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Skill Prep And Trial Prep

When you're thinking about preparing your dog for future trials it can feel overwhelming. There are so many things to train and prepare for and it's hard to prioritize what to work on.


I like to divide my thinking into "skill development" and "ring prep" for trials.

The categories aren't neat; they overlap greatly. But it's helpful for me to have 2 buckets to pull from.


Skill Development

Skill development sessions are focused on the specific skills I need at each level of competition. Not the full exercises, but the individual pieces. I'm specifically working on training a new behavior or challenging my dog's understanding of a well known one.


In obedience that includes all the pieces from novice to utility (it's more fun to start the baby steps of the higher levels from the start!), broken down to the smallest parts. For example, heeling includes working on the focus of that 1st step of heeling, halts, tight turns and pivots, etc. In agility working a threadle cue could look like using a pre-placed reward at various spots to help get the turn, or adding speed, changing the handler's position, etc.


Their behavior may be fairly variable, meaning some are great and some are OK, and some aren't meeting criteria at all. You will want a very HIGH rate of rewards to increase their confidence. Reward every rep that meets the criteria and make sure success is high. Have a specific goal that you're working on and split, split, split!


Trial Prep

Trial prep sessions are focused on at least one aspect of preparing for a trial. This list includes

  • Working with rewards at a distance

  • Duration of work- number of cues and total time before rewards

  • Focused ring entrances

  • Transitions between exercises/ moving to the startline

  • Delays in the ring

  • How to handle any interaction with the judge and stewards

  • And a whole lot more that we practice in my Ring Confidence class at FDSA!

Technically when first starting out, the behaviors I need for trial prep are new and are really skill development. I work on each piece individually with high rate of rewards. I'm teaching the dog what I want them to do at each part.


But ultimately I start to combine the pieces into mini chains. Each piece of the chain should feel easy in terms of the skills involved. And while I'm challenging the dog to start putting those skills together, the challenge should feel achievable to the dog. I want them to know how to win!


When I'm working on trial prep I will ignore minor errors in precision as long as I have good focus and a happy dog. I make note of what the errors are, and plan to address those later in my skill development sessions.


Setting Up Your Sessions

The majority of my sessions are pulled from that skill development bucket. I'm actively teaching the dog the individual pieces and making them stronger. Even with an experienced dog, I'm rarely going through full exercises in obedience or full courses in agility.


Here I'm working Ginny on the never ending skills of fronts. I'm challenging her ability to maintain front as I move, including doing sidesteps. I then do some cookie tosses to fronts but all at extreme angles to work on that rear end engagement. I reward every correct response and this falls neatly into that skill development bucket:


I try to work at least some parts of the trial prep bucket whenever I am "out and about" with the dog. Can the dog do some focused ring entrances with rewards at a distance? Can I add in a setup and a transition?


Here with Loot I'm at a dog friendly store working on ring entrances. The first rep the rewards are in my pocket and I add in a halt (no auto sit was trained yet) and I mime the leash removal. Then I put the rewards at a distance and work on the same skill. This is very baby trial prep!



After a bit of working on ring prep, I might switch over to more specific skills that I want to work on in that environment. It's ok to mix up the 2 buckets in a single session!


And finally, as the dog gets more advanced the buckets start to overlap quite a bit.

I still have some very obvious skill development sessions where I'm challenging a specific aspect. (Fronts are never ending!!) But I also have sessions where that challenge involves taking exercises out of context and combining them in interesting ways to test their understanding. Such as working position changes after their go out, or a directed jumping to the article pile.


My goal of such combinations are to keep the dog thinking and to introduce new variables such as more speed and arousal before thinking behaviors. It also has that ring prep lean to it of having more duration of work before the reward. I can play even play with using more preferred/naturally more reinforcing behaviors directly after the less preferred behaviors as a reward that doesn't involve the use of food/toys.


In this video of a session almost 10 years ago with Lance, I combined a drop on recall with baseball gloves. Each part was taught separately, but here they are combined in a novel way. Typically the baseball exercise was done with a go out towards the middle glove, not a drop on recall running away from the middle glove! I have 3 gloves out here although they are hard to see.

If you’re getting stuck on what to train, one solution that works for a few of my students is to write a list of ”skills” down on a notecard. One skill for each card. Then make a few cards in another pile have various ring prep ideas on them- ideas such as ring entrances, transitions and setups, or chaining multiple baby exercises.


At home you may decide to draw a few cards from the skill pile only, ignore the ring prep pile. But if you have access to more space, try to grab at least 1 or 2 ring prep cards and add a skill card to your pile too if you have time.


Some of us may need to be more pushed to work on the ring prep aspect than others. You may decide a visual calendar works best for you!

If these ideas sound new to you or a bit overwhelming, you may wish to join my novice obedience prep class starting in a few days at Fenzi Dog Sports. We will be discussing the "skills" for novice obedience, broken down into those little pieces. And we will be introducing the dog to the "trial prep" skills you eventually will be using to help form your behavior chains.




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