I have a young dog just starting his experiences of trial environments. He’s NOSY! He’s distracted! He has testicles that frequently override his brain cells! However, somehow despite all this, I have to teach him, nicely, that offering to work with me is a great thing to do.
Maybe you have a young dog in the same phase of training? Maybe you have similar issues or your dog isn’t confident in trial situations? Whatever the reason for your dog’s distractibility I can tell you from experience that forcing the issue will not get you the results you want. A predictable, pre-trained routine and some understanding of what’s going on in your dog’s head, will.
Multi-tasking is not efficient
Most dogs train and perform best when they are relaxed and feel safe in a place. With this in mind it makes sense to give them the opportunity to really check out their training/trialing space BEFORE we ask for attention to us or any type of ‘work’. If we don’t, we end up with a dog who is trying to multi-task, check out the space AND pay attention etc. This is less than ideal! Whether your dog is the sticky-beak kind or the looking-for-monsters kind, giving them time to acclimate and assimilate what’s going on around them will help them become more able to focus on the job in hand.
Does it really work?
Many people will argue that allowing a dog to look around and sticky-beak will teach them to ignore you in these situations. However, this isn’t really the case as long as you teach the process thoughtfully. As an example, my previous competitive dog, Breezy, was a horror for sticky-beaking and wanting to do his own thing. He’s part husky, so independent attitude sorta came along as part of the package. ‘Making’ him do anything was so far from successful as to be totally pointless to try.
I spent a number of training sessions never getting much beyond ‘can you reorient to me?’ and on one memorable occasion spent 45 minutes (yes, really!) waiting for him to realise that NOTHING interesting was going to happen until he acknowledged I was still on the end of the lead. We were in a completely empty field at the time! Did it work? Was my patience rewarded? Yep, that dog went on to be an Obedience Grand Champion who adored his work.
Why does it work?
This process works for a few of different reasons:
- You remove the requirement to multi-task. Your dog has all the information he needs to feel safe and know what’s going on around him. Once he has that he can concentrate fully on the task in hand.
- You’re building your training from a place of predictability. Your dog learns that when we do ‘this routine’ fun stuff will follow.
- Following on from (2) there is a classical (emotional) association built that ‘primes’ your dog for what is coming next – fun training/work with you.
- It allows you to monitor your dog’s arousal (a mental ‘barometer’ if you like) and so avoid failure in the work itself. If your dog can’t go through the steps as usual, you know he’s unlikely to be able to give you his best in the training session you had planned. In that case you may as well quit while you’re ahead instead of digging a nice big hole that you’ll have to fight your way out of later!
Here is my pre-training/trialing routine.
I do it any time I ask the dog to work away from my very familiar indoor areas.
- Prepare treats well before needed. You don’t want treat prep to be the cue for training!
- With dog still in the car or indoors, set up training gear and mat, load pockets etc. Again, you don’t want that set up and pocket loading to be a cue for work.
- Get dog – harness and longish lead is ideal.
- Go for a relaxed wander around the training/trial area. Allow the dog to sniff and check things out. Remember that for dogs, scents change, even if the place looks exactly the same to us each time.
- Allow the dog to look at whatever is going on around him. Take your time, don’t rush. You want your dog to be comfortable and relaxed. Steps 3 – 5 should take 10 minutes or more. (The video below shows me doing this with young Felix)
- Can he take treats? Some dogs look relaxed but are still emotionally too wired to eat. Once he can take treats happily (without taking your fingers too), move on.
- Can he disengage from the environment? Remove the harness. Play the attention game – toss the food far enough that he has to turn well away from you to get the treat. Can he turn back and re-engage immediately? Or is he ‘sticky’, taking a second or two to gawp before re-engaging? All fast and good? Move on. Sticky? Harness back on and go back to wandering for a few more minutes, or move further from the action, then try the attention game again.
- Can he respond to well-known cues like touch, spin, down etc? Yes? All snappy and clean? Go on to your training session. Incorrect, slow or messy response? Go back to the attention game.
Here’s a vide showing me working Felix through these steps. You can read the accompanying blog post with further details here.
Don’t rush the teaching process!
All of these steps need to be practiced and your dog able to comfortably do each one before you actually start your ‘training’ session, and definitely before you think about trialing. Start teaching the routine in quiet, familiar places so you can be successful. Gradually build up to busier and busier places. The idea is that your dog learns that the routine predicts fun work/training with you.
If you misjudge the distraction level be prepared to scratch a training plan if your dog just isn’t ready to work. Or accept he’s telling you that for some reason he can’t concentrate in the environment, or doesn’t feel great today or whatever. No point at all in trying to work a dog who is only half there so don’t risk breaking things or building unpleasant associations by pushing it.
If you’re at a trial and your dog can’t do his pre-trial routine OUTSIDE the ring, maybe you should consider scratching. If he can’t work with you outside the ring, what are the chances he’ll be able to offer you 100% INSIDE it? Zero. Trust me. I speak from experience here.
By building a predictable pre-work routine we can greatly increase the odds that our dogs will be willing and able to give us 100% in our training and trialing. It takes away the conflict so many of us experience when our wants and requirements clash with what our dogs are able and willing to give us.
It allows them to feel safe and check out their surroundings and build an expectation of what will follow once they are ready. Most dogs progress through the routine faster and faster as they become more familiar with the pattern – and on the rare occasions the routine goes awry you’re given the ‘head’s up’ that all is not well in your dog’s mind BEFORE everything really goes to custard. What’s not to love? Why not take the time to build a pre-work routine into your everyday training and see how it helps you and your dog?
– Sarah and the Gang
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