GET THE BASICS
Over many years of teaching dog training for working trials, I’ve come to the conclusion that new students tend to have been through the mill of dog clubs, gradually progressing to the Good Citizen Gold, and then stumbled upon Working Trials as a way forward. These are the folks that this article is for.
Although the "Gold" seems, and is, a huge achievement for a person new to dog training, in reality it’s only just started to scratch the surface of training when starting out on the journey of training for the discipline which we call Working Trials.
So, where do we begin?
There are five basic elements which I start work on, first mainly as homework; these basic skills are what the dog needs to understand. Firstly to recall in a responsive manner. In this context the recall I’m looking for is recalling the dog from the relative freedom of running loose during exercise; by responsive I mean the dog responding fairly rapidly despite possible distractions - the goal is on one command.
The second of the five is coming crisply to heel on one command, with the dog ending up sitting neatly and reasonably straight at heel, preferably without loads of arm waving shoulder twisting and feet shuffling.
The third element is to go down on one command, again preferably without lots of arm waving, shouting and pointing.
The forth element is to retrieve an object to hand without mouthing.
The fifth element is play, via retrieving or games of tug.
The reasons behind the emphasis on these elements are perhaps not as obvious as one might think. The five elements mentioned are an integral part of many exercises which are more demanding and sometimes quite complex, but a basic understanding of these elements will provide a useful starting point.
1st Element: Recall
First, stating the obvious, a responsive and relaxed recall is very useful; in life it enables the dog to be exercised without the restriction of the lead. Not quite so obvious is that a lot of the exercises that will be taught go through mildly stressful periods of training; this is quite unavoidable and the best way to relieve this stress is to gently work through the problem till the dog achieves a good understanding of what is required. This will, in effect, cure the stress allowing the dog to become thoroughly competent. It is very common when the signs of stress show to try very hard to avoid the situation which is causing it; however, avoiding anything which will cause stress will seriously impede training and avoiding problems is akin to papering over the cracks - it always comes back to haunt you.
When training the clear jump, for instance, the dog will from time to time knock the bar off the jump. A sharp intake of breath from the handler will cause the dog to become aware of the handler’s disappointment, and the stress caused by this will sometimes cause the dog to return to the perceived safety of the vehicle. A strong down (more about this later) and a good recall will allow the dog to offer a behaviour which will please the handler, so the training can continue with as little stress as possible. On the other hand if the handler has to return to the vehicle to collect the dog, the dog will almost certainly perceive the handler coming to fetch it as a cause for greater stress; this will seen by the dog as being caused by the jump, so accidentally catching the bar on a clear jump can become a much bigger deal instead of a non event.
2nd Element: Coming crisply to heel on one command.
Many of the exercises start with the dog at heel. When approaching a jump or sendaway if the dog sits at a bad angle the handler will have to reposition the dog physically, at which point the dog will become focused on the handler’s hands and become aware of being moved into a suitable position. This will cause a loss of focus on the exercise required, causing the oncoming task to have a confused mental background. This is applies on of the all elements of the agility, the sendaway, the search square, the speak, retrieve, stays, and, of course, heelwork.
3rd Element: Down on command.
Within Working Trials there is always much discussion about whether you need to use the down after the jumps, or at the end of the Sendaway. The argument put forward against that is that if I tell my dog to wait it can’t do a wrong position. This argument may be based on the fact that the handler is too lazy to teach the down. The down is a submissive position in the dog’s mind so can be a little difficult to teach; the downside of not teaching it is that the handler, being lazy, will not teach any position correctly so the exercise will become an ‘on command wander about and stop when you’re ready’. The dog being left with an unclear command, it will often creep back towards the handler; this can cost a lot of points on the sendaway, but on the jumps if it creeps past the last element of any of the jumps it will lose all the points gained, and worst of all, there is a real possibility of getting too close to the scale. Then on trying to return it may hurt itself by falling back, because it tried to return from a bad position. This will create lots of work having to retrain the scale to overcome the negative effect of a fall from the scale.
4th Element: Retrieving without mouthing.
Obviously, mouthing on the retrieve exercise will incur a minor points loss; however the real problems occur when teaching the Search Square. It is always a problem keeping the dog focused and motivated while searching, and if you have problems either getting the dog to return to hand (recall), or with the pick up or mouthing on the return, all these elements of the retrieve will cause the dog to lose focus and motivation. These elements need to be sorted out while training the retrieve and not left to create problems on the search square. Mouthing small articles can lead to the dog swallowing the smaller articles which are part of the higher stakes. Swallowed articles have been known to lead to surgery, with all the risks and costs involved.
5th Element: Play via retrieving or games of tug.
Play when well taught and structured will provide the desire and Motivation that will help the dog develop the determination which is required for most of the major Working Trials exercises.