Have you ever watched the “dream teams” in the obedience ring and sighed, “Wish I had THAT dog!”. Guess what, you DO have that dog – he goes home with you every day, and goes to practice with you every chance he gets! Your dog can be a solid performer if you follow a few simple rules.
Rule number one
Every time you are with your dog, you are training your dog. If your dog ignores you in the yard when you call him into the house, why would you think he’d come in an obedience trial when there are a million interesting distractions around?
Rule number two
Motivation is everything. Really. If the dog is not enjoying the work with you, you might pass the CD title, but the chances of passing Open or Utility are not that great. Your dog needs to LOVE the work.
Rule number three
Don’t enter a trial until your dog is really ready. That means you can work at the dog park, in parking lots, near a playground full of kids or a baseball game… and the dog doesn’t lose focus.
Let’s look at a couple of “challenging” behaviors (it’s no coincidence that they are duration behaviors).
Heel is the first behavior your dog is asked to perform every time you go in the obedience ring. It’s the behavior you spend the most of your “performance time” doing. It’s also inherently boring. So how do you make it “not boring”? Consider “life rewards”. What is your dog distracted by? Can you make that a reward for good heeling? Are the squirrels in your yard making it impossible for your dog to work? Try a few steps of heel followed by “get the squirrel!” (Assuming of course that your dog can’t actually catch the squirrel.) How about the dog that’s playing ball at the park? Ask for a little heel work, then pull out your own ball! Train with your dog’s best friend: Heel, heel, go play!
Remember also that every time you allow your dog’s focus to wander while he’s heeling, you’re training him to disengage. If your dog’s attention breaks away from you, stop right there. Remind him what he’s supposed to be doing and start again. After you’ve had a “corrective moment” (this is not a “correction”, just stopping the activity to remind the dog), heel for a few steps then reward with play or treats – whatever is better than the distraction for your dog. Don’t send the dog to the distraction right away, but keep it in mind for a future reward!
The key to a solid stay is adding time and distractions before you add distance. Stay is another inherently boring behavior so you don’t want your dog to learn to self-reward (running around the room is a lot more fun than sitting still for three minutes). Plan your stay work. Increase the difficulty of one criteria at a time.
So, let’s say you’re going to work on time today (that’s one criteria). Go from 5 seconds to 15 seconds, then 9 seconds, then 25 seconds. Sometimes it’s harder (your goal is 5 minutes), sometimes it’s easier. Don’t always just increase the duration – your dog won’t have fun with that, sometimes it’s really easy, sometimes it’s hard.
Once your stay is up to 1 minute, start working on distractions (that’s your next criteria). Go back to 5 – 15 seconds with another dog working in the room, start building your time back up with that level of distraction. When you are back up to a minute or more, make the distraction harder (a dog playing ball in the room) and reduce your time criteria again.
Only when your dog is up to 3-4 minutes of stay with a lot of heavy distractions is it time to start leaving your dog. Same idea as before, start small (one or two steps away) with short time and minimal distractions. Don’t increase all the criteria back up at once, add more distance OR more time OR more distractions. Yes, it takes time to build a solid foundation for stay – but it’s worth it when you get to the ring and you can relax once you’ve passed the individual exercises!
Building a solid foundation does take time. But if you prepare and systematically create a solid foundation, your “house of heeling” will survive “ring stress” when you start competing!