Are you new to trials?

If the answer to that question is ‘yes’ then welcome to the best dog sport ever! You might be wondering why I say that, what makes our sport so different. Well here is the challenge;
We allow and encourage our trials dogs to track, something we cannot do, and we ask them to show us where the track goes, and they lead us. We ask them to find articles that we have lost in a field. We build up their confidence to run away from us in a sendaway exercise that could be 150 yards, or more from us. We build up their confidence to scale a 6 foot barrier, to clear a 3 foot hurdle and jump a 9 foot long jump. We teach them to stay in a down in the middle of a field and then we walk a long way off and hide out of sight for ten minutes. All of these things build the dog’s confidence and independence.
Then we ask him to do exactly as he is told and get picky over his position in heelwork, we insist on obedience around the jumps, and we get really precise about where we want the dog to stop at the end of the sendaway. This is the challenge, to develop a relationship with your dog which encourages all the necessary attitude and enthusiasm to do these exercises and for you to maintain control. When you achieve this you will have a relationship second to none, one that encompasses mutual respect and understanding. That is the joy of trials.
So how do you start to train your dog for trials?

Training is a constant flow of information; from you to your dog, and from the dog back to you. The secret is not how to make him do it, but how to make him WANT to do it.

Any fool can put a lead on a dog and drag it into the heelwork position, but it takes time and patience to teach the dog what is required for working trials heelwork.

The Method of handling in working trials states that; ‘implicit obedience to all orders is necessary’ and states that; ‘dogs and handlers must operate in as free and natural a manner as possible.’ The heelwork exercise calls for ‘the dog to keep its shoulder reasonably close to the left knee of the handler who should walk smartly in a natural manner at normal, fast and slow paces through turns and among and around persons and obstacles. The halt, with the dog sitting to heel and a “figure of eight” may be included at any stage.’
A well known and respected obedience handler, John Higgins, said to me many years ago that heelwork was just a stay exercise – the dog simply had to learn to stay in the position relevant to the handler as you move through turns and change pace. How right he was and how simple is that? Just train the dog to want to stay by your left knee.

The best way I know to get a dog to want to be by my left knee is to constantly feed him there. If you use small pieces of meat, or kibble and feed one after the other the dog will soon learn that standing by your left leg is a good place to be as food is often served there! Please note I did not say go to a dog club, or out to the park and try to hand feed your dog by your left knee when all he wants to do is leap and lunge at the other dogs. This exercise (like most of the others) begins at home when there are no distractions. Remember you want him to WANT to be by your side and this will not be achieved by nagging, or telling him off, for not complying. If you apply my 2 basic rules of dog training you will become aware of the cause of non-compliance.

Anne Bussey’s Two Rules of Dog Training

  • Make it easy for the dog to get it right.
  • Provide sufficient reward.

If the environment is too distracting in the early training, you are obviously not making it easy for him. If he has just had his breakfast he may not want a piece of kibble from your hand. You get the idea.
If things go wrong as you progress through your training you will find these two rules very helpful in working out why things are not progressing as you want. Just ask yourself, why is he not doing it? Is it that he does not understand - in which case I need to make it easier for him, or is it that he does not want whatever you have on offer? By constantly reassessing these two criteria you should be able to work out how you need to alter your training to get the dog to want to do it.
Remember we said that training is a constant flow of information; from you to your dog, and from the dog back to you? Well this is where it starts. If your dog is not doing as you want him to, instead of trying to force him, look at what he is doing, or not doing, and apply the two rules. Take note of what he is telling you. It might be that you have asked too much and you cannot get him to focus on you and eat by your left leg with other dogs and people around. This will probably cause you some embarrassment and your likely response could be to tell him off - which would make you feel important again, but would do nothing to improve your relationship with your dog. All he would learn is to keep away from you when there are dogs and people around – the opposite of the message you want to convey!

Perhaps it would be better to save face by telling everyone he is having an ‘off day’ and taking him home to work a little longer on the basics. Never expect your dog to do anything with distractions until he knows it thoroughly when not distracted and then as you begin to add distraction, increase the reward. You may not have to go out and buy best beef to increase the reward; this can be increased simply by ensuring the dog is a little hungrier!

The first few outings for any new dog of mine would not be to train him, but instead just to feed and play and monitor his responses. If he would not eat because he was over-aroused or fearful I would not contemplate working him no matter how well he knew his exercises at home. Sometimes what we want and what we get is not the same. It takes time and patience to build a good working relationship with a dog, but when we have that good relationship; it becomes so much easier to train the dog the exercises we want to teach.

If your dog is mature and after reading the above, you realise that your dog switches off from you when you get to your training field, do not despair; it is not too late to change things. Just stop doing what you are doing (it is not working anyway) and begin to take him just to feed. I do not mean put a bowl of food on the floor, I mean repeatedly hand feed as above, maybe in the heelwork position. He will think it is his birthday and wonder why you have stopped nagging!
After numerous repetitions your dog will come to like you on the training field and he will look to you instead of looking away all the time. Now he is ready to begin training.
More next time...

Anne Bussey

Please Note: for an in depth method of teaching stays, Anne’s booklet ‘Teach Your Dog to Want to Stay’ is available from