What's it like trialing for the first time? This week I talk to a new competitor about her first trial and what it's like competing in Scentwork and Rally for the first time!
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Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Our guest this week is Maia Perez.
Maia recently competed for the first time in both scentwork and Rally, and I asked her on today to talk about that experience.
Hi Maia! Welcome to the podcast.
Maia Perez: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, can you share a little bit about yourself? Outside of dog sports, how do you fill your time?
Maia Perez: I'm actually a graduate student and I study music. I won't get into any of my research, since that's not very interesting. But I spend most of my time teaching, in the archive, and doing research.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Can you tell us a little bit about your current dog or dogs, and who you have and what you're working on with them?
Maia Perez: I currently have one dog. His name is Tilney, and he's a 3-year-old Rat Terrier mix. I got him at about a year old, so about two years ago now. We're working on nosework and Rally, as you said, and I do lots of fun things. I do TEAM, I do tricks with him, we've taken an agility class, so just enjoying having a dog and trying out a bunch of different things.
Also I do tricks with my family's cat, Lionel, so that's another animal that I work with. Cute little dog, cute cat.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. I think your Facebook photo is you with the cat, right?
Maia Perez: Yeah, yeah, with Lionel.
Melissa Breau: I know you mentioned you competed for the first time recently in both scentwork and Rally. I mentioned that in the intro. What got you interested in dog sports?
Maia Perez: I was that kid who was always really into dogs. I always loved dogs, my parents always had at least one dog, and I used to get Dog Fancy magazine as a child. So I was always really interested in it, but it didn't seem like something that was available to me for whatever reason. I don't know why. Our dogs weren't suitable necessarily. We took Puppy 101, but we didn't get into any training with them.
When I got Tilney — and Tilney is my first dog as an adult — he really liked training, and I realized that I really liked training, and I honestly couldn't think of enough things to train him, so I started searching and getting more involved, just trying to find some structure so I wouldn't keep doing simple tricks over and over again.
That's how I got interested in this idea of dog sports and training for broader goals and making progress.
Melissa Breau: What led you to FDSA?
Maia Perez: I was really lucky. All the people who I approached — because I didn't have a plan for training Tilney going into it; I didn't get him obviously to be a sports dog — but when I asked people, "Who do you recommend?" FDSA always came up.
It worked really well for me. I love the online method because it's more cost-effective for me and I don't have to travel anywhere, which is awesome for my schedule. So it was a pretty easy choice to at least give it a shot, and then I ended up really liking it.
Melissa Breau: We absolutely love hearing that everybody recommended FDSA. That's nice.
Maia Perez: I think it was partly who I was hanging out with, but I was really lucky. Every person — that's who they told me to go to.
Melissa Breau: Heading into that first scentwork trial, what kind of prep did you do?
Maia Perez: I started with nosework with FDSA. I did Nosework 101 and then Nosework 120. Those courses are geared toward the idea that eventually you might be trialing, so I started to think about that and following the preparation, and Tilney really loved it, so I was thinking it was maybe a possibility for us.
I liked the fact that you could reward in the ring in scentwork, because I felt that kept the pressure off me a little bit, because I knew that even if it was bad, I could just start giving him treats and then it wouldn't be a total disaster, because at least he'd be happy.
I think just following those classes — I was a Bronze student, but I was very active in the study group, got a lot of feedback from Denise, the TA at that time, and did a lot of prep just going different places, trying searches, asking questions about the trialing process in the FDSA Facebook groups.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. For folks listening who aren't familiar with the study group programs, the way they work is if you're a Bronze student in the class you can sign up. On Facebook there's often a corresponding Facebook group where a lot of the students share their work and talk through problems and do some training virtually together. That's a good summary?
Maia Perez: Yeah. And it's really fun.
Melissa Breau: It often takes some guts to sign up for that first trial! Overcoming our own nerves is a real thing and it can definitely have an impact on our dogs. Heading into that first trial, were you nervous? Did you have a game plan?
Maia Perez: I was definitely nervous. Honestly, I was nervous sending in the premium, even figuring out how to find a trial, print it out, having to mail it in instead of being able to sign up online. That was a little nerve-wracking for me. By the time I got to the trials — definitely nervous about it.
I didn't take everyone's advice and volunteer at a trial ahead of time, so that was my first time ever in a trial environment, which was a little overwhelming in some ways.
My game plan was I reminded myself that if I hated it, if Tilney hated it, we would just leave. I picked a trial pretty close to home so that that was an option for me, so that I could just bail if I thought it was going to go really badly. I also brought my family with me so that they would be able to watch Tilney while I got used to the environment and figured out what was going on. That was really, really helpful. I was glad I did that.
Melissa Breau: I like that. I'd not heard that as a tip before, and that's neat. So, knowing that, how did the trial go?
Maia Perez: It went really well. I think it was successful. First thing we get there, I realized immediately I didn't have any of the gear that all the seasoned competitors had. I had to send people out to get me Starbucks so that I had some food, and luckily the trial had a place we could borrow chairs from, because we didn't have any chairs. We just had Tilney in his crate.
My first search I didn't qualify. I was so nervous that I basically walked in, called alert, walked out again. But I was reassured because Tilney was really excited, he knew what we were doing, he wanted to search. So it was a little bit of a shock for me, but it was really nice because it gave me a chance to think, to reevaluate, to figure out what had gone wrong.
And then after we qualified in our second run, then I felt really good, because I felt like I'd been able to turn around in the trial environment while I was still nervous and be successful based on our training.
Melissa Breau: I'd love to hear a little more about that. When you say you stopped and reevaluated and thought through it, what were you thinking through? Can you share a little more on that?
Maia Perez: Yeah, absolutely. The big thing was I called it as soon as he started sniffing, which was silly in retrospect, so it was nerves. But it occurred to me that I never actually made a plan for when I was going to call the alert in a trial environment with a blind hide.
So I sat down and I thought, How long am I going to wait for him to be at source for me to really feel like he's found it? It took a lot, I think, to decide to trust him, to give him … I think I went on 5 seconds at a hide, so count that and think, Is he still there, is he still interested, do I really feel like I saw a change of behavior? And just to reevaluate in that moment so that I was prepared for the next run and knew what I was going to look for before I called it.
Melissa Breau: Do you plan to do it again?
Maia Perez: I've already competed again in scentwork. I'm competing again in March, and I think that will be our fifth trial. So I clearly got the bug and have really gotten into it.
Melissa Breau: Nothing quite like getting the bug. Heading into that second trial, are there things that you did differently? What things are you trying to keep the same from that initial trial and what things are you trying to adapt or change?
Maia Perez: One thing I did that I was really pleased about is I did our second trial at the same place we did the first trial. I did that because then I was already familiar with the environment, Tilney was familiar with the environment, and I knew how that specific trial ran. I even knew the judges to some extent because they had some of the same judges. That, I think, was a good way of allowing me to try again and not be quite as nervous, because I was more familiar with it, not changing too much at once.
Melissa Breau: In addition to scentwork, I know you've done some TEAM training. What got you interested in TEAM?
Maia Perez: Actually, TEAM was the first thing I did with FDSA. My dog had to have surgery, I think a few summers ago. He had a luxating patella and he was on crate rest.
Once he got off crate rest, he was still crazy, but he was still on pretty severe exercise restriction, so I was looking for something I could do with him that
would entertain his mind, keep him busy, but wouldn't be as hard physically on him, and TEAM seemed like a good option.
I started doing it and I realized that I loved it because it's all the things I like about dog training: high levels of precision, something to grade yourself against, and this cool foundation where you really feel like you're progressing as you go through the exercises and the levels.
Melissa Breau: Have you guys earned your titles?
Maia Perez: Yeah, we have our TEAM 1, still working on TEAM 2. I haven't submitted for that yet, but hopefully soon.
Melissa Breau: Hopefully. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you.
Maia Perez: Thank you.
Melissa Breau: How did the TEAM skills carry over? How did they help you when you decided to start training for Rally?
Maia Perez: They helped a ton. That was something I wasn't expecting, or I didn't totally realize what I was getting myself into, I guess, as a novice competitor. TEAM is really all of our obedience training. That's it. That's all we've done in obedience work. I didn't even do a basic Beginning Companion class with Tilney. So TEAM is it.
For Rally, I thought that we might struggle because we haven't done this before. But instead I found out that having that foundation has actually made it fun and easy for us. Basically everything we do, or we've done so far, as novice competitors is based on the things that Tilney is really skilled at from all the work we put into TEAM 1. So that's been really nice. It's been fun to see a sign, try it out, fix a few little things, but overall have that successful foundation to build on.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. That's fantastic to hear. What made you get interested in Rally? If you started out in TEAM, and then some scentwork, what got you on that bug?
Maia Perez: I don't know. Again, it's hanging out in those Facebook groups. They give me ideas and inspiration. I saw people competing in Rally, I had at this point made some friends who were competing in Rally, and then Nicole put out her Rally class around that time. I saw that and I thought, This looks really fun, and signed up, and it was really fun. There were trials nearby, they're a little more local than a lot of the scentwork trials are, so I thought this would be something nice for us to do. We didn't have to travel as far and we could still try it out.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned … originally I had put this up on Facebook when I was looking for folks who were new to trialing, and you mentioned that you hadn't thought about trialing until you'd taken Bye-Bye Cookie. I'm really curious about that. What was it that made you think you weren't going to do that? Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Maia Perez: Yeah, sure. Something I really like about FDSA is I think it emphasizes how important it is that your dog is also having some level of fun, that you're being fair to your dog when you're trialing, because the trial environment might not be enjoyable for them.
The thing with Tilney is that I knew that I was an inexperienced trainer. I knew that he was a young dog, and he's a little crazy. He's really working for treats. He loves his treats and he gets so excited.
When he was younger and I was a worse trainer, a lot of times that excitement meant that he'd get frustrated with me because he wasn't getting rewarded fast enough, or he wasn't clear, and he thought that he deserved a reward, and I thought that he had done something that didn't meet my criteria, and then he'd start barking at me and it would be a disaster. So I could imagine a scenario in the ring where something went wrong and he would start barking at me in frustration.
I didn't want that to happen because I didn't think any of us would be having fun at that point. I didn't trust myself as an inexperienced trainer to create a good reinforcement plan for him that allowed us to delay reinforcement.
Then I decided I might as well give it a shot, so I took Bye-Bye Cookie. I figured it would be helpful, and it was a total game-changer.
I was worried finishing TEAM 1 that I wouldn't be able to do the reinforcement reducing for TEAM 2, which is two treats. At the end of Bye-Bye Cookie, I had Tilney working for easily 30 seconds to a minute with food on the floor, with him totally focused and happy and engaged with me and not at all frustrated. So it added a lot of clarity into our training. It taught me how to delay reinforcement in a way that was super-effective for how my brain worked and how his brain worked.
Melissa Breau: I have to say, I've never understood the frustration thing. I've never been there!
Maia Perez: He's an intense little dog. He would get mad because he really felt that he had done what I was asking him, and I wasn't clear enough, and then he would start barking, and I hate the bark. So it was not fun.
Melissa Breau: My English Cocker is the same way. He tends to get easily frustrated if I'm not being clear enough, and his idea of clear enough and my idea of clear enough are definitely not always the same thing, so I get that. So you took Bye-Bye Cookie and then you wound up signing up to compete in Rally in November. What led you to go ahead and take that plunge, and did you do anything special to prepare for that?
Maia Perez: I took Bye-Bye Cookie, and then I was getting so much better about being able to delay reinforcement, and I had been keeping up with Nicole's Rally courses too. That also made me feel a lot better, especially the ones where we were setting up courses for ourselves, and then I could see that Tilney was working for longer periods without treats.
Then my local club posted a trial, and it was only about 15 minutes away, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity. We would go, we'd see if he could do it, again I reassured myself if it was terrible, we would leave. It was 15 minutes away; it wasn't much lost. So that was the impetus. It was a good opportunity, it was really close by, and I figured we were at least mostly ready to see what would happen.
Melissa Breau: So day of, you got there, and then what happened? How did it go?
Maia Perez: It was very successful. I think he did a really good job. I felt prepared. I was still nervous — again, new environment, fairly new competitor. I heard that obedience could be a little bit scarier than scentwork, so I was aware of that. But everyone was super-nice, it was a really nice atmosphere, Tilney has been getting really good about being comfortable in the trial environment, so he was just fine. He was super-excited to work.
We got in the ring, he was instantly distracted by the signs, I realized in that moment that I had not actually had him ever see an upright sign before. But I called him back and he got right into heel and looked up at me, so then we did a good job on the course and he got second place that run. So I thought that was pretty good.
Melissa Breau: Congratulations. That's a big deal.
Maia Perez: Thank you.
Melissa Breau: I know you mentioned on Facebook you're already signed up for your next Rally trial. Is there anything, again looking back, that you are thinking about doing differently, or things that you want to do the same, or even things that you're working on for that next trial?
Maia Perez: I did feel pretty confident with our preparation for the first one, but one thing I really liked with the second one is that it's a different local club and we've had the opportunity to train there a couple times before the trial. I think that will help, having that experience of being in that exact environment going into it.
The other thing I'm working on is Tilney has two legs now of his novice Rally title. So I'm hopeful that if he finishes that, we're maybe going to be able to move into advanced for the next trial. So I've really been working with him on focus off the leash, feeling confident that he's not going to run away or leave the ring or go over jumps without me asking him to.
Melissa Breau: Looking back, do you have any major takeaways or lessons that you learned from having "been there, done that" that you care to share?
Maia Perez: I guess a big one is that people are pretty friendly with dog sports. If you tell people that you're a new competitor and you've never been to a trial before, people were really nice to me and wanted to help. I think that was a big takeaway — that people want you to succeed, if you're nice and you also want other people to succeed. So it can be a really fun environment where you're all supporting each other.
Lessons — I think I did some things well. I think that I didn't rush, which I'm really happy about in retrospect. I think it's easy, when you start training these things, to focus on the skills, and to think, My dog can find odor, so I really want to get into a trial. That was always hard. It was being familiar with the rules, being familiar with the environment, making sure your dog could handle the environment and it wasn't going to be hard for them mentally to be there.
That's what was really difficult, so I'm glad that I didn't rush it, and that so far Tilney's had good experiences, which I hope will mean that he will be able to continue to do this with me for quite a long time.
Melissa Breau: When you say you didn't rush it, do you mean you spent the time to train beyond the basic understanding, or do you mean actually at the trial?
Maia Perez: I mean that I spent the time training. I didn't hurry to start trialing, even though he was successful in training. Like, the skills for each of the activities, I didn't say, "He can heel with me, so it's time to do a Rally trial." I waited until I made sure that he could heel with me for 3 minutes without getting any treats and be really happy about it, even if we were around distracting things. I think that that's the part where maybe people rush and can get you into trouble and make it less fun for you and your dog.
Melissa Breau: Do you have any advice for other FDSA students or listeners who haven't done that first trial yet? Anything you'd recommend that they consider?
Maia Perez: I think the big one is ask for help. People really are willing to help you, if you make it known that you want advice and you want help. That can be in the FDSA Facebook groups or your other dog communities, like your local clubs, and it can be at trials.
At the first scentwork trial, I think every single time I talked to someone, I started with, "I have never been to a trial before. I am totally new. This is my first time," and people were so friendly and welcoming and went out of their way to make sure I knew what was going on.
So that's a big thing is just not being afraid of telling people that you're new and that you don't understand what's happening, because there are so many unspoken rules that you just won't pick up on without having more-experienced people guide you at some level.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely, and I love that, because it's such an FDSA-type thing – being willing to reach out a hand to help, but also being willing to reach out a hand when you need help.
Maia Perez: Yeah.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Maia! This has been great.
Maia Perez: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Ken Ramirez to talk about his new book, The Eye of the Trainer.
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Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.
Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!