Friday, April 15, 2011

Train like you show

I finally got a chance to sit down (well, not really a chance, I sit down a LOT) and give some thought to the training vs. showing issues I wrote about last week.

We all know our dogs perform better in the show ring if the ring and our behavior there doesn’t look dramatically different from the picture they see when we are training them.

That is one of those things that’s easier said than done.

Here are some things to consider.

1) Reinforcement - In training, we reinforce liberally and frequently with treats, toys, our voice and physically by petting or rough-housing with our dogs. In the ring, we are definitely restricted in the type of reinforcement we can give, as well as being limited in opportunities (between exercises only) to use the reinforcers we are allowed (voice and petting).

Training solution - Obviously, fade treats and toys from your body. Get rid of bait bags and toys hanging out of pockets that advertise “Got the goodies right here!” or “No goodies available!” Place them further and further from your training area and practice releasing your dog to them as a reward after sustained effort. Backchain parts of exercises, then entire exercises, before rewarding. Don’t create a dog with a huge sense of entitlement who expects to be rewarded for every little thing and becomes disappointed and disinterested when rewards are not forthcoming.

2) Environment - Most places we train are familiar sites and the people and dogs who may be training there are also familiar. Trials are held in brand new environments for the dog and they are full of new and unpredictable people and dogs. Our dogs may view this as the ultimate social experience or a new level of terror threat, depending in their personality.

Training solution - Train somewhere different - any new environment will do, just someplace your dog hasn’t been asked to work before. You don’t have to make a huge production of this to reap major benefits. Try some heeling or basic attention exercises on a sidewalk in a small town business district. Train at the local city park, fairground or shopping mall. If leash laws allow, take jumps and ring gates to a park and set up a partial ring. (If you have enough toys to set up an entire regulation ring, I want to come train with you!) Do obedience exercises around agility equipment (this seriously freaked Phoenix out earlier this week - he was absolutely dysfunctional when I asked for signals in the middle of a course that was set up at our club’s outdoor facility.)

3) Timing - When you train, you control the timing of everything you do. In the ring, you are responding to the judge’s commands and can’t do any part of an exercise without first being given a command. Some judges are very brisk, others are slower. You may have a lot of down time between exercises or hardly any at all.

Training solution - Get friends to call heeling and run you through different exercises. Have them carry a clipboard and act impatient. Practice moving smoothly and confidently from one exercise to the next without feeling hurried or flustered. There used to be a cassette tape called The Invisible Judge or something like that, that called commands for different levels of obedience. I’m sure it’s been reproduced on CD by now, if you look hard enough.

4) Pressure/expectations - In training, there’s nothing “on the line.” It’s just training at the club or wherever. Sure, you want it to go well but you won’t “get” anything for it. At a show, there’s the potential to “win,” get a leg or finish a title. There is always a level of achievement available.

Training solution - Switch your view of showing from “We have to qualify today” to “This is a wonderful chance to see what we can do as a team today.” Take the pressure off yourself by changing your focus - instead of thinking about winning, think about seeing improvement in your handling or reducing your dog’s stress.

5) Performance anxiety - This is sort of like pressure/expectations. There isn’t a great deal of anxiety in training because there’s always the assurance you can work on a training issue until it’s resolved or at least until you feel you’re making progress. And you haven’t paid a $25 entry fee to do it, either! But in the ring, there are no do-overs, you have to get it right the first time.

Training solution - Ask yourself, “What is the absolutely worst thing that can happen if we fail this class today?” Believe me, there are worse things than not Q-ing at an obedience trial. Remind yourself, too, that it is an honor to go into the ring with your dog in the first place. There’s always next weekend!

6) Audience - Most of us train by ourselves or with friends we feel comfortable with. The comfort level is very high. Then we go into the ring and a judge is analyzing every move we make and strangers are watching!

Training solution - train in new places. You’d be surprised how many people stop to watch. It’s a great chance to practice “being in the zone” and ignoring everything else.

As usual, I’ve turned this into a novel. Hope it provided some food for thought. Phoenix and I are off to an obedience seminar with Joanne Brettschneider this weekend. My club is hosting her. Turnout has been smaller than we’d like, probably due to a number of other dog doings in the area at the same time.

Then on Wednesday we leave for Malinois nationals! It’s going to be a very busy weekend between the seminar and trying to do laundry, pack, etc. for the trip to Valparaiso, Ind. I’ve started packing but it’s more making piles of stuff than actual packing.

Have a great weekend everyone!


  1. Very informative post! I am hoping to start Sophie in Rally later this year and the information you provide will definitely come in handy.

  2. As usual, another awesome post!

    I'm glad that I never used a bait bag. At least I have that going for me.

    Layla sees trials as the ultimate social experience - big surprise, right? haha.

    I especially like your tips for performance anxiety and audience, since I fall victim to that. You're right though, people will stop and watch when you train elsewhere so that should help.

    Good luck at the Nationals! My show handling instructor will be there with her Malinois. I think they're doing herding, agility, obedience and breed. I saw the logo for your National, with the Malinois peeking through the corn and it's very cute.

    Take a lot of pictures!! I'm curious how other breeds hold their Nationals.

  3. Well, I've broken all those rules ;-) Think I can be fixed? I am taking a really good class in May - hopefully the instructor can help!!

    Good luck at Nationals and have FUN FUN FUN and like Amy said - take LOTS of pictures!! We LOVE pictures!! Oh yea... don't forget to do some good shopping!!

  4. I've been working on number 1 with Legend. Hope it helps-we shall see come July!

  5. Thank you so much for posting obedience friend and I had this very same conversation last week. Your blog is wonderful!