The overwhelming feeling so many of us have when we go to a dog sports competition. We rush to get to the site, only to wait for the briefing. Then we rush to get our dogs ready to get into the ring and then wait for our turn. We finish our run and are excited with our performance, but then have to wait for results. So much hurry, so much wait. In this post, I want to talk about the 4 important skills you and your dog need to master to make competitions much easier.
1. Happy Crating
It really doesn't matter what sport, your dog will have to wait in a somewhat confined space until it is their turn. This can be a crate set up on the grass, under a tent, inside a building, or within your vehicle. Maybe they don't have a crate, but then you'll need to tether them in a harness (in your car, please not to a tree).
Why - I have a few beginner students ask me why they will have to crate their dog. Two main reasons come to my mind first:
Times you are away from your dog. This could be for a walkthrough of a course, this could be for a briefing, or just to go to the washroom. There will come a time when you need to leave your dog unattended for a period of time.
To give them a chance to relax and (hopefully) sleep. In order to get the best performance from you dog, they need this time to relax and bring down their stress levels. Travel to a new place, new dogs, new people, new smells... it's all a lot to most dogs! Giving them time to settle in can really help your performance.
How - This is a super easy thing for some people (lucky!) or this can be something you need to spend a lot of time on to rehearse. I have struggled with this with many of my dogs, they just don't love to be separated from me, or possibly missing out on something fun (FOMO!!!). Here are a few tricks that I have found work for my dogs:
The "Right" crate - Experiment (within what is allowed at your chosen sport, ie. open top xpens aren't always allowed). Does your dog like soft sided, solid sided, or open crate? Cover or open? Soft bedding or hard surface (cooler)? Open top type pens really helped my dogs, but if you have a jumper, they can be a bad idea!
Occupy them - This is where snuffle mats can be awesome, or a yummy filled kong, or a bone or bully stick. Give them something to do! If your dog struggles with being able to focus on these things, it can help to be able to hang out near your dog while they are in the crate and they can see you aren't doing anything "fun". They often will start to find the thing you gave them to occupy them a little more interesting.
Have a teammate (or remote feeder) - This can be extremely helpful for dogs that have FOMO. A teammate (or remote feeder) can reward your dog at random intervals to help build value for staying in the crate when you aren't there.
PRACTICE. You need to rehearse this behavior at home, for short outings, in training. Do not expect your dog to be an awesome crating dog if you have never worked on it! You might get lucky, but there is a chance you will not. I routinely practice this skill with my own dog, too important not to!
2. Waiting for Your Turn
Unless you have perfect timing and complete luck, there will come a time where you will have your dog out of its crate and you will be waiting for your turn. This can be super easy for some dogs, while for others it can make or break your day!
Unless you have a dog that happily lays at your feet and is 100% engaged when you ask them to play... this section is something that you need to practice and allow your dog to learn it's just a part of the sport.
At this stage, you are making sure your dog has pottied, that you have your reinforcers ready to go (treats & toys), and your dog is warmed up. This stage can take 10 minutes or 1 minute. Depends on you and your dog! Different sports will require different things at this stage, here are examples for the 2 sports that I do:
Agility (or any physically demanding sport like dock diving, lure coursing, and even obedience) - Your dog needs to be physically warmed up before you ask them to perform in the ring. Warming up should include active movement (trotting), as well as activity-specific movement. There are some amazing resources out there to determine the best warm-up routine for you and your dog, but in general, it'll likely take more than 3 minutes. Plan ahead :)
Scent Work - Potty your dog! Make sure you have your line, your apron or treat pouch, the cookies are the right size (or toy is ready to go). Dog is wearing their gear, and if they need it, have time to acclimate to the environment.
At this stage you might be getting called up by the volunteers, or you have been proactive and see that the dog or two ahead of you is going into the ring. This time can be super short, or minutes long! Here are a few tricks and tips I have picked up over the years:
Wait Position. This is a practiced and often used position that can indicate to your dog that they are "OFF". The more often you use this position and reinforce it, the easier it will be to use when your dog is excited and ready to PLAY! I use a modified "Squish" position that Denise Fenzi mentions in this blog post from 2013. When I use Squish, my dog is under control, she has a random rate of reinforcement, and I can feel if she might want to leave (and pull my arm out of socket!). It allows me to listen to instructions (judge or volunteer), look around, and at all times stay connected to my dog. It tells my dog that she is not quite ready to work, but soon. For higher drive and active dogs, I highly recommend creating your own Wait Position.
Cookie Magnet. Also a learned and practiced behavior (can your dog lick and walk!?). This management technique can be highly useful for keeping control over your dog's head (and thus body) while moving through people, dogs, areas that are more delicate (like a museum in scent work!). Amy Cook talks about this management technique in her interview on the FDSA Podcast from September 2020.
Sniffing. Some dogs need time to take in their environment, time to assess any "threats", and have human pressure-free time. Allowing these dogs to sniff and explore the immediate area where you are waiting can be hugely helpful! Just be aware of your dog that they aren't pottying somewhere they shouldn't be or getting into trouble or bothering others around you! :)
Notice how both these methods are not asking for attention or active behaviors from your dog? If we start asking for too much handler focus at this point, our dogs can easily burn out by the time that you need them to perform in the ring!
The dog in front of you went into the ring! You're next! Depending on the sport, this could still require a little waiting (Tracking and upper level scent detection), but often this means you're up pretty quickly. I like to start this part of waiting by asking for engagement. This is the time for small tricks, for play, for happy time.
Play. Food play (tossing treats, catching treats, chasing my hand with treats); personal play (grabby hands, peek-a-boo, light pushes and laughing); toy play (if you have one! otherwise a leash can work too).
Tricks. Simple tricks that they know well. For my girl, I like tricks that might bring down arousal a little: down, sustained nose touch, chin hold. You can also rehearse some behaviors you might need in competition, heeling position, turns, position changes, etc.
Know your dog! If your dog is highly handler focused, adding too much value to yourself before you go into the ring can make it harder for your dog to work independently in scent work, BUT the same dog might highly benefit from handler focused activities before you go in the agility or obedience ring. Other dogs find that handler focused activities might be too much pressure, and do much better if you allow them to sniff the area and decompress!
3. Party to the Crate
After your performance, it's super important to keep the party going! No dog wants to have their party cut short just so you can be introspective or talk to friends as you come out of the ring. Your dog doesn't understand that, they want a party! Let them know how awesome they were for trying their best (under the circumstances of the trial!). I often use a cookie magnet if I can to keep my dog engaged and still "with" me as we work our way back to the crate.
If you need time to reflect on your time in the ring, this is an awesome time to take a small walk. I love to work off the gitters of an amazing run by taking a little walk with my dog. The walk also will help warm down your dog - mentally AND physically. If you have a "bad" run, a walk can really help you connect with your dog and realize how amazing of a partner you have at the end of the leash. Their partnership is so much more important than one less-than-stellar run :D
4. Make it Normal
Waiting moments shouldn't be taken for granted and for most dogs, needs to be practiced. If your dog struggles with these waiting moments, it's a high possibility that your dog will struggle in the ring with either over arousal or lack of engagement.
Practice your waiting routine, make it normal!