Make the Most of Your Training

By Sharon Hodgens-Woods (June 2012)

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Saint Paul Dog Training Club Newsletter. It is reprinted here with the author's permission.

I have taught many obedience classes, done countless run-thrus, and judged many fun matches over the years. More recently, I judged AKC obedience trials. I believe handlers have problems in the ring because they don't use their training time and run-thrus effectively.

Just as a judge must have a picture in his mind of the ideal perfect performance, so must the handler of his own performance as well as the dog's. So spend a little time thinking about what that means to you. Not every handler aspires to a 200, but most of us want to qualify and want our dog to work happily in the ring.

Now think about how to accomplish your ideal perfect performance. There are myriad methods out there designed to keep our dog's attitude happy, increase drive, and motivate the dog to pay attention. Most involve food, toys, praise, tricks, etc. Find which one or combination works well for your dog. Pay attention and if something does not have the effect you want, DON'T KEEP DOING IT. Talk to instructors—they usually have quite a bag of tricks—go to seminars, read training books, and talk to other exhibitors whose performance you admire.

Once you have found the things that work for your dog's attitude, you need to accept that the dog will not work reliably for that positive motivation alone. There also needs to be an element of compulsion. The dog needs to understand that he must perform as directed by you. Again, you will need to find what level of compulsion works for your dog. This will range from a quick tug on his buckle collar to a quick hard pop on a pinch collar. The most important thing here is that the correction needs to be effective enough to impact the dog's behavior and it needs to be done unemotionally—no yelling or anger on the handler's part. And NO NAGGING, begging, coaxing or luring.

Okay, now say you've found the perfect motivator and you know how much correction is needed to convince your dog he needs to work. Now the task is to teach yourself when to use these tools. You need to train your eye to recognize any lapses from that ideal perfect performance you have in your mind. That means you have to be mentally judging the dog's performance anytime you're training-and that includes run-thrus. Remember, pretty good is not good enough. If it's pretty good in training, it will be less so in the ring. And sometimes WAY less so. Once you can recognize small errors and correct them, it's time to train yourself to anticipate errors and be prepared to automatically correct. For example, if you observe that more often than not your dog is out of position on about turns and you find yourself having to correct for lagging out of the about turns, you should anticipate that it will happen that way and correct going in to the about instead.

Be mentally prepared to train when you go to class. When you train at home, don't squeeze it in and hurry through with your mind on everything else you have to do that day. Make a mental note of the areas that consistently need correction so that you can automatically correct for them. Don't get so focused on correction that you forget about the motivation part. Use the breaks between exercises to work on attitude.

Run-thrus are probably the most misused area in dog training. The mistakes that happen in a run-thru are the same ones I see in the ring. People tend to use a run-thru to "see" what the dog will do in a ring situation. All well and good if the dog does everything right, but what if he doesn't? What if he does glove corner go-outs or gets lost on an about-turn? All too often I see the handler do nothing or give a second command in a run-thru because they want to "see" what the dog will do. If you allow the mistake to happen, you have just told the dog it's okay to do it that way sometimes. Especially sometimes in the ring. Mistakes during run-thrus need to be corrected the same as in training, so be prepared to do so. Run-thrus should also be used to teach going from exercise to exercise and to set up at the start of each exercise. You don't need to heel from one spot to another, but find out how best to use that "free" time to keep your dog focused. And I have to say that nothing aggravates a judge more than the handler who can't get the dog in position at the start of an exercise. Getting the dog in heel position is simply a finish. If your dog knows finish from a front, he knows how to finish from anywhere. Insist that he do it and correct as if he didn't finish on a front.

This is a fun hobby for most of us, so don't make a chore out of it. We all want to enjoy our time with our dogs, so keep an upbeat attitude yourself. Trust me, it can be done. You can correct, praise and do it "happily" with just a little practice. It won't be that much fun if it's like pulling teeth to get the dog to work, so pay attention to what you are teaching the dog, reward what you want and correct what you don't. Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it?