Competition Dog Sport Trial Prep: Does Generalization Really Matter?

I have been spending the last two years playing with and training my young Labrador Retriever, Dare. He just turned 2 in July and he is a lot of fun!

We are just getting started dipping our toes into the competition world and trial prep is at the front of my mind. The inability to get the same performance in the trial ring that we have in class or at home is a source of frustration for many a handler. That feeling of complete helplessness in a trial ring when you and your dog are disconnected, your dog is struggling, you feel eyes (real or imaginary) burning holes of judgement in your back, and you can't understand why your dog is behaving the way he is, is not a fun place to be. I have been there. If you don't believe me, here is proof. Me with my Novice A dog in the obedience ring.

I never want to be there again.

Here is the good news. Things got better. I remember looking around at the trial and seeing dogs staying in the game with their handlers. Why is their dog staying in it and mine is not? I didn't know, but one thing I did know was that if they could do it, so could I. This isn't olympic level gymnastics after all. I just had to figure out what I was missing. That didn't happen overnight and it there wasn't just one thing that I changed that, "WHALA!!" created a fully engaged dog. And I do owe that novice A dog a massive debt of gratitude for being a willing and generous teacher.

Most of us are really good at training our dogs the skills that will be judged at a trial. Heeling, fronts, and finishes, weaves and contacts get lots of our time. Most of us new to dog sport training attend a group class and rely heavily on that to prepare us for a trial. A good group class is great for teaching skills necessary for a trial and creating distractions... but there is so much more to it that tends to get lost in the shuffle.

For today, I will talk about one of my favorite topics that doesn't always lend itself easily to group classes. That is generalization.

Taking the Show on the Road: Generalize Before the Show

I was taught a long time ago that dogs don't generalize the things we teach them very well. That means that just because you dog knows how to sit when you say "sit" in your kitchen, that doesn't mean he knows it anywhere else. 

You must go to other rooms and teach it. Then outside. Then other places. 

The same holds true for other skills we teach. Dogs are incredibly observant and they are picking up signals from us and our surroundings that we aren't even aware of. I was reminded of this recently by a friend of mine who is has been taking her dog to a beginner's nosework class. As beginners, the classes were foundational and they were working in the same familiar area week after week. This week, her instructor decided the dogs were ready to go a park to work on exterior hides. She said her dog was so confused at first because they were at a park and she expected to go for a walk. She did not expect to search for odor. The visual or environmental cue that told her she was going for a walk was stronger than the search cue that was still relatively new to her. She figured it out, but if this were a trial she might not have had enough time to figure it out and it might have flustered the handler. Why isn't she searching? She knows this!


If you plan to enter trials, you must "take the show on the road" as we like to say in dog training and get your dog used to performing in different places and least if you want to do well. 

I know it sounds overwhelming to think about all the skills you must teach your dog for even one sport. What about if you do multiple sports like I do? Must we take every single skill on the road to a zillion different places? Must I load up and entire ring set up and haul it around town? 

OMG! Agility is my primary sport, can you imagine? 

Taking it to that level is not necessary. It doesn't have to be super hard or time consuming. What I have learned over the years is that once my dog learns that he can focus and respond correctly to a handful of cues and can perform exercises that are easily portable in a multitude of places, that knowledge transfers to skills I haven't taken on the road.

Fitting Generalization into a Busy Schedule

How do we fit this in to a busy schedule?

Do you run errands? Go shopping? Yes? Bring your dog! Do a little training outside the store or stop at a park. Even a few minutes of something somewhere has value.

Here are a few short clips of me with my young dog, Dare. He was 8 mos. old in the first few clips. I had to pick some things up at the drug store and decided to add 5 minutes to my trip to give him some experience. It was so worthwhile. See how he is with people? He LOVES people...a little too much in fact. All I did there was reward him for focusing on a new place with a stranger. By taking him on these little field trips, he learned that he can ignore them and that I will make it worth it. You can see how that transferred to the ring. He has never visited a bar setter or judge in a trial.

As we progress, the skills we practice on the road start looking more and more like what we do in the ring.

Obviously, Obedience and NW are more portable than Agility. I am convinced that my dog's ability to focus on so many different places translates to ability to focus at busy agility trials. If I didn't do obedience, I would still take my dog to various places to work on engaged loose leash walking, focus on me as people move about, perform tricks and rear end awareness exercises like pivoting on a bucket, backing up. In the links below you can see how focus work in public transfers to a focused agility run. 

From Generalization to Success

The more you work with your dog in new places, the better your dog will understand that a cue from you has the same meaning every time you give it and this builds your dog's confidence.

Here's a bonus to all this generalization work and it is a big one. Doing this builds YOUR confidence which will really boost your mental game on trial day. Plus it is fun, it really is!

We cover this topic in depth and a host of other trial preparation topics in my upcoming 6 week online class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy: FE315 "Are You Ready? Trial Preparation for Competition. If you are new to dog sports or not so new and want some help setting up sessions or some structure and accountability in your trial prep, join us! We will have lots of fun! 

Erin Lynes - "Dog Powered Sports with Erin Lynes"
E235: Kristin Rosenbach - "Truffle Hunting with Do...

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