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Training (in the ring)

I made a debut with Brandie in agility today at an ASCA trial. She is a Border Collie who is 3 weeks shy of 2 years old. I really was not sure what to expect. She has been doing well at Open Ring times at various places and at seminars in different places. She did well at the four day/four ring C Spot Win Agility Camp in July.

I fully expected to do have to do some short courses and to work on contacts. I went in knowing her weaves are not as strong as I would like them to be but I wanted to see where they are in this environment.

I think a lot about training. Currently "training in the ring" is a huge topic in all agility organizations. It used to be that NADAC, UKC and ASCA were the only organizations who allowed training in the ring. Then UKI came along and allowed training in the ring with a toy. Then UKI allowed a table on the edge of the ring to hold food for training. Then USDAA started to allow some classes to have training options and then AKC just recently has allowed training in some classes. The details of the rules of these organizations is beyond the scope of this blog post.

My feeling about training in the ring is that we are ALWAYS training in the ring. Our dogs are always learning in the ring and we are always learning in the ring. Learning does not stop because it is a trial. This may seem obvious but it is a very important thing to stop and really think about. The learning that happens in this environment can be very potent. Memories are enhanced by associations with emotions, adrenaline, new locations, new experience, new people and many other stimuli. So what happens in that agility ring competition can make a very big impression on a dog, especially the first few times. First impressions are huge for all of us. The more sensitive the dog is to their environment the bigger the impression will be.

For 20 plus years I have been training in the ring in all agility organizations to the extent allowed in their rules. The easiest way to train in the ring is to do shortened courses. No judge in their right mind will be upset if they see a handler leaving a course early with a smile on their face because they are headed out of the ring to a "chicken party" or other celebratory event with their dog. I have done this dozens of times with many dogs. This is really good training in the ring. No toys needed.

There is a lot of emphasis right now on the ability to bring a toy into the ring at a trial. While I love the trend toward allowing training in the ring in all the organizations, I think the emphasis on the toy in the ring is misplaced.

1. Many of the dogs competing do not have the interest or the emotional capacity to play with a toy in a trial setting on a good day.

2. Having to say something about the toy or show the toy to the judge as you walk in the ring will make it become very clear to the dog very quickly that you have a toy. I never look at the judge when I enter the ring. If I am training I do not want to say anything unusual or do anything different. I want my training and trialing to be as similar as possible. Dogs have amazing attention to behavioral and verbal details of their human handlers.

3. Most handlers are unable to effectively train with a toy in class much less in the pressure of a trial setting. I see a lot of ineffective training with toys when allowed at trials.

4. Most handlers really do not know how to train in the ring effectively. It just has not been part of the agility culture in the US so people really have a hard time doing it.

Trialing and training is really about a mind set. Good training requires a clear mind focused on maintaining criteria, balancing the emotional needs of the dog and creating a positive experience for the dog. Every experience you create in a trial environment is a building block for your next trial experience.

Looking back at my day today with my 5 runs with my young dog. Every run was a training run. No run had a toy. I handled every course like I would in training. When she ran by jumps in jumpers I kept going and did not fix them. It was my handling error not hers. If I stop to fix a jump we lose the flow, the momentum, the speed and we risk losing the dog emotionally. I made a list of sequences we need to train more as a result. Dogs will slow down and become careful when handlers fix obstacles. Dogs know that stopping and going back to an obstacle means something went wrong.

In Gamblers and Regular her contacts were very good. The first aframe she slid down it a bit and did not come into a clean 2 on/2 off. It was also in Gamblers after a whistle blew so I was not sure if that also affected her. But because she is a soft dog I ignored it and went on but I made a note of it mentally. In both regular runs she came down the aframe better. I made a note to be sure to practice more 5'6" aframes with her. Her weaves are her weakest obstacle. The first time in gamblers I asked for them because we had time and it was a bad approach and so I abandoned them. In the first round of regular she could not do them on the first try and I brought her around over a jump and she knew a mistake happened and ran over to the judge. So her emotional state was getting stressed and we were near the end of the course so we went on. In the last round of regular the weaves were the 3rd obstacle. She could not get it with speed and I knew that was too much for her in a trial setting so I did a rare thing and just reset her for the weaves with no speed. She got them and then I cheered and we ran the rest of the course. If the weaves were fully trained and she had gotten them with speed I would have left to a party but they are still a work in progress and clearly not trial ready.

Weaves are an obstacle I am very careful with how I handle in a trial setting. I see a lot of dogs stressed about weaves in trials. My number one rule is I never pull a dog out of weaves when they are actively weaving and missed an entrance or a pole. This, in my opinion, is one of the most confusing things to dogs. My number two rule is when a dog can do weaves well with speed and another obstacle and they struggle with that collection needed in a trial setting I will always repeat the obstacle or two before the weaves if they miss a weave entrance. This is when I do need an organization that allows training in the ring. My dogs need to be able to do weaves in sequence well at ASCA and NADAC trials before I go on to the other organizations.

Contacts are the second group of obstacle that I see poorly trained in trials. When a dog misses a contact meaning the dog does not perform the contact to criteria many people just ask the dog to get into a 2on/2 off on the bottom of the contact. This really does not teach the dog anything nor is it punishment. The dog should be asked to do the contact again in its entirety and ideally with same speed as before. This is how the dog will learn how to collect for the contact in a trial setting.

When contacts or weaves are repeated they should be followed by leaving the ring to a party of toy or food that the dog likes. It is too risky to continue a course when something else could go wrong and you have lost the chance to "jackpot" the learning that just happened in the ring.

Training start lines and jumps require their own blog posts. This area is much more complicated and beyond the scope of this blog.

Training in the ring with a toy needs to be done carefully and thoughtfully. Ideally trialing and training should look similar. Some dogs notice when the handler's reinforcement is gone before entering the ring and other dogs do not care. If the reinforcement is always visible in training then it may be a challenge to have it go away for trialing. Before doing 15 obstacles without food or toys on you in a trial, be sure your dog can handle it in training. While I rarely do that much without reinforcement in training there are times when I will practice longer sequences without reinforcement in order to prepare the dog for a trial and for being able to do that many behaviors in a row without reinforcement. This is an important piece of trial preparation that is often over looked.

So training in the ring is much more complicated than just being able to bring a toy in the ring. It is a mind set that requires a plan and preparation.

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