To Trial Or Not to Trial…That is the Question.

One of the most common questions a dog sport instructor will receive is, “Should I trial with my dog?”. This loaded question has so many potential answers, with each depending on a multitude of factors. If two students come up and ask the same question at the same time, it can be an uncomfortable situation to say the least, as each may require a drastically different response.

Allow me to give you a glimpse of what is going on inside an instructor’s mind when they are trying to answer this seemingly simple question:

What does this student really mean by “trial with my dog”? In other words, are they asking if they should enter a trial tomorrow or if this a long-term goal they can work toward? Which competition organization are they talking about? Would that organization be a good match for them and their dog? What level are they looking to start in or eventually end up at?

Are they asking for my permission to trial? If so, why? This was a common theme when I specialized in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs. In my opinion, the latter category of dogs should not trial. Simply put, it is too dangerous and risky. Truly aggressive dogs who are being heavily managed and participating in a behavior modification programs can still enjoy the benefits of the activity at home or in a controlled training environment, but putting them into a trial situation would be similar to dropping a ticking time bomb in Times Square. It is inappropriate and full of peril. Furthermore, for those fearful or reactive clients, trialing should not be used as a public demonstration of how far they have come. Trialing can certainly be a goal or something to work toward and do, but when the dog is more comfortable in their own skin, trusts their handler to keep the safe and makes better decisions, those are the true victories to celebrate, not a given title or ribbon.

Or, are they asking me if they are ready to trial? This is where there needs to be a honest assessment of the skills of both the dog and handler. Perhaps they have a solid foundation in the given activity, but now they need to work on finessing their skills, practicing proofing exercises and taking their practice sessions “out on the town”. How long will that take? A few weeks? A few months? A year? Are they going to okay committing to that, or will they be drawn to rushing, and if so, what detriment will that befall their dog?

Do I know why they want to trial? Was this the goal when they got this dog in the first place? Has this been something they have been working on? Did they just find out about it, and think it may be something fun to try? Or, are they trying to prove something about themselves or their dog?

Do I think their dog would do well at a trial? Can they handle the multitude of environmental stressors that go along with trialing? What about the requirements of the trial itself, can they rise to the occasion? Will the activity of the trial itself set them back physically or behaviorally?

Do I think they, the handler, would do well at a trial? What is their relationship with their dog like right now? Is there a possibility trialing could put a negative strain on that relationship? Are they mentally ready to deal with the stressors of trialing, while maintaining the goal of having fun with their dog? Could trialing offer them a helpful and healthy outlet, or become something that is negative and counter-productive? Is the venue they are interested trialing in supportive and compatible with their personality and goals?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the million considerations that go buzzing through an instructor’s brain as they trying to answer the “Should I trial my dog” question. The fact of the matter is, there is no perfect or correct answer; it will be different for every dog and handler team. And that very same answer can change over time for the same team and activity.

For instance, I have been going back and forth for years whether I should do the level of training necessary to trial in agility with my Doberman. He is athletic, fast and loves the short sequences we do at home. However, he also just turned 5 years old, is 75lbs of pure muscle and is not big in the self-preservation department. Which means it is likely he would throw himself around a course at light speed, throwing caution to the wind, exponentially increasing the possibility of him getting injured. I would look for those venues with larger and flowing courses, and where we can run preferred with lower jump heights…maybe even forgo the contact equipment. When he was two years old, the positives to giving agility trialing a-go were fairly high. Now, the likelihood of us running in agility competitively are quite low.

Does that mean we do not trial in anything? No! He regularly competes in Scent Work trials and also competes in Barn Hunt and Lure Coursing, and we will be doing Rally Obedience and Competition Obedience trials in the near future. However, if ever a given trialing activity became too physically or mentally draining on him, we would immediately stop trialing and simply play the game at home. This is important: just because trialing is off the table that does not mean the dog cannot play the game at home. Do not limit your dog’s joy solely because ribbons and titles are not involved.

So, if you’ve ever asked, “Should I trial with my dog”, go through the questions above and see where you stand. You may find out that you and your dog are the perfect match to trial in a given activity, but you need more time to prepare. On the other hand, you may determine trialing in this activity is not the best match for you or your dog. Neither conclusion is better or worse, it is simply information that should inform you on how best to proceed. The most important thing is to maximize on the limited time you have with your dog, and chose those things that both of you will truly enjoy.

Looking for tips on how to ensure your trialing experience is a wonderful one? Check out the recorded version of our Tricks for Terrific Trialing Webinar

 

 

Training Confusion

“My dog is not allowed on the furniture…well, just the one time.”

“No table scraps! … Oh, but you are so cute!”

“When we walk on-leash, you need to walk at my side…except when you first walk out the front door. I mean, you’re excited. So if you pull like a bull, that is okay, just this once.”

Our dogs crave clarity and consistency. There is a good reason for this: our dogs are sharing their lives with an alien species. Every second of every day, they have to weave in and around potential landmines, each of which could potentially result in a serious conflict with the very person they share their lives with and rely upon. What is completely appropriate for a dog to do in a dog world is inexplicably a huge no-no in the human world. How terribly confusing. Therefore, can you imagine their frustration when a certain expectation suddenly changes, only to change back again at a later point? A constantly moving goal post that your dog can never reach.

“Oh, so you are the almighty and perfect trainer, right? Here to pass judgement down on the rest of us!”

Um, no. I am here to outline how I have confused the daylights out of my own dog, and why that is a huge problem.

All those above quotes…those are not from clients or colleagues or anyone else. These are MY quotes.

“…”

Yeah. A trainer admitting that she is far from perfect! Who would have thunk it!

I love my dog. I care about him deeply. I can also be swayed with those big brown eyes. Furthermore, I can convince myself that I can better showcase my love for him by bending a rule here or there.

The fact is, I am actually making things exponentially harder for my dog. Sure, he loves it when I share some bits of my dinner or snacks. But then he doesn’t understand why it is that he shouldn’t be able to stand in front of me as I am eating to better facilitate said sharing. After all, that is epitome of being a dog: being efficient and effective. We then go into the cycle of me changing the rules yet AGAIN to, “Target your bed and chew a bully as I am eating”. Great, giving him something else to do! … Yeah, but then when the meal is over and there are some fatty bits of the steak left, they magically end up in his bowl. Then the next meal, he jumps up as I am walking to the kitchen to put my plate away and is met with a, “No, not for you!” Can you see how incredibly confusing this is?

This is a lesson I thought I had learned in my prior career: horses. Horses are large and powerful creatures. If you are not careful and clear, you can get hurt. The example I would share time and time again when I was training new stablehand staff was this: you are leading a horse to paddock or pasture for turn-out. They are excited to be able to run around. You are in a hurry. So, you simply un-clip the lead and let them run through the open gate. You do this consistently over a period of time, and their anticipation to be able to run and kick up their heels gets to the point where they are dragging you to pasture. Worst yet, they are quite literally bucking in your face when you un-clip the lead. Is any of this the horse’s fault? Absolutely not. You have essentially trained them to do all of this!

“Okay, I’ll bite…what are you supposed to do instead?”

Walk the horse calmly to the paddock, offering soothing verbal praise and even treats such as carrots or apples. Walk them into the paddock, turn them to face you and then un-clip the lead and/or remove the halter. You may even simultaneously give more treats and then safely back away so that they can indeed run off. This approach builds an expectation for the horse, and allows you to be safe while preventing conflict between the two of you.

Does this take a few more seconds? Sure.

Does it mean you have to be more thoughtful and deliberate? Yup.

Is it completely doable and in YOUR best interest? Absolutely.

The same applies to our dogs. We need to think through what it is we want our dog to do today, tomorrow, next week, a year from now and with ourselves, our spouse, our children, strangers and the public. We need to be consistent. We need to be thoughtful. We need to be supportive of our dogs, and understand that every interaction is training.

And, we need to be forgiving of ourselves when we slip up. Recognize these slip ups as soon as possible, and then try to correct course. Realize our dogs DO indeed love us. The rules and guidelines we may have put in place are likely there to help set our dogs up to be successful. Our dogs are actually completely OKAY with following these rules and guidelines! They would prefer to know how it is they can keep the peace with us, then to have the picture constantly change.

I will start by forgiving my own shortcomings in this regard, and work to be clearer and more consistent with my pup. He will thank me for it in the end.

How do you maintain consistency with your dog? How to avoid the temptation to make things murky and unclear? We would love to hear from you!

Happy Training!

 

The Art of Dog Training

Much to our chagrin, dog training is oftentimes not a linear process. What worked for one dog may not work with another. Even the same dog may need different approaches or adjustments depending on changes in their age, health and experience-level . You may also need to get creative when you take into account your dog’s personality, how it is that they learn, their prior life experiences as well as a myriad of other factors.

The ability of a trainer, whether they are a professional or a dog owner, to be flexible in their approach and make adjustments to help the dog be successful is the art of dog training. And this is a challenging art to master. However, to be successful, it is crucially important.

“What happens when I take a class and the instructor tells me to do an exercise, and it doesn’t work for my dog…what do I do then Ms. Smarty Pants?!”

This is a wonderful question! In this situation, take out your paintbrush and create your own, individualized training plan. For instance, let’s say the instructor described an exercise where they want the dog to hold a stationary stay for 5-minutes 20′ away from you…but here’s the rub: your dog has never done a 1-minute stay OR any stay farther from 1′ away from you. Clearly, something has to be adjusted.

One possibility is to break the exercise down into smaller pieces and spread it out over a span of training sessions and days. This way, you can incrementally work toward the goal of having the dog hold a stationary stay 20′ away from you.

Now, let’s make this even more complicated: you have two dogs. There is a good chance, you will have to individualize this exercise for each individual dog. For example, Dog #1 may be able to reach your goal behavior of staying for 5-minutes 20′ away from you in a series of 4 steps: Step A, A1 and A2 to get to Step B. Dog #2, on the other hand, may need it broken down even further: Step A, A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, A6, A7, A8, A9, A10 to get to Step B. Neither approach is better or worse; rather, each approach is designed to suit the needs of THAT individual dog.

“Okay…what if an exercise an instructor describes uses an approach I don’t want to do, what then?” 

You must always be wearing your dog advocate hat. Do what will work for you and your dog, and what is in your best interest. If a particular exercise makes you uncomfortable, ask the instructor one-on-one if there is a way you can adjust it, if they have a suggestion for you or if they can better explain the reasoning behind the exercise. At the end of the day, this is YOUR dog and you have to look after their well-being throughout the entirety of their life. That will hopefully be longer than any class you are attending.

Does this give you license to be difficult to your instructors? No. But, if someone describes an exercise to you, you should understand the WHY behind that exercise, and also see how it can be adjusted and modified so it will work best for you and your dog.

“But what if class is only 4-weeks long, and we are struggling to master the exercises in Week 1…what am I supposed to do then?!”

You are not alone. Many students will stress that they are going to fall behind, and instead try to rush ahead. This is a mistake. Whenever I would teach in-person group dog training classes, I always stressed the purpose of the class was to show the students how they can practice to obtain a particular skill when they were ready to do so, but I was never looking for perfection in the class itself! In other words, if someone was still working to conquer the skills covered in Week 1, they could watch how to work on the Week 2 exercises but were not expected to actually work on those exercises until they were ready. This allowed people the flexibility to take the time necessary to master each set of exercises, before rushing onto the next. You need to learn how to hold your head up as an infant before you can begin to crawl.

“UGH! You don’t understand…my classmates are all doing better than I am…their dogs are so much better than my dog is!”

Are you sure about that? Do you follow them home every night, living with them day-in and day-out outside of class to back up that claim? Probably not. One of the easiest ways to diminish the quality of your training and the love for the activity is to begin to compare yourself to others. Every. Dog. Is. Different. They all learn differently and at different rates. What is easy for Dog #1 will be challenging for Dog #2 and vice versa. Couple this with the fact that the living situation for every dog is different in addition to the lifestyle, expertise and abilities of the human handler! Talk about comparing apples to SUVs! It is not even close!

At the end of the day, what all of us can do is recognize training can, and should, be modified and personalized, and we must to be willing to do so. The more tools in your toolbox the better. You may not need to use the majority of those tools and adjustments with this particular dog, but you may need them for your next dog.

How do you apply the art of dog training when working with your dog? 

 

The Sport Your Dog Would Choose… CDSP

CDSP’s tagline is “the sport your dog would choose”.  Why? talking and treats.  Obedience is great, a well performed run in a trial is a thing of joy and beauty.  John Q Public stares in amazement, beginners wish for such a performance.  And dogs think “well, that was stupid, where are my treats?”.  Formal Obedience aka AKC, UKC there is no talking.  Judge says “forward” and you zip your lip till “exercise finished”. There are no treats, just the party in the crate after the run.  In CDSP, Companion Dog Sports Program, there are both, talking and treats.

No, not all the time, not luring the dog through a run “look Skittles, a cookie, follow mommy, follow cookie” NO!  but when the judge gives a command, the handler can give a command, “FAST”, hurry,, “HALT” sit, “ABOUT TURN”, with me.. and when the judge says “EXERCISE FINISHED” before the dog or handler move onto the next thing, the handler can give the dog a treat.  WOW.  I’ve had many the high end handler say, “if I could just bring a cookie with me or get one extra command….” In CDSP you can.  Extra commands cost the team 3 points.  Imagine how great the dog will feel, having maybe missed the first signal for the down to get that second signal.. thinking to himself “oh, that’s what was wanted, sorry, I was a tad distracted by that door opening behind me” and the handler smiles… and the dog files it away… down, smile, all good remember that.  Enough of that kind of happy reinforcement, and signals isn’t such a scary place.

Multiply that happy effect over many levels and many tasks required in an obedience routine.  It can make obedience a happier place, while being a titling sport of its own.

My old gal, Hawke, H.A.T.E.D. obedience, she was my novice A dog, but didn’t get a CD out of novice A, younger minds prevailed.  When she hit 9 or 10 or so, she deemed it appropriate for me to get her to a CD in AKC. She LOVED CDSP, there was no (in her mind stupid) second heeling pattern ( I did it once, YOU go walk it) and she got treats.  She loved it so much she earned her CD-CCH3!  (33 qualifying runs in novice, it was her happy place.

For some dogs, its a stepping stone, for some its a landing zone.  And CDSP, is “the sport your dog would choose”

All dogs are…

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There are some truths about dogs that apply across the board. These include the fact that dogs are:

 

 

1.  Amoral

2.  Opportunistic

3.  Self-Centered

And perhaps most importantly…

4.  Not human

When we are living and working with our dogs we need to keep these facts in mind.  Our dogs are NOT scheming behind the couch every evening devising an evil plot to ruin our day the following morning.  If we leave a steak on the counter, and they help themselves to it, we should not be surprised.  As far as they are concerned, the world DOES revolve around them.

But dogs are also a completely different species than us.  An entirely separate being who communicates using subtle body language cues and olfactory senses – a communication system that we are only beginning to understand.  They are not furry people – they are dogs.  Yet, they desperately try to communicate with us, and understand our strange two-legged creature world.  What we need to do, as dog guardians, is meet them halfway.  We must better understand how they operate, communicate and live as dogs and then teach them what they need to do to be successful in our human world.

When we make this extra effort, there is greater understanding, a lessening of conflict and a stronger bond that will warm your heart and remind you why you got a dog in the first place.*

*It is because dogs are simply awesome, just in case you forgot.  🙂

Happy Training!