Of course, there are obvious things like “don’t enter before you are ready” and “read the rulebook” (if you haven’t read it, you can find the AKC rulebook here), but you don’t need me to tell you that. And frankly, I’ve been told that many times, and it just irritates me. I won’t waste your time or mine. I’m always more interested on specific things I should anticipate or plan for. That’s what this list is about.
#1. Overtraining the week before the trial
The show is coming. It’s this weekend! It’s totally normal to feel freaked out and want to “cram” a lot of training into the last few days before the trial. Resist the urge. Realistically, you’ve been training this dog for a year, maybe more… At this point, your dog is either trained or he’s not. Ok, so it’s never that binary when it comes to something as complex as dog sports, but seriously… nothing you do this week will fix a broken exercise and it’s certainly not the time to teach something entirely new.
Your mental state under these conditions is not going to lend itself to doing your best work. You are much more likely to get caught up, suffer a relapse of “just one more” syndrome, and have panicky, emotional reactions to errors (which are suddenly SO obvious in your sensitized state). That means a high likelihood of poisoning one of your precious performance cues by pairing it with unpleasant feelings (on both your parts). And with the trial so close, you won’t have time to undo any damage.
Basically, the training sessions you have right before a competition are high risk, low benefit. So plan your last serious training session at least a week before you compete. In the days leading up to the trial, focus your sessions on small bits and pieces, fun stuff, or even just straight up play.
The best thing you can do for your performance is make sure you and your dog are fresh and rested coming into the trial, and full of feelings of cooperation and affection.
For my own dogs, I practice mostly foundation exercises the week before a trial. Often I’ll focus on something I know is a weaker piece, but work on the foundation skill for that bit … so that might mean bringing out my pivot platform and working rear end control on my dog who struggles with left turns. I might do a lot of fast, fun pick ups with my dog who worries about retrieving. But I do zero full exercises, and definitely no run-throughs. And LOTS of play mixed in. The day before the trial? We do no training at all. A hike (something we enjoy together) and then an early bedtime. That’s it!
#2. Trying to fade food right before the dog show
The positive trainer’s worst fear: Getting the behavior without food! AHHH!!!
Of course, we know teaching the exercises is (relatively) easy… but getting the dog to perform them in the ring when we have no food? Terrifying! Food in the hand can certainly become a crutch for many teams… a security blanket for the handler and a powerful cue for the dog. Nothing says “Reinforcement is available!” like a hotdog in your hand.
Yes, we do need to make sure that the presence of food on our bodies is not a part of our performance, that our cues are clean, and the dog trusts that reinforcement is available even if it’s not obvious or nearby. That’s really part of our foundation, not finish work. We need to work clean cues (free of prompting or luring) and not-obvious primary reinforcement into the training plan from the very beginning.
With the dog show looming over your head, you likely feel a great deal of pressure to make sure the dog will be able to complete the entire performance without a primary reinforcer. So, the temptation is to suddenly start asking for long chains of behavior without reinforcing. And of course, if food-in-hand has been part of your cue picture for a long time, you will see a LOT of errors. Which will cause you to panic. Which increases the likelihood that you will react emotionally (and aversively) and poison your cues. Not a good path. Trust me… I’ve walked down that one!
So what if you’re in the spot where you didn’t work on having food “over there” instead of on your body into your foundation, and you are entered in a trial next week? Well, you have 2 choices. 3 really.
Choice 1: Do nothing. Train just as you normally do. Hope that your reinforcement history is enough to carry you through this weekend. Sometimes it works! You might get lucky, and you can thank the universe for that gift and pledge to come up with a more complete training plan before the next trial.
Choice 2: Go ahead and start working on fading the food and cleaning up your cues, but do it smart. Revisit your very first baby steps in the progression you used to teach the exercises, but this time put the food on a chair. The smaller the behaviors, the better. This fits beautifully with the suggestion from above, because you’ll be reviewing those foundation games already. For example, bring out your pivot platform, and let your dog offer to come into heel. But with the food on a chair nearby, your hand empty, and posture formal. Reinforce as frequently as you would a puppy, but do it by getting the food from the chair to hand to the dog. This makes sure your cue is clean and the food isn’t part of the immediate picture. Work on moving the chair farther and farther away. You definitely won’t finish the process in that short amount of time, but at least you’ll have started it.
Choice 3: Scratch. Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. Hey, it happens! There will be other dog shows. The club has already got your money, so just consider it a donation. Nobody likes to see an unhappy handler and a struggling dog, so don’t feel compelled to show up just because you entered. Use the time to work on your training plan (maybe using a helpful template if you have one laying around…), and look for a different show to enter down the road.
#3. Blaming Yourself
As positive trainers, we know better than to blame our dogs (of course!). We know (and remind ourselves frequently) that training is a process, it’s never linear, and that any mistakes the dog might make are due to incompletely trained skills. It’s just behavior, and all behavior is modifiable (loosely quoting Karen Pryor).
It’s harder to take that same attitude with ourselves. We are always our own worst critics (well, maybe except for your mother-in-law.) But remember, we are shaping behavior in ourselves, too. We are all still learning! We are entitled to make mistakes. Whether it’s your first dog show, your first child, or your first pancake… you are GOING to screw up. Probably several times. Be prepared to burn that first pancake, feed it to the dogs, and then move on, knowing the next pancakes will be better.
When I was struggling with ring stress/arousal problems with my first dog, people told me over and over that it was *my* nervousness that was causing the problem. “Stress runs right down the leash, you know!” You know how helpful that was? NOT AT ALL! Being told that my stress was ruining my dog did absolutely nothing to HELP ME FEEL LESS NERVOUS! It’s about equivalent to my dad yelling “I’ll give you something to cry about!” Oh, ok! I get it now. I’ll just stop being nervous at dog shows then. <eye roll> (News flash: I still get crazy nervous at dog shows, and always build time for multiple bathroom trips into my trial day schedule.)
Is my dog’s performance in large part a reflection of training and handling? Of course! And as my skills in those areas improve with mindful practice, so have my dogs’ performances. But I wasn’t born an amazing dog handler. It’s a journey.
So clearly, that’s just the tip of the soapbox (I get very… enthusiastic sometimes), but I hope it’s helpful! I’d love to hear from you. What scares you most about getting ready for your first dog show? Already have the first trial under your belt? What do you wish you’d known before you went? Let me know in the comments or shoot me an email.