As the dogs start to do full height contact obstacles and to do all the weaves people start to look ahead to agility trials. If they have never trialed a dog before they have no idea how hard it can be for a dog to perform in a different place, on different but similar equipment, around many more people and dogs than at class and to be with a handler who is nervous.
All these factors can produce an emotional response in your dog to the agility trial environment. A Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) is an emotional response related to a stimulus which could be anything including a smell, a sound, a pheromone, equipment, a dog, a person, or anything. That CER could be a positive emotional response or a negative one. The more we have prepared our dogs for a trial environment, the more we can create positive experiences in a trial setting then the more likely the CER will be positive. If they have positive responses then they will be more likely to enjoy trialing in the future.
When I start trialing a young dog I will only do a start line and maybe a couple of jumps and leave to a party. I have had a dog who could not handle even that and I simply looked for his consent (eye contact) to go in the ring and then just let him look around inside the ring and walked from the start line to the finish line on leash. I let him look around the whole time. That was all that dog could handle. But there is no way to replicate it in training so I had to enter some trials to give him that positive experience with exposing him to a small amount of the trial environment and not ask for any complex behaviors. My goal was to create positive CERs as best I can and to not overface him.
Too often people enter trials before their dogs have really been trained to fluency on the agility behaviors. Fluency means that the dogs really understand those behaviors under a variety of conditions including distractions and in different places. Often dogs are asked to do too much in a different place instead of just asking for a couple of behaviors in a different setting and leaving on a good note to rewards. Keeping things short can be helpful to dogs who worry about the environment as well as dogs who tend to get too excited about doing agility.
When dogs are fast and excited in agility, doing short sequences in a trial environment can build confidence in the team and reduce confusion and frustration for both handler and dog. Often dogs who get excited about agility will run even faster at trials and this makes it hard for the handler to keep up and be on time with their cues. Then the dog becomes confused and frustrated and trials can create a negative CER for them.
On the flip side, dogs who are stressed in new places will behave differently in a trial setting. They may run more slowly, run around obstacles, freeze, run out of the ring or run zoomies. These dogs also benefit from only doing one or two behaviors in a trial setting and leaving to a lot of rewards before the dog gets stressed. Or they may just need to walk in and walk out of the ring.
In addition, dogs need to be taught to have their rewards away from the handler and outside a ring. This can be a huge transition for many dogs and a transition that needs to be done gradually. Many dogs know the difference of when treats are on their handler and when they are not. Often handlers will feed their dog at the start line every time in class and then suddenly in a trial they do not do it. That is too sudden of a transition for location of rewards for most dogs.
There are so many steps to preparing dogs for trialing than learning to do the obstacles. I am a huge believer in training in the ring at trials and using that to build confidence and teamwork. It is expensive training but it is the most valuable training one can do for the long term success in the sport.
Here is a summary of how I prepare a dog for trialing.
1. Proof obstacle performance - I want to be sure weaves, contacts, jumps and start lines can be done with distractions such as people, toys, dogs and food around. I make it harder than it will be in a trial but I do it gradually to build confidence and build on success.
2. Train end of run behaviors - I teach my dog end of run behaviors such as leash on and go to treats or toy outside of the ring. I actually cue "leash on" as we go to the leash and I start that early on as puppies and pair it with toy or food so it has a positive CER and not a negative one. I will start with easy behaviors with rewards just out of reach and work up to having rewards farther away. Then when the dog can do that, I will ask for a longer behavior chain before going to the reward. I want to prepare my dog for eventually being able to do 20 obstacles well, going to their leash, getting the leash on and walking out of the ring to treats or toys outside the ring. I want my dog to know what to expect in terms of reward when we are done. This needs to be trained and practiced gradually. I also use this time to get them used to the type of leash or harness I will use in agility trials.
3. Take it on the road - I go to different places and just work on contacts, weaves, start lines or jumps. I will ask for one contact performance and reward or one weave performance and reward in an open ring, run through or seminar setting where I can have food or toys in the ring with me. I build their confidence on different equipment in a different place.
4. Training in the ring - When my dog can do behaviors I have trained in different places and with distractions, then I will enter trials where training in the ring is allowed such as ASCA, UKI and NADAC. I will position rewards where the dog knows where they are. I will ask for less than 4 behaviors and start with what is easiest for my dogs. I usually do not ask for contact or weaves in the first trial. I will focus on start lines, jumps, or tunnels in the first few times in a trial setting. I will keep it simple and build confidence. The second I see my dog concerned I will leave the ring. Some dogs I may just walk in and walk out to treats. I want to create as many positive CERs as possible in a trial situation. I try hard to not have my dog stay in the ring longer than they can handle it. I want to leave BEFORE they have a negative feeling.
5. Build on success - If all of that goes well then I will resume training in a familiar environment and increase the length of behavior chains (sequences) and increase complexity. For those new to agility I want the team to be able to do harder sequences and courses than what they will see in novice so they are over prepared for a trial. For myself I want my own dog to be training at a higher level than novice before I ask them to do the entire course in a trial. I want my own dog to be over prepared for novice courses so their first full length trialing experiences will be successful and confidence building. I often will do steps 1 through 4 before my dog is really ready to do an entire course in a trial. I want to know what I need to work on and I want to know how my dog responds in a trial environment.