Thinking about stepping into the ring can be overwhelming and scary, but knowing that you and your dog are prepared will ease your nerves. Read on to find out if you are really ready to get in the ring!
Have You Reduced Reinforcement?
In training we can reinforce the dog as much as we'd like. Once you step into the ring, however, your dog needs to be able to work for extended periods of time without being rewarded with treats or toys. This is a process that should start in the early steps of training, but all too often it is rushed or overlooked. Many dogs act differently when their handler has treats versus when the handler does not have treats. It's important that the dog understands how to work regardless of reinforcers on your body.
When my dog is learning behaviors, I have plenty of treats and the dog is rewarded for each rep, but as the dog gets comfortable with the behavior I start to reduce reinforcement early in the process. I might do that by asking for 2 reps of the behavior before I treat the dog, or maybe I'll have the treats in a dish next to the dog and reward from that rather than my pockets. This is the first introduction to getting treats off my body, and I start it very early in the training process. In order to use a bowl with treats your dog must understand that he or she can't take the treats without the proper reward marker.
Here is an example of me teaching puppy Excel a front foot target. I am rewarding from a dish on the ground. You can see that I start this process very early in the training.
Once my dog is fluent with a set of behaviors, I start working with treats off my body. I keep it very simple, perhaps starting with treats on a chair or counter. Can the dog come away from those treats and do a hand touch? If so, I'll mark the behavior and grab a treat from the chair or counter. Next time I'll ask for another easy behavior such as sit. A few training sessions later I will start to chain behaviors together. Note that I have chained several behaviors together previously when the treats were on my body, but I didn't reward until the end of the chain. For example, I might ask for a sit then a down then mark and reward. I only chain together behaviors with which the dog is fluent.
When I start thinking about entering a trial, I've already trained plenty with the treats on the counter or the chair, so at this point I start to leave treats outside the "ring". I'll start with leaving them on a chair right inside the ring. We'll go do a behavior in the ring, then will go to the treats to reward. I mark the behavior at the time it's done correctly, then proceed to the reward. Depending on how long it takes me to get the reward, I will either use a marker like "yes" (get cookie from my hand) or "get it" (chase cookie on the ground), or I will use my marker cue "cookies" which means let's run together and get your cookies that are stored somewhere else. If it takes me more than 2-3 seconds to get to the reward, I will use "cookies".
Once my dog is chaining together some behaviors, I will start to leave the treats outside of the ring on a table. From there I'll move the treats even further from the ring and slowly start to increase the number of behaviors that I ask for. This is all a very slow process and I am making sure that my dog is performing to criteria and that he or she is comfortable with each stage before I move on. By following a carefully crafted and laid-out plan, you can help prepare your dog for an actual trial with no reinforcers on your body!
Have You Prepared Your Dog for the Pressures of the Ring?
The ring can be a scary place. Usually to enter the ring you and your dog have to move through a tight environment, past tables, chairs, people, and more. You walk through a narrow opening and right inside there is a person looking at you. Dogs can find this very nerve-wracking, not to mention how handlers feel! If you can set up a training environment in which you can work through some of these pressures, your dog (and you!) will be much more comfortable the day of the trial.
An easy way to start is to simply put a couple of large objects, like chairs or garbage cans, about 3-4 feet apart. Heel up to the objects and reward for attention. As your dog is comfortable, work on heeling through the opening, rewarding frequently. Then stick a chair near the objects and navigate through that, rewarding your dog for attention. You can have a person sit on the chair, or stand near the "entrance" to your ring. Use different objects to create your ring entrance. Eventually if you can set up something with gates to look like a real ring that can be beneficial.
I try to make the ring a very fun place to be, so I'll often heel through the gates and have a party with my dog. I want a strong positive conditioned emotional response from my dog, so I spend a lot of time working on this.
In addition to "stuff" near the entrance, dogs have to learn not to worry about people looking at them. It's really weird the way a judge follows us around with a clipboard, so I want my dog to be okay with that picture. I start with a person standing next to me and my dog. If the dog looks at me instead of the person, I reward. If the dog looks at the person, I just wait patiently and mark/reward when my dog looks at me. Eventually I will have the judge start slowly moving, marking and rewarding when the dog looks at me. Finally, I will start heeling, rewarding for attention. I start with the judge a bit farther away and as the dog continues to pay attention to me and get comfortable with the judge, I have him/her come a bit closer.
If you take your time and work through these unusual distractions that your dog may encounter at a trial, you will be able to walk into the ring knowing that your team is prepared!
Have You Practiced Your Ring Behaviors in Different Environments?
Generalization is an important concept for the dog to learn, but it doesn't necessarily come easily. Your dog must understand that heel means heel regardless of the environment or distractions. Once your dog does great in your training building, it's important that you take the show on the road before entering any trials.
If there are other training facilities in your area, see if you can rent an hour of ring time. You could also go to a park or parking lot, if the weather cooperates. If you aren't able to train outside, you can do some behaviors in stores such at Petco, Lowes, or Tractor Supply.
Remember when you get to a new environment, your dog may struggle. Break the behaviors down and increase your rate of reinforcement so your dog can be successful. The more places you train, the more easily your dog will generalize the behaviors.
If you have the opportunity to attend fun runs or run throughs, these can be very helpful in teaching your dog to generalize behaviors. Be sure that you approach run throughs with the goal of helping your dog be successful. When I first start getting my dog in the official ring, I just work on ring entrances and playing inside the ring. I want it to be a very positive experience for my dog. I don't just go in and pretend I'm in a real trial, but instead I help the dog if needed, do some training if necessary, and have a good time. Even with my seasoned dogs, I still use run throughs to have fun and reward randomly (from treats outside the ring) at various points of the exercises.
Before you send in that entry check, be sure that your dog is capable of performing an entire routine without treats or toys, in a variety of places, and is comfortable with moving through tight spaces and having weird people following you around. Taking a bit of extra time to really make sure your dog is ready will pay off big time as you start and continue your dog's show career!