Sunday, July 17, 2011

Are You Ready?

A recent theme in my classes has been the topic of how to know if you are ready to show, so I thought it worth exploring the topic here.
   When I was first starting out in obedience in the '80's, a common recommendation was that when you could go to three novel places (ideally fun matches) and do a run through just like you would in a trial - no food on you, no special training collars, no toys, no extra use of your voice - AND your dog would qualify on each exercise and you would be satisfied with the results, then you were ready to enter a real trial. I think this is still excellent advice.
   In the AKC Novice obedience class, your 200 points are broken down into 2 heeling exercises, worth 80 points, 3 stay exercises worth 90 points, and one recall exercise (which also contains a stay) worth 30 points. Of that 30 points, the sit in front is worth 3 and the finish is worth 3. Heeling is more important to your final score in Novice than in any other class, as are stays. It usually takes longer to teach a dog to heel well than most other obedience exercises.
    There is a large chasm between a perfect 200 and a just passing 170. To me, that is one of the wonderful things about obedience. You don't have to be perfect, or even all that close to it, in order to earn legs towards a title. There are a lot of factors that go into qualifying. First, there is the amount of training that a trainer puts into her dog. Most people who excel with a dog do so because they do their homework. Lots of homework. Yes, there are dogs who are easier to train and ones who are harder. Some dogs can handle a lot of repetition, some can't. Dogs usually learn and perfect obedience exercises via repetition, and lots of it, so it stands to reason that the dog who can handle a lot of repetition is going to reach the end goal a lot faster than the one who doesn't do well with repetition. But it isn't a race, so what's the rush? Sometimes students tell me, "Oh, we should be farther along with exercise XYZ." Since life has a way of interfering with our dog training at times, the reality is you are where you are with your dog, and you should just do your best to move forward. 
     My most recently completed Utility Dog title (May 28, 2011) was with Joker the Border Terrier, who turned 10 in early May this year. We purchased him for my son when Chris was 12. They did agility training for a couple of years, but Chris wasn't interested in trailing, so they stopped. In 2006, I asked Chris if I could take Joker to a Border Terrier National, where he earned his first RN leg. Joker didn't learn to retrieve formally until he was at least 5 years old. He learned scent discrimination when he was 7. As long as you keep your older dog in good physical shape, there's no need to be in a big hurry. (Yes, I realize some breeds don't live a long time. Yes, you need to be in more of a hurry with them.)
    Are you practicing being silent when you heel with your dog? This is one of the biggest sources of stress for dogs transitioning into the obedience trial ring, especially if you have first shown in rally where non-stop chatter is acceptable. Their handlers help them too much in training, chattering, encouraging, fixing. No wonder dogs are confused! You have got to practice heeling for longer periods of time with your mouth shut and no extra help or encouragement from you. One of the exercises I do occasionally in my Novice Practice class - the holding point for students who have gone through my four 6-week Novice teaching classes - is the 30-second test. We do group heeling for 30 seconds or so, which is roughly the length of a typical Novice or Open heeling pattern. I call for halts, about turns, pace changes, etc. Before we start, I tell everyone to keep track of anything extra that they do that they couldn't do in the ring, whether praising, encouraging with their voice or body, correcting, or treating, and to just add it all together into one number. When the 30 seconds is over, I ask everyone for their number. Most people start out with at least 3-4. The goal is to get that down to zero on a consistent basis before trailing, or to at least have the errors you are fixing be small ones as opposed to ones that would cause a substantial deduction (3 or more points off). If your dog is frequently not sitting automatically when you halt, for example, this will blossom into a lot of points off and possibly even an NQ (non-qualifying score) under some judges in the ring. 
    Are you practicing without any treats or toys for even a few minutes at a time? How about for 5 minutes? Ten minutes? How about with no external motivators on you at all for that length of time? Your long-term goals will determine how important this stage is. The farther you hope to go (UDX, OMx, OTCh), the more critical it is. If you are only going to trial occasionally, and will stop after earning titles such as a UD, this weaning process is less crucial. But it is still important. Because I knew our path was "UD = U Done" with Joker, I didn't concern myself with perfection. At a match shortly before he finished his UD, he went 10 feet off center on a go-out. I didn't fix it. I sent him to the opposite jump, proving to myself that he would still jump from his incorrect destination. Yes, it is several points off when they end up off center. But it is not an NQ.
   When I'm preparing a new dog for Novice, I do a lot of heeling. I don't fix every little error. I know my dog will make some errors in the ring. If, during training, I always fix every little error, what will happen in the ring when I don't? I do make a mental note of any errors that are consistent, such as going wide on about turns when we are turning away from a wall or gate. If I'm seeing any consistent errors, I pull that part out of general heeling (or whatever the exercise) and do some drills in order to strengthen my dog's understanding and commitment to being correct. I also check on my handling. Am I doing something badly myself that is causing the dog to make his error? A common problem with dogs who go wide on about turns is that their handler steps to her left as she is doing the turn, causing the dog to go wide.
    I look at trials as a test of my training. Going into my most recent set of trials, I knew I hadn't been training as regularly as Ty needed. We had several shaky exercises. We showed in 6 classes, and NQed in 4 of them. But in the two in which we qualified, we earned 3rd places, and even 1 OTCh point. And much of the work she did that was qualifying showed some promising effort. I don't plan to enter any more obedience trials until October, since I want to take a break and work on field training for a few months. We also clearly have some homework to do on several obedience exercises. With time to train and effort on my part, we'll be more ready the next time.
     Nancy Gyes wrote an article called Train like you compete, compete like you train way back in 1997. It is specifically about agility, but there is plenty of help for anyone competing with a dog in any venue.
      Connie Cleveland has several excellent articles on her website. Here's one related to this month's topic, What Motivates a Dog to Perform? 
      I hope this has given you some useful food for thought. Until next time, happy training.

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