May 2009

How to prepare your dog for obedience trials

Training the obedience exercises to perfection is of course important, but it is not enough. Without preparing your dog for performing at a trial, you risk getting a dog that is “ring wise” before long. This happened with the first dog that I competed with to the highest level. She did great in the first trials, but after a while, her performance in trials was about half as good as in training. And when I finally realised that we had a problem, it was not easy to solve it.

Now, preparing the dogs for trials is a big part of our training. There are different aspects of trialing that can be worked on separatly. Most of it can be done already with a puppy or young dog. Here are some of the things we work on before trialing:

  • Prepare your dog for doing longer sequences without rewards. The biggest difference between training and trialing is usually that we reward our dogs much more often during training. This is usually what make dogs “ring wise”, they will find that difference out and stop performing as well in trials. Make sure that you do longer sequences without rewarding (of course, there is always a reward at the end of the sequence) in training and not just rewarding every exercise. My goal is to have the dog do 50% more (than what is required in a competition) before getting rewarded in training before we go to a trial. Sequences as a concept can be trained as soon as the puppy knows a few behaviors. Instead of rewarding every cued behavior, you might ask the puppy to “down” after coming to heel position and then reward. As the puppy gets used to that, you will sometimes start asking for more. I would say that this is the most important thing to do before trialing. If you do this well, you probably don’t have to worry about your dog getting ring wise.
  • Do your training in a trial like setting. Arrange training that looks a lot like a real trial. Preferably, you’d set up a ring in a unknown location with new people and new dogs around. Let people act as judge and ring steward. This is the optimal set up, but I also find that just bringing in one or two of these elements into my training helps a lot. I might be at home, but have a ring set up and someone new telling me where to go in the ring. Or i might go to a new place and do trial like training with our usual training group. It all helps a lot!A common mistake is to make trial-like training boring for the dog. As soon as we do training in a trial-like setting, we want to try hard things to see what the dog can do. We reward more seldom than in our regular training and we add too many difficult tasks for the dog at once. Then all of this training is bad for our furure carreer, just as if we’d already taken an unprepared dog and trialed. You risk making the dog ring wise before even entering a trial. So make sure that you give your dog pleasant memories from the “trial”. Do easy stuff that you know that your dog will be good at. Make sure that your rewards are extra good. The most important thing is that the dog starts liking trials. The really hard challenges can be saved for training at home. You will of course at some point do hard things in a trial-like setting, but by then your dog should be at an even higher level while training at home.
  • Do a lot of training on heeling the dog into the ring and heeling the dog between exercises. A lot of people tend to only train on exercises before trialing, but that would not make the dog fully prepared for the trial. In a trial, you also have to walk into the ring and heel the dog between exercises. Working on how to enter the ring is important for many reasons. I would get very nervous if my dog wasn’t with me while walking into the ring and my dog would probably not do as well in the exercises if she had to start the trial with something we never trained for. This is also your chance to give the judge a good first impression of you as a team. So train your heeling into the ring and between exercises. Don’t always reward when your dog finishes an exercise, do some heeling before rewarding from time to time.
  • Proof for distractions. List all the distractions that could happen at a trial and train for them: A clumsy ring steward, dumbbells right by the jump, cones in your way while heeling, loud speakers, people commanding their dogs in a loud and aggressive way, food on the ground, bitches in heat, judges that follow you close by while heeling etc.
  • Train for more than what is required by the rules. Few will perform as good in a trial as they do while training. Make sure that your dog can do a little bit more than what you will be doing in a trial. Longer distances, harder challenges and tough distractions. This will allow you to perform worse than in training but still be perfect in a trial. This will also make sure that your dog fins trialing easy and fun.
Good luck!

Our new home

We’ve been renting a house 50 kilometers south of Oslo for a couple of years, but the contract got cancelled and we have to move out in August. We weren’t quite prepared to buy a house right now, but we didn’t have much choice. Fortunatly, a house that we looked at in November and really liked, was still for sale. This house is in Sweden, near Örebro. It’s about two hours west of Stockholm. The house has a nice interior and 20 000 square meters of land. We’re moving there in two and a half months!

I’ve been living in Norway for four years and now I’m finally moving back to Sweden. I really like Norway, but I still feel like most things are a bit better in Sweden. I hope that Thomas, who is Norwegian, will agree.

Here are some pictures of the house:

Small training field behind the guesthouse.

This will be the big agility field


Search and rescue training

This weekend, we went to Trondheim (6 hour drive from here) to do search and rescue training with Squid and Pogue. I don’t think there is an equivalent to our s&r working trials in countries outside of Scandinavia, so here’s an explanation. In our search and rescue trials, the dog searches an area (in the woods) that is 100 meters wide and 100-400 meters long (Norway). 400 meters is for the most advanced level. The handler walks through the middle of the area, sending the dog out to each side (50 meters straight out, then the dog turns forward and comes back to the handler about 25 meters further down the line).

The dog has to find three persons hidden in the woods. When the dog finds a person, he is to either bark until the handler comes to him, or retrieve a dowel that hangs from his collar. The retrieve is the most common way for the dog to mark that he has found a person. As he comes back to his handler with dowel in his mouth, the handler puts a leash on the dog and asks him to show the hidden person. In addition to this, the dog has to do an obedience program and search for objects (size of a wallet) in an area that’s 50 meters wide and 50 meters deep.

Squid has done some training at home, but this was her first time training it for real. Training with good people are very important, since other people are rewarding your dog. Squid was a bit reluctant at first and needed good rewards. We did four sessions during the weekend, two each day. Squid made great progress from the first to the third session. At the fourth session, she was a bit tired and got to do easier stuff. When training, we break the challenge down in two four major parts:

– Searching in a specific pattern (50 meters straight out, turning forward för about 25 meters and then coming back to the handler, running past the handlers side and out on the other side)
– Locating hidden persons by scent (not to hard for most dogs, a person smells a lot!)
– Correct indication (Picking up the dowel when in contact with a person, running to the handler to deliver and then show the handler to the hidden person)
– Control (Walking with handler, coming when called, waiting for cue to start etc.)

With Squid, I have worked on the two first parts. We have done some exercises where I walk with her on leash until she scents a person hidden under a camouflage net in the woods. When I can tell she’s found the person I let go of the leash and she can run to the person and play.

This weekend, we mostly worked on the search pattern, starting with her running between two persons that she can see, passing me close by as she goes from one person to the other. While she is playing with one of the persons, I will move ahead and the other person will also move ahead so that she is running in a zig-zag pattern. As she got better, we started to hide the persons more and more and she had some really nice ones where she ran straight out from me and found a person on scent.

This training is so much fun. You have to be very strategic as a handler. You need to place your helpers at the perfect spot, raise criteria gradually, think about the wind and plan everything so that your dog will smell the person when he does exactly as you want. Getting scent from a person is much like a click to the dog. You need to predict where your dog will find that scent and also prevent the dog from finding a person using a method you don’t like (like tracking or just running around). I also love how fast the dog catches on with the methods we’re using. If the reward is right, the dog will learn in very few sessions.