Training and testing are two very different things. What are they, and what does each do for you?
When you are “training”, you should be responding to your dog’s choices – instant by instant – so that your dog can learn exactly what you want at all times. Behaviors are either broken down into small (foundation) pieces or your handling should be giving your dog whatever support is needed to be correct as much as possible. You may choose to ignore errors, but that is a choice driven by the desire to maintain flow in the session, not because you are being pushed into a sequence demanded by a test run.
Here is short video of Brito “training”. Note that I use curves to force him to drive forwards and use incompatible movements (left turn followed by about turns) to prevent problematic patterns. I keep an eye on his “tendencies” and I’m ready to address them in an instant. I also reward directly out of work in an unpredictable matter:
When you are “testing”, you should be running through a formal program – what that program looks like will depend on your sport and how much you are trying to test, but in agility it might be a sequence, in rally it might be a partial or full set of signs, and in obedience it might be a formal heeling pattern or even a full run through.
Here is a short video of Brito “testing” his heeling. I need to know! What happens if I do a series of straight lines, with more formality? What if I add a formal start and a formal halt? What if I do not reward at the end but move into engagement instead? This is my chance to identify weaknesses!
To be an effective competitor, you’ll need both. The question is, in what proportions?
If I think about it in terms of minutes working, I’d say that I test about 1% of the time. 99% of the time I train. When I test, I’m looking for holes; things I don’t know about! Maybe Brito sits crooked if I do a long, straight line! Maybe Brito doesn’t keep his rear end in on straight lines! Maybe he does wide about turns when I’m not talking to him! Ideally I’d know all of this stuff from training but hey…we’re human. Testing highlights our weaknesses and allows us to address them in training.
Give some thought to your percentages. Testing actually erodes training because in testing we ignore errors so we can see what we have. You’ll find that most of the better trainers do relatively little testing, and throw it out at the first sign that we’ve over faced our dogs.
On the plus side, testing allows us to focus more intensely on our weaknesses. Maybe you didn’t know that your up transition in your fast pace was pokey because you never paid attention to it! Now you know. And once you know – you can train.
Here I’ve tested Brito’s heeling in a new place. Now I know what I have. Next I’ll test his figure eight. His stand for exam and recall? Still in process – no reason to test yet. His stays? still in process – no reason to test. His ring entrances, endurance, and basic ring confidence skills? Still in process – no reason to test.
To trial, he’ll need to show me that he can test without reinforcement, under formality, and performing the necessary exercises the way I want to see them. We have a ways to go. Indeed, it is quite likely when he can give me what I want for the Novice obedience pattern that he’ll be polishing up Open at the same time – testing pieces of it.
Eventually it will all come together.
So…how about your dog? How much time, in minutes, do you spend in each training session working on individual behaviors and how much time do you spend testing and looking for holes? If you test as a matter of routine, without pulling out the problem areas for specific training, then what is your goal with testing? Is it possible that you’re just boring your dog and cementing bad habits?