Waiting Game - The hidden problem to your search
Updated: Aug 2, 2022
Waiting is pretty common! You will need to wait in the parking lot, you will need to wait at a chair or gate, you will need to possibly wait on the starting line for a judge to be ready. Finally, you might need to wait for results!
Is your dog ready for this part of the competition?
Waiting can be looked at from 2 different perspectives:
Preparing your dog for the waiting part of the game
Being a good advocate for your dog when you have the power to do so.
You can't avoid waiting at a competition. You will wait in the parking lot and then wait some more in staging areas. You can train yourself and your dog for these situations, you can manage your way through them, or do both.
1. Waiting in the parking lot (or at your setup). This part of the game happens and you need to build this part of the game into your dog's routine. You can do this by going to classes or getting together with friends to set hides and allow them to age. If you crate in the car between turns, your dog will know they have a space where they can decompress and relax between searches.
Tips and tricks for helping your dog to learn to wait
If your dog struggles with accepting the downtime, it can cause major issues when you get to a trial! This mental struggle can carry over and cause focus issues in your searches.
Training - Build up the time they need to be confined - in your car in restraint or in a crate.
Go on field trips and set odor in nearby parks (a good thing for training novel spaces!). You can set your one or two hides and then hang out with your dog at the car for the time it takes for your hides to age (30 minutes?!).
Take your dog with you as you run easy/quick errands (like drive through, or picking up curbside delivery). The goal is not to have a party at the end destination (like a park) because then your dog will start to associate the car with extremely exciting things ALWAYS happening! You want your car to be zen and boring.
Doing tasks in your front yard! Put your dog in the car and be near to connect (praise, support, treats) with them as they learn to settle while you work. Keep the time in the car within their ability to manage!
Management - Using food toys can be a great way to help your dog understand that crate time isn't a bad time, but just hanging out time. I like to sit beside my dogs while they are learning this piece, making it easier for them to focus on their stuffed kong or pickle. Once they get comfortable and able to focus on the food, their body will start to relax and their brain become more relaxed. Bully sticks can work too, and so can bones, but be sure your dog is safe with these before you walk away! My dogs would consume something like that and it wouldn't be safe, so I stick with peanut butter or yogurt mixed with kibble in their kongs.
Know yourself and your dog. If you are the type that wants to volunteer or mingle with others, be sure that your dog is happy with that too. Dogs newer to trialing can stress when you aren't there, so don't poison your dog's trial experience if they aren't able to cope with you too far away for long. I learned this lesson with my first flattie in agility. She would be so anxious that I was away that she would stress in the ring. Once I recognized this and spent time with her, we started to connect much more in the ring!
2. Waiting in staging areas. This piece of the day can be really simple for some dogs and really HARD for others! As a handler, you want to be able to balance your dog's ability to not get too distracted while waiting, but also not get them so focused only on you that you burn up all their focus before the search. Here are a few things that have helped me:
"Squish" (Also called "middle") - this position is when your dog is safely between your legs and it is a signal to the dog that they are not currently expected to work, but also it's not free time to wander and sniff anything (borrowed and adapted from Denise Fenzi, her's is a little more "Ready to work" than my version of Squish). I ask my dog to have this position anytime I can't actively engage with them. I feed while they are in this position, or I am free to look around. I can feel their body on my legs, which helps keep me connected even if my attention is on the gate steward or watching another dog walk by. This position also works when sitting in a chair. It needs to be practiced if you want it to be fluent/"easy" at a trial!
Arousal management - Some dogs will stress down (sniffing ground, hard to get to focus on you again) or stress up (higher arousal, intense interest in environment or people or things). The staging area can provide your dog with the time that unfortunately allows them to stress. Being able to observe and act before your dog becomes over/under aroused can really help your search. Play can help bring a dog up, while thoughtful food games can keep a dog from seeking triggers to stress up. I like slow treats (food slowly moving to their mouth), tossed cookies and released to get it, or practicing chin rest or nose holds.
Play - Best saved for last staging area when you won't wear our their energy or focus. Using play - personal, toy, or food, can help keep your dog connected and engaged, even though the staging area can be boring. It encourages that connection that can be lost when we "Rush to wait", something so common for dog competition! Play can be quiet (impulse control games, soft bitey hands, etc), or it can be repetitive (tossed cookies one direction then the next, tossed treats, cookie scatters). The goal is to find the right level of arousal and focus without wearing them out!
Stay focused on your dog - There can be friends or friendly people at the staging areas, resist the urge to talk too much with them. Your dog came out of the car ready to play with you, it's not quite fair for your to disconnect and then expect them to fight to reconnect as soon as you get to the search area. If you are a volunteer, don't worry if a handler doesn't want to talk to you at all!
Self-queueing trials. These seem like a great idea and can be quite good if there is organization and the ability to know when the next dog is going. What they often turn into is a long line where all competitors feel like they will miss their run and so there is a line of dogs 10-15 long. Waiting 5 minutes is HARD on a dog, waiting 20, or 60 minutes? Really hard for any dog. Your searching focus and energy (and your dog's) will very much suffer from this.
It is better to spend that time for both of you waiting at your set up, keeping an eye on the gate and enjoy your day! It's ok to step back and wait for an opening. You can also communicate to the gate steward if your dog might struggle in line. Leave them in the car and know when you need to go get them.
Being an advocate for your dog
You always should be your dog's advocate. You can make decisions that will make the future of your sniffing journey much more enjoyable, even if it means walking away from a bad experience or adjusting your goals. These experiences should be rare, and in that it makes it even harder as a human to accept when the situation just sucks and isn't fair for your dog.
Here is an example - Hard environments. I attended an NW3 trial a few years ago and at this trial, unknown to the trial host when the trial was planned, the nearby airforce was doing recertifications of fighter jet pilots. This meant that F35 planes were dropping and hovering above our trial site, then accelerating on top of us. It was deafening and completely frightening for many of the dogs. They were doing these maneuvers during our first searches but then stopped for the majority of the day, only to start up again at the end. I ran my morning searches and Tana found zero hides in both interior searches, I talked her into a false alert as well... So we were out! 2 searches and we were done. She looked like she was searching, but in reality, she was going through the motions. Once the fighter jets were done, she was fine and had some really nice searches! We actually won the Vehicle search and earned our NW3 proficiency for vehicles. BUT when they started flying the F35s again, she started shaking and I made a decision that the day wasn't worth it and we drove home (enjoying a hamburger together). Such a hard decision for us (we have never left a trial early before or since), but one that was 100% the decision I needed to make. I have since had to spend a lot of time counter-conditioning the sound of F35s (Covid flyovers offered many opportunities!), and I can confidently say we are back to full confidence around them.
Ultimately you are in charge of how you enjoy your day at a trial. Having a dog that is prepared and able to be happy throughout the day - in searches and out of them - can make that day so much more enjoyable! Different venues have different expectations, but so do different hosts/organizations that hold trials within those venues! (one AKC trial is not like the next!)
There are many different resources out there that can help you build up you and your dog's ability to wait. I haven't touched on the ability of the handler to wait (mental management), but that's also a huge piece of the puzzle!
Private lessons - I have helped many people online and in person deal with this piece! We can build training plans and work on different skills and techniques to find the RIGHT mix of focus and calm for your team.
Online schools - Fenzi Dog Sports Academy has some great classes throughout the year, keep an eye for Shade Whitesel's "Spaces in Between" offered in October! Or Andrea Harrison's "Unleash Personal Potential" for you in December!
People - Leslie McDevitt has some awesome pattern games and control unleashed system, Amy Cook (FDSA/Playway dogs) is an amazing behaviorist and taking her classes (several times) has changed my whole way of working and connecting with my dogs and my client's dogs!