By Nancy Gyes, 1997
Do you have a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde agility dog? They hit contacts reliably in practice, and only 50% of the time in competition, have perfect start line stays during training class, and not a hint of one after you walk into the competition ring? Many dogs are composed in practice, and frenzied on the agility show grounds. Excitement and enthusiasm are wonderful unless you cannot get your dog to perform correctly in that frame of mind.
On the flip side of the coin is the dog that shows extreme enthusiasm in your back yard, and because of stress or lack of motivation, none during a trial.
The more differences between training & competing that are evident to your dog, the more inconsistent your show performance will be. You’ll need to examine your training & showing mentality, the difference in your dogs’ character and moods during practice & competition, and your use of rewards & bribes.
Train like you compete
To begin working towards this goal you will need to examine the real contrast between your show ring performances and everyday training and see which ones might be causing you problems.
Many dogs are over stimulated in a show environment. If you want to handle that dog effectively at a show, you will need to practice some of the time with the dog at that level of excitement. You can achieve that drive in a variety of ways. For my dogs that means working in a class situation with other dogs around, winding them up with toys, and running off the line in each exercise. Using toys, verbal stimulation and body language cues to get them excited brings my dogs to the level of animation they show during a trial. I need to know how to run my dogs when they are at their maximum level of intensity and speed. If your dog is only missing contacts, dropping bars, or refusing the table in competition you will need to simulate show conditions while you train, so that you can duplicate the problem, and begin training out the response you get at a show. If you cannot duplicate the show problem in training, you will have a difficult time training it away.
During competition you cannot have food or toys with you. If you always carry goodies with you when you train, and your dog is used to you carrying a huge bait bag on your hip, you are probably doing a lot more bribing than rewarding. The dog is 100% certain that he will get cookies while training. It is difficult to bribe your dog to work for you in competition, if his performance is entirely reliant on toy or cookie bribery. You will need to train your dog with the expectation of reward once the job has been completed. During practice try leaving the treats and toys on the sidelines while you do your drills, and run excitedly with your dog to the reward at the end. If you need to use the food while the dog is performing an obstacle, use it randomly so the dog will not know when to expect the reward, and keep it hidden in your pocket not in a visible bait bag.
Word association games can be useful to transfer motivation to your dog, when you cannot use tidbits & tug toys. Putting a name on your dog’s favorite snacks, toy or activities, and using those key words before you go onto the course, helps you carry the drive of those games directly into the ring. “Ready, steady, go” games, get your dog up and moving fast off the start line. Use your marker words , like “good” and “yes” during your run to pinpoint correct responses from your dog, and use them again when you give your treats at the end of the run. In essence you will be powering up your words & praise so they have a significant effect on your dog when he hears them while working.”.
Compete like you train
It is difficult to be exactly the same in a show situation as you are when you are relaxed in training, but it is this Jekyl & Hyde kind of handling that insures you will rarely get the same response from your dog at a trial. If you always train contacts in the same calm fashion at home with commands like “walk-it” and “go-touch”, and stop your dog at the end to make him wait for a cookie & release, you need to do it the same in competition. Changing your competition command to “EASY! EASY,Walk-it!”” in a frantic voice, and walking rather than running to the end of the contact with your dog, screaming words they only hear when you are in panic at a trial, is asking your dog to launch from the contact in frustration. Not only have you changed your contact technique and words, your body language was completely different from practice, and then you reinforced the dog launching off the contact by chasing them to the next obstacle.
Video your perfect contact training situations at home and watch them over & over. Try to duplicate the emotions, the commands & the body language so your dog can rely upon you to always be the same. Make sure you ask for exactly the same position every time you train, and you ask for and get the same position every time you compete. If you have a stopping position on the dog walk and A-frame, the only thing that would change in competition is how quickly you give your release to the next piece of equipment.
Visualize training in your backyard or agility class next time you are at a trial. Try to conduct yourself in the exact same calm but effective manner, asking your dog for the very same responses & positions you get when you practice. Pretend you are at a trial in your next training session, and see if you can discover ways to motivate your dog without carrying your food & toys, and get the same kind of enthusiasm you had during your last agility test. Run the dog at the same speed you want him to run at a trial. Don’t take training casually. Make a plan before you step in front of the first practice jump, and know where you are headed and what cues you are going to give. Make each practice feel just like the real thing, and you’ll be able to transfer that feeling to your runs at the next event.
Nancy Gyes, Power Paws Agility, © 1997
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