This past weekend, the pups and I traveled down to Catawba, SC to show in the C2P2 CDSP trial weekend. It’s one of my favorite clubs to show with. Good people, great facility, and a lot of fun. And I have to admit we had a pretty successful weekend.

Spark struggled a bit, especially on day 2, but managed to hold it together just enough to qualify and get those last few points for her OTCH-C (YAY!). Gambit came out of semi-retirement and had a couple of BEAUTIFUL, happy Utility runs and picked up a High in Trial. Rugby made his Novice debut with a really lovely run (despite the heat at the end of the day) and picked up his first Novice leg with a 198.5, missing HIT by half a point. Those are all very good things, but that’s not what I want to brag on. I was proud of my dogs and their capabilities before we even went to the dog show. And really, I didn’t need (an embarassing amount of) ribbons to know they are great dogs. (I realize this makes me sound more noble than I really am. So to clarify, I most certainly DO like winning ribbons and titles. Quite a lot actually.)

This time I am actually most proud of… myself. Weird, right? Usually being proud of myself is the hardest. Heaven knows, I have no trouble blaming myself if we screw up a performance. But I often have a hard time being happy with myself for making good training decisions (which do occasionally happen). That’s silly of course, because I’m the first to tell you that clicker training is a lifestyle that includes treating everyone around you, including yourself, with respect and positive reinforcement. But it’s all a process, and I’m evolving.

So what amazing thing do I want to share with you? I’ve noticed for a long time that most ring performances are something of a deduction from our account with our dogs. Even if you are playing in an event that allows food and has more relaxed rules about play, there is something about the stress of performing in a trial that tends to errode a dog’s behaviors over time. Partly, I think it’s the pressure of the space itself, partly the duration and complexity of the work, and partly the reduced (or total lack) of reinforcement, and probably other factors, too. I’ve experienced this with my own dogs to varying degrees, and observed it in many others. And so frequently, the specific context and cues associated with “Dog Show” seem to become poisoned… making it very hard to address effectively in training where those cues aren’t present.

So as I’m bringing up Rugby to be my next competition dog, I’ve been thinking hard about what things I could do to insulate him against this effect. We go to show&gos and ring rentals and play, trying to condition happy, playful feelings in the presence of a show-like environment. We train at home and on the road to build strong, robust behaviors with huge reinforcement histories so that we have a really, really big account to draw from. But I still worry about that inevitable experience where he’s in the ring and it’s kinda hard, and not so fun…

So when I knew we were going to this trial, I decided I needed a plan. Rugby had all of the behaviors needed for CDSP Novice, and then some (he’s already got all of Open, and most of Utility is well-started). And he’s done portions of run throughs out and about, and full run throughs at home. So I felt pretty good about his behaviors. There was no real question in my mind that he could qualify, and probably with a pretty good score. In fact, I would have been shocked if he didn’t qualify. (They are dogs, and shit happens, but still… I would have been shocked.) So my primary concern is what could I do with *this* dog show that would be a good investment for his future career.

I decided my plan would be to take him in the ring, run him through just the heeling pattern, and then excuse ourselves and run to his mat for a jackpot. The exit-mat-jackpot chain is one that we have practiced to end his performances, and he has more than enough training to pull out the heeling pattern successfully in this environment at this point. So the goal would be for him to do a full warm-up, enter the ring, do a short period of work where he felt like a total rockstar… and then reinforce the hell out of him before he even had a chance to start looking at the ring gate.

As usual, the hard part here has nothing to do with the dog. It’s entirely me…

The night before, I caught myself thinking “I’ll take him in, and then see how we are doing, and I can excuse myself…” But wait, that way lies for sure completing the run, no matter what might be the most productive decision in the moment. BTDT.

Ok, time to change tactics on myself.

When I arrived at the trial that morning. I told everyone who stood still long enough (including our judge), that I planned to excuse myself after the heeling. Many, who had seen us training, were surprised… believing him more than capable of qualifying. But I explained my thinking and reasons for what I was doing… this had nothing at all to do with convincing friends of my rationale, and everything to do with reminding myself of my reasons. They were good reasons. STAY STRONG! DON’T GET SUCKED IN.

Then it was his turn in the ring… oh man, I was nervous! We did our warm-up more or less as planned. I had stationed his mat and food where they would be easily accessible from the gate. And so we went. And he was AWESOME! His heeling was spot on! Precise and animated… I felt like I was driving a scruffy brown racecar. Exactly what I wanted! If we kept going like this, we would be in line for a High in Trial! And there was the temptation… What kind of idiot deliberately NQs herself after a heeling performance like that?

This idiot.

I did it! The judge said “exercise finished” and I cued a hand touch and ran him out of the ring. He popped right on his mat and ate several handfuls of meatballs. If anything, he was surprised the training was over already. Exactly what I wanted to happen.

Real trial environment + small amount of really high quality work = LOTS OF COOKIES

Video proof (due to technical difficulties, only the second half of the pattern was recorded. But trust me, the first half was gorgeous.)