I am always telling my dog training clients to go slowly, and not to be afraid to go back a few steps before going forward. It is not easy to take this advice. I know, because I am guilty of not following it.
When I started training in agility with India, I made a common novice error and began competing before she was ready. I didn’t realize that she wasn’t ready and she did some things well so I just kept on going. Now, seven years later, we are paying the price. We have plateaued and I needed to figure out what to do next.
So I decided to take my own advice. We went back. I took advantage of the emergence of the USDAA Intro class, which is meant to help new dogs and handlers acclimate to competition (I wish it had been around when India and I started). It also allows more experienced teams to run "For Exhibition Only" and to train in the ring. This means that you can use a toy to reinforce your dog and to repeat things that don’t go right so that the dog can practice the correct behavior in a trial setting.
I decided to enter Intro for a few reasons:
- The event was held at a place we had never been to before and India is a dog that gets anxious in new places. This was a way to get her comfortable while not making her also deal with difficult courses.
- India is much faster in competition than in class so I needed the chance to practice handling her at high speed on an easier course.
- I am in the process of retraining her contact behavior and while I wasn’t ready to start using it, I didn’t want to put her in a situation where she would practice blowing her contacts (agility folks will understand what this means).
- I wanted to be successful. India has so much potential so it is frustrating when we struggle.
So how did it go? We had mixed results. Even on an easy course, India’s speed was a little too much for me in the first run (Jumpers). When I hesitate or don’t give her the information she needs at the precise moment she needs it, she checks out. This was also the first time competing at a place where there was another ring running right next to our ring and it was very distracting for her.
There were good things too. She stayed connected with me for the second two runs of the day (Standard and Gamblers) and did not blow her contacts. I learned that she doesn’t really care about toys when she is competing so that didn’t help but I also learned that she needs a lot of information, even on easy courses..
I bought a T-shirt from Transcendent Trainers while I was at the trial. It has a triskelion, a Celtic symbol associated with competition and progress, with paw marks integrated in the design. I am hoping that the shirt will help me remember to take it slowly and learn from my mistakes so that we can go forward.