these exacting details.

I set four different kinds of goals with my dogs: lifetime, annual, monthly, and weekly. Sometimes I write them down, sometimes they are just a flexible list in my head. I do try to revisit these goals regularly to revise as needed.

Lifetime goals: what titles do I hope to earn during this dog’s lifetime?

These are the dream big, shoot-for-the-moon goals. These might be goals that you want to share only with yourself and your best friend, but it really helps if you share these with your instructor!

If my dog is of good quality for his breed, an AKC breed championship is one of my goals. When I get a new dog, I aim for obedience titles of OTCh. (Obedience Trial Championship, a title I’ve earned on 2 Flat-Coated Retrievers and 2 terriers so far) and a UDX (Utility Dog eXcellent). With my three most recent obedience title-earners, they first earned rally titles. In the past, I’ve earned Tracking Dog titles and agility titles. With my recent Flat-Coats, I’ve added advanced field titles as a goal. Gryffin earned my first ever Junior & Senior Hunter titles. I have a goal of a Master Hunter for him. Having never attempted this title before, I’m still a bit overwhelmed by the requirements. Will we achieve that goal? I can’t say, but we’re having a lot of fun aiming for it.

Annual goals: what titles and training goals do I hope to achieve in the next twelve months?

These goals tend to be more concrete. I have to look at what the rest of my life looks like for that time period and when I can attend trials. While we are blessed with a huge number of trials in my area (southeast Michigan), I don’t like to trial every weekend, so I pick and choose dependent on several factors. These include judges, trial site, host club, and what other time commitments I have. I have a pretty good sense at this point in my training life when a dog is ready to qualify. It is always something of a gamble when we start to show a new dog - we are dealing with dogs, after all! I spend far more time training than trialing, and I look at trials as a test of our day-to-day training. When some error crops up once in a trial, I make note of it, but don’t get hysterical over it. But if it happens in another trial not long after, then it becomes more of a focus in my training. If a trial goes well, I think back over my recent training and continue along that path. If I start having breakdowns in performance, I might focus on those particular exercises that didn’t go well. I might also have to make a major course correction with a particular dog.

Monthly goals: what do I need to do this month to advance towards our annual and lifetime goals?

These goals might include something like “Train in at least one new location each week,” “Attend a fun match,” “Get started on Scent Discrimination.” For my dogs, I have been focusing on finishes for all 3 that I’m training, and in a recent trial, I saw some excellent effort on finishes from each dog. Were they all perfect? Nope! But they were very much improved, and that’s what I want to see.

Weekly goals: what do I want to accomplish this week to advance my monthly goals?

I might pick 2-3 weaknesses for a given dog or in my handling and really focus in on those exercises or portions of exercises. In the advanced classes, there are several critical components: heeling, fronts, finishes, recall speed, retrieves, stays. You need to make sure that your foundation on each of these remains strong enough to satisfy your goals. I almost always work some heeling when I have more than just a couple of minutes for training. This is the most important exercise for building and maintaining teamwork, and just like working out, it requires regular sessions for you and your dog to stay in tune with each other.

Occasionally in my advanced proofing classes, we make a list. Anyone who wants to join in writes their name and their dog’s name on the list and includes 2-3 goals to focus on for the week. This is a voluntary thing, but usually those who participate make some good progress by doing this.

I stole a wonderful idea from Margie English several years ago. She described how she went about improving her dog’s scores to work towards an OTCh. title. She kept track of her dog’s scores on each exercise in Open and Utility and then worked on the areas or exercise that were most consistent point-losers. Often the difference between winning or getting OTCh. points is only .5 to 2 points, so if you can shave off that much, you can earn OTCh. points. After showing my Border Terrier Java in both Open B and Utility B one weekend with so-so results, I did some counting. We had to do 22 finishes over the 4 classes, and he lost a 1/2 point on all but 3 of the 22 (I know this because I almost always go over my score sheet with the judge to be sure I know where we lost the points). So we lost 8.5 points on just finishes over the course of the weekend. Sure enough, when he finally started being straight more often than crooked on his finishes, his scores went up enough that he finished his OTCh. My OTCh. Australian Terrier Rio was the same way with fronts - once he started doing those more consistently, he finished his OTCh. title.

So start thinking about what are realistic goals for you and your current dog(s), jot them down for later review, and get training.

Until next time, happy training.

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