As a teacher, coach, competitor and judge in dog sports, I see a lot of dogs in competitive environments and I am constantly amazed by what we ask of them.
I’m not talking about the requirements of the actual test, as that is a small part of it.
But those of us that compete in dog sports, really do ask a lot of our dogs.
Turn up at a random field/hall/indoor riding school/large busy building, and be thrust into a multitude of strange dogs… male and female, of all shapes and sizes… not to mention to people, ‘things’ smells, sounds and sights you’ll encounter. Its a lot!
As a competitor, I have done this is numerous dog sports with various dogs, and coached countless people to do the same.
There is one phrase that countless echoes in my mind.
Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail.
The key to success in any dog sport is to prepare for every eventuality you can think of. Sounds obvious, right? But the biggest glaring issue for dogs that drastically change when at competitions, are either identified in the preparation or the reinforcement history.
When considering what can happen at a competition, the endless list of experiences your dog will under go, it is a vast list of skills your dog needs to be educated about. These skills will not only benefit your competitive prospects, but also your dogs confidence and life skills.
For example, a sound recall under any circumstances will under pin your dogs focus and desire to engage with you, being able to wait patiently, will help to prepare to compete. These are just a few examples of where the intention to partake in competition, benefits my dogs well being and relationship. However, its these basic and simple skills that get over looked in favour of the ‘sexy’ stuff, and as a result, affect the performance in competition.
The most basic skill of engagement on cue, will serve you fair greater then trying to progress to teaching more complex behaviours without it. Can your dog switch on and focus any time you ask them, anywhere and under any circumstances? Can they get themselves in the right head space to focus and ‘think’?
With my current puppy, this is where all my emphasis will be until I feel she can switch on, self regulate and focus irrespective of the environment, whenever I ask. This is a feat of training in itself, but without it, is like having a immaculate house with stunning decor and interior design, but not bothering putting a roof on… and waiting for the inevitable rain.
I frequently urge people to revisit their foundation, and remove any rust and polish up the pieces, on a regular basis. Going back is often the best way to move forward.
The second largest area of error, is reinforcement.
That dam thing can really bite you in the backside of you don’t understand it, respect it and honour it, because whether you like it or not, its going to happen!! Just ensure its working with you, rather then against you.
Often in the pursuit of competitive goals, and aims we sacrifice details, lower criteria or inevitable reinforcement behaviour we don’t actually want. We all do it! We let those details go, in exchange for a title, rosette, prize or award… and there is nothing wrong with that… as long as a) you aware this is what you are doing b) don’t grey the lines so much, the picture totally changes.
Dogs are masters of picking up patterns of reinforcement, and also changes in criteria. For example, my dogs are trained to sit and not move their feet at all, allowing a subtle paw movement is a change of criteria. This may seem like ‘nothing’ to an on-looker, but to the dog, it is a signal. It is a signal to say, the deal has change. The dog is now ‘allowed’ to behaviour differently to what I have said for the other 6 days in the week, but in this situation and circumstances, the rules are different. So the progression from this is like the domino effect. One change of criteria signals to the dog, that changes and lowering of criteria is the ‘soup of the day’… this can create conflict, when the handler isn’t aware of the subtle change, but when the dog makes a glaring mistake, it is now an issue.
So the slight paw move, becomes a total break. And NOW you decide have a problem. But to the dog, this was the new ‘rule’. This was what you had signalled. But the real kicker is that you pick and choose which ‘error’ was acceptable. Before you know it, you have a dog that ‘only does it in the ring’….
It is so EASILY done!
So what is the answer?
Be proactive. Be vigilant. Be honest.
Being proactive, means to maintain and reinforce behaviour in the environment that TRULY matters! I give this advice to countless people who rebuke this as an option, saying that their ‘sport’ doesn’t allow reinforcement in competition.
Fine. No problem at all. A dog sport is just a field with people and dogs, so fake it! Employ the good will of others, and recreate the ‘environment’ with as many triggers as you can think of. Merge the picture between reality and pretend, so masterfully that your dog can’t tell the difference. Do a warm up before ‘competing’… wait around for your ‘go’, go through your ritual before hand.
Be vigilant to any changes. Rosettes and awards don’t necessarily mean your dog was mistake-free… it just means your dog made less mistakes then all the other dogs, but trust me… they were there. So be vigilant to what they are.
Be honest with yourself. This doesn’t mean to tear your performance apart, but be objective to your own performance. Not everyone will see what you are aiming for, so ensure you are honest with yourself. Honesty is always the best policy when talking competing!