What is trial readiness, and what are the basic components?

For some competitors, trial readiness means the ability to perform the required exercises or obstacles at whatever level of competition that they wish to enter.  Trained well, these dogs are “200” point dogs in their backyard.  While impressive under pristine conditions, most seasoned competitors know that the picture you get in your backyard with a cookie in your hand is not necessarily the same as the picture you get in the competition ring.

Over the next several weeks I’d like to take a closer look at this issue; what trial readiness is, and how we might create a plan to get there.  Let’s start by considering the one I already mentioned; mastering high quality behaviors.

My training philosophy is based in teaching a great variety of behaviors – everything from sitting straight in front to running out over a jump – and then stringing those “base behaviors” together into formal exercises for competition. Those strings of behaviors are called behavior chains.  As a result, I have no issue with starting basic scent work on the same day that I teach a puppy to sit, because these are both base behaviors and neither requires the other.  Base behaviors are simply specific foundation behaviors, but exercises are behavior chains.  First get the required base behaviors for an exercise and  then worry about the chains.

The higher quality the base behaviors, the better the chains will be.  That is a rule – poor quality base behaviors do not magically morph into high quality chains, so I’d suggest putting your energy into developing excellent base behaviors and save the chains for the future.  There is no hurry in creating chains.

Here’s an example.  If your dog can identify the correct scent article in a pile, has a cue for “pick that up”, knows how to retrieve the object to hand, can hold an object while sitting, and has a stay, then you have scent discrimination.  That is a chain.  So if you want to create a trial ready dog, start by looking at each base behavior with a critical eye, and when you’re pleased, go ahead and string them together.  Voila; an exercise!

How you get beautiful base behaviors is up to you; I’m a fan of errorless learning as much as possible.  That means I do a lot of work with platforms, structured shaping, and heavily controlled choices to ensure a ton of success.  Soon I find that the dog only knows how to perform in one way – the one I want.  Consistency is bred through habit and clarity – if your dog consistently performs base behaviors correctly and understands exactly what will happen if the behavior is performed correctly (or incorrectly), then you can predict what your dog will give you  when you create chains.  Obviously that is an oversimplification because being consistently perfect is a high bar, but it’s surely one to reach for.

Depending on the class or competition you are targeting there will be a wide variety of chains that you might want.  If your interest in obedience, then the chains are very predictable.  If your sport is rally or agility, then the chains are more dependent on correct handling sequences – if your dog knows what to do when you signal in a specific way when your voice or body, then you’re good to go.  How much time you spend practicing entire chains vs. base behaviors should depend on your dog and how your training is proceeding overall.  Once my dogs are trained, I spend relatively little time on single base behaviors unless I’ve identified a challenge or am working with a “high maintenance” base behavior, such as fronts or  finishes.

I’m a fan of training new behaviors in very simple environments, so my dogs learn everything new at home, but that’s not the end of the road. Don’t fill out the entry form just yet, even if you have a star performer in your backyard, because once a series of behaviors is fluent and chained together to whatever standard I wish to see, then I have to take those base behaviors on the road.

The next blog in this series will consider exactly this topic; generalizing behaviors to new locations.