The big day has dawned bright and sunny, perfect temperature and mild breezes. A perfect competition day. TODAY you are going out there and knocking ‘em dead! This time it WILL work…
Don’t we all have that feeling when we rock up at a show? And for some it routinely all falls into place – ribbons and accolades, as is due. For others – the majority in fact, the day will melt into the memory of just another wasted, embarrassing, death on stage. At least that is how it feels at the time.
But why did your dog ‘fail’?
You’ve done the training; hours spent heeling, sitting straight and square, retrieving and staying. Or you’ve wiggled round cones until you’re dizzy, speed reading signs and executing dinner plate pivots to make a judge swoon. Perhaps agility is your thing? Your front crosses are to die for and your dog makes a gymnast look clumsy. In training at home or at class, you are UNBEATABLE!!!
In the ring? Not so much.
Over the next few blog posts I’m going to unpack some of the reason why things so often go soft fruit shaped in the ring.
Here is the first:
You, or your dog, are not fluent in the skills and behaviours required.
Surprisingly enough, this is one of the biggest issues I see with novice handlers. You’ve rushed into competing and one of you just doesn’t know the job yet!
So, what is ‘fluency”?
Fluency is a term more usually applied to language skills. If you are reading this without effort you’re undoubtedly a fluent reader of English. Not being fluent in a language could mean that you can’t speak a word of it or that you can order a meal at a restaurant but you’re never quite sure what you’ll end up with.
Fluency in behaviour/training is exactly the same. An individual who is fluent in a skill will be able to do the required behaviours easily and effortlessly even when under pressure, distracted or stressed. Think about driving a car; if you have ever found yourself at your destination without remembering a thing about the journey, you are definitely fluent in driving. The other thing to know about fluent behaviours is they are strong. They are resistant to extinction – a fancy way of saying they don’t evaporate the minute you leave the cookies and toys behind.
For many entry level performance dogs, their depth of training has put them at the ‘ordering a meal’ stage; they can get by, they’re usually close enough, but they are likely to make embarrassing mistakes if the restaurant is busy, or the waiter glares at them or speaks too quickly with a strong accent.
What this means is that when you ask the dog to perform in a novel environment, with high levels of distraction, when you are stressed and maybe not being as clean with your handling (speaking too fast with a strong accent!), your dog makes errors. Things fall apart.
How do you know when something is ‘fluent’?
Easy. Your dog can do it effortlessly, repeatedly, and reliably even with distraction and novelty. Each repetition of the behaviour should be a bit like watching one of those repeating GIFs – each one looks exactly like the last; no hiccups, no hesitations, no variation of quality.
Can you say that about ALL your competition behaviours? No? Then a lack of fluency might be your problem. (And don’t forget YOU need to be fluent in your handling skills as well.)
In PART TWO we’ll look at fluency from a slightly different perspective. See you soon!
-Sarah & The Gang
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