There have been lively discussions lately about "baby dogs" starting to trial in agility!
Some heated thoughts surrounding how to both support our fellow community members and how to make sure dogs entered in trials are truly ready to be there.
One thing that's certain is starting off with a new dog is an exciting and often nerve-wracking experience, whether it's your 5th agility dog or your first!
We don't yet know what our dogs are going to do out there even if we have a pretty good guess. Are they actually ready?! Do they just need more "ring experience?"
Much of the discussion has been around dogs running around the ring sniffing, visiting bar setters, and general difficulty engaging between obstacles. This is super stressful for both the human and dog! We clearly thought things were going to go ok if we entered the show!
I don't think these dogs who leave to go sniff or run a quick lap should be immediately dismissed. But I do think that as handlers we need to take everything the dog is doing in the ring as feedback and develop a training plan to help them through it.
And often that training plan means the dog needs to stop trialing for a bit to give us time to actually help them!
Unfortunately, a lot of people don't know HOW to help the dog. Many agility classes just aren't set up to include ring prep and really work on all those little pieces that need to be in place.
So people keep trialing. And keep struggling.
And sometimes the dogs do work through it. Possibly just pure maturity (we start SO young!), and often a bit of relying on the fact that dogs are absolutely amazing in their ability to figure things out despite our uncertainty on what we're actually doing!
But more time spent trialing is not the answer to fixing it. It's well-intentioned, but not a plan that relies on training and not just luck.
I hear so many of you shouting at me that you can't replicate that environment at home! Your dog isn't stressed in practice! Your dog doesn't visit familiar people from their classes!
These are direct quotes from recent threads, with hundreds of similar ones!
"Some things can't be addressed anywhere, but a trial environment."
"Unless I run her in trails and we can work it out in the ring, like a FEO run, it will never happen"
I hear you.
And I still believe that there is a LOT that we can do in practice to prepare our dogs without needing them to be in the actual trial ring.
I want to start all these things at home! In my living room! And gradually take them on the road to different environments. Environments that have nothing to do with dog training such as empty parking lots, parks, dog-friendly hardware stores, etc.
This not only tests their ability to be comfortable and ready to work in different places, but it makes our routines SO solid! That helps both of us be able to do the routines under pressure, including the back up plans of handling delays, small difficulties in setting up, etc!
Knowing what to expect decreases anxiety.
Knowing what to do builds confidence.
Many of you might be saying that your dog is absolutely perfect outside of the ring. They have amazing focus, ignore everything and everyone but you, and then as soon as you enter the ring everything changes in an instant.
That is every single student of mine in the hundreds of people I've coached through my Ring Confidence classes.
And I agree with you. Going through those magical gates is hard!! And trials ARE different than practice!
But now honestly ask yourself if you've done the work to bring those trial routines and the little pieces that are hard for your dog into practice.
Do you regularly practice setting the rewards down at a distance and moving through the gate?
Can you keep your dog engaged while you remove the leash and THEN walk to setup, no treats or toys on you?
Can your dog set up near a friend acting as a bar setter? What if that bar setter just set the jump right in front of you and know runs to sit in the chair right behind your setup spot?
A group of people leaning over the gate and staring as you go to setup?
A delay on the startline?
What about moving to the leash at the end of the run? Even with another dog entering the ring and tugging or even barking at their owner?
I admit a lot of the advanced ring prep work involves helpers. It is really hard to fully prepare for a trial without access to others.
But SO much of the initial ring prep work can be done without any of that. And that makes your team fully ready to jump straight into that helper work anytime you get access to a class, a seminar, or fun match!
And if you don't have access to any of those non-trial events, I do think there is a lot of value in FEO/NFC runs. But I want to see as many of those pieces of the puzzle in place first in as many different environments as possible. Take 2 jumps and ring gating to a park! A friend's backyard!
This is a topic I've blogged on quite a bit before, and I encourage you to read these other posts on this topic.
My 6 week class on this topic is my absolute favorite class to teach. I just love helping people develop a plan with their dogs to help their ring stress! Join us, ideally before your dog starts trialing, but if you're already struggling, we can develop that training plan!
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As a thank you, I've created a free mini webinar on how to get your dog started in working with rewards at a distance!