With the warmer weather in our area, there are more and more dog shows and trials happening. We plan on going to several this year, not to compete yet, but to practice. By this I mean, I only enter my dog in “exhibition” where we don’t go in the ring but are only present on the dog show grounds. During this time, I practice different things with my dog like long sits or heeling.
Competition is something that a dog’s human often hears about but turns away from because of the pressure that she or he perceives will be there to win.
This is usually the reason that many handlers decided not to do dog sports – because they think it won’t be fun and they will get too stressed out trying to do well, etc. This idea is actually something that is a perception, not necessarily a fact.
I’ll let you in on something about dog sport trials. The fact is, you are only competing against who you want to compete against. And that really should be yourself.
Its All Practice
First of all, when you go to your first trial, you really are practicing, even if you do go in the ring. I don’t care how much work you put in, your first trial is a practice. You need to be in the ring and see how it feels and looks, and your dog needs to know the same.
This is a catch really though because you can get yourself overly nervous being there and that can transmit to your dog. That is why I now take my dogs to practice outside the ring before ever entering them in a show. A dog needs to feel that the trial atmosphere has at least a little bit of fun in it for him and as the dog’s handler that is your most important teaching job.
The picture below is an example of what happens when you go into the ring not fully prepared. Tommy is supposed to be heeling right beside me with his head at my knee. Clearly it is not. This is what can happen when your dog is stressed and not sure what you want because you are not communicating properly to your dog. This can happen because of lack of practice but also because of nerves. When you are nervous, you act different from what you normally would.
Even more important is the next picture. If you look closely you can see the stressed look on Tommy’s face. He is nervous because I am nervous. He doesn’t know why I am acting funny – walk stiffly, talking to him in a different tone of voice, and acting worried myself. I probably even smell different to him.
After the Pre-Novice trial we went into Rally. The picture below show how well we did. After Tommy missed the jump, he went straight for the exit of the ring. When he did this I pulled him out of the trial because he was too stressed to continue.
After this issue came up, I stopped trialling Tommy so we could practice the behaviours more at home and then practice them at the actual show grounds and building to get used to them. I have to say though, Tommy has done well in the past even though we had not done enough work and he was stressed. What a good dog. These are the two reasons that dogs perform poorly at trials, and are the reasons that I went to strictly correction free training. Because it is my fault if the dog is not prepared and is stressed. How can I correct a dog for something I did?
This is why it is important for both you and your dog to see the dog show and trial atmosphere as a fun place not a place of competition. It doesn’t matter if it is rally, agility, disc, or traditional “obedience” or any other dog sport. You need to be having fun at these because you are accomplishing something with your dog and spending time with him, not trying to beat other people in scores or speed.
Below is my favourite picture of McCoy. You can see the joy on his face. This was his last Rally trial in which he got the last leg for his Rally Excellent title. This is what I mean when I say having fun.
Dog Sports Are For ALL Dogs
I really encourage anyone who has been thinking about going into dog sports to try it. The Canadian Kennel Club now allows all breeds and mixes to attend their trials. You have to get a number for your dog to participate, but that is not too difficult. Alternatively, there are MANY other sports, clubs and trials that can be joined or participated in. There really is something for everyone. The most important thing though is that you keep in mind the real reason you are there. For fun, and to improve your own skills as your dog’s trainer, NOT to compete with anyone else.
If however, you find that you want to start winning, I believe that you will have difficulty doing that when you are too nervous. Again, the cure for that is practice.
Happy Training and Trialling!