Want to compete with your dog?  Here it is; twenty steps for any dog sport.  If you’re struggling with your training, you may find that your answer is in here too.

  1. Get a dog. Have that? Awesome. One down already.
  2. Get equipment. What do you need? A leash and collar, some very tasty treats, and a few things for your sport. Because we teach sport behaviors as a series of foundation skills, the kinds of things you are going to need are going to be pretty simple, and will probably cross sports. For example, you will probably want a platform, a disk, something for your dog to retrieve, something for your dog to touch, a cone to go around, etc. You may need some specific things for your sport too, like tug toys.
  3. Make a list of foundation behaviors that you will need for your sport by learning about each exercise is that is required. To get that list of exercises, try the website and rules for whatever your sport and organization might be, and go from there.  Take each exercise that you will need to teach and break it down into its component pieces.    For example, a recall requires a sit, a stay, a front, a finish, and a recall! Teach those things separately.   Don’t worry about stringing them together.   Consider putting all of your foundation behaviors in a chart. That will come in handy later on.
  4. Teach those foundation behaviors.  Learn how to handle the behaviors when they go right, and how to handle those behaviors when they go wrong.  
  5.  Get a personality.   It is absolutely critical that you learn how to interact with your dog in a way that is fun for both of you. Do not stand around staring at your dog like a tree.   Pay attention!   Get involved!
  6. Introduce the concept of proofing. Proofing just means adding distractions and complications to the work so that your dog can become stronger. Now, go back to one of those foundation behaviors you started, and add a little challenge to it. You are now proofing that behavior.     Add a column for proofing to your chart of foundation behaviors.   If a behavior is going well under proofing, you can check it off. If a behavior is weak, keep working on it, ideally in a new way.
  7. Introduce the concept of generalization. That means to take the show on the road. Consider the sorts of places that you might compete with your dog, and try to mimic the “feel” in your training.  For example, if you will always be in a training building, then you might want to focus your energy on indoor spaces. If you will always be outdoors, then you might want to head to local parks, etc. What you do at those locations does not matter nearly as much as the fact that your dog is exposed to them. Add another column to your chart for generalization.
  8.   Watch your dog. About now is when you might’ve started to notice that your dog has some weird behaviors. Overly enthusiastic with new people in public, or fearful, or with attention problems, or whatever. This is a good time to figure out what they are, and set up a plan to deal with them.
  9. Mix it all up! Spend some of your time working on skills, some of your time on proofing, and occasionally get out and about.   Don’t forget to bring your personality with you.
  10. Create some behavior chains. To do that, take those foundation behaviors that you have proofed and generalized, and string them all together. Those are your exercises.  How do they look?  If good – yay!  If weak, figure out what piece is weak (the foundation behavior) and fix it.
  11. Start reducing those reinforcers.   There are different ways to do this. Most people back chain or forward chain to some extent.  At the end of a chain, give a more substantial reward. When working one’s foundation skills (which you will never stop doing) give less substantial rewards; cheerios vs. steak.
  12. Now mix it all up again!  You’re going to take your behavior chains on the road, with less reinforcement. Not all at once of course. In little bits and pieces. And only change one big thing at a time!  If it’s a new place then let that be your change; don’t start adding formality or reducing reinforcers at the same time.  
  13.  Add in some testing. Testing is different than training. It means a more formal demeanor. It means checking how your dog does when you continue an exercise even when something goes wrong. For example, your dog goes wide in heel position. Ignore it and continue. What happens next? Better to discover that now than in a trial. While testing is not something you want to do a lot of, you need to do it occasionally just to see what will happen next. That will set your training path for the next week or so.   Then test again. Eventually, you will test entire run-throughs.
  14. Start looking for events.  Go and observe. Leave your dog home.   Your job will be to notice how it all runs. Where do the dogs stay? If they are crated, can your dog do that comfortably? Do people tend to have their dogs out with them or away? Are they crated in cars are on in the working area? How close are the crates and dogs to each other? These are all things you will train for, as needed. Does anything make you nervous?  This is the time to take a hard look at your dog and decide if in person venues are appropriate for you, or if you might want to explore on-line trialing options instead.
  15. At the event, take some time to notice how the process works. Is there a table where you check in? Then what do you do? Each sport is a little different, so simply ask. People are always helpful.  If you come across a grump simply move on.  The next person will be nice.
  16. Go to another event. This time bring your dog along if it’s allowed. Observe your dog’s behavior. Is it going okay? If so, maybe you’re on your way! If it’s allowed, do a little practice on the side. Before you do that, make sure you ask if it’s okay. Are you happy with your dog’s behavior in this space?  If not, create a plan to address it.
  17. While you are there, ask about how you will enter the event. Somebody will explain it to you. If it requires an online entry form, go to the place where the entry form is, and take a look. Do you know the answers to the questions?
  18.   Do you know anyone in your sport? Either through online interaction or through in person training? Find out if they are going to go to any events, and try to go to the same one. It’s always easier and more fun when your first event has a familiar face.
  19. Enter.  Attend. Compete.  Go home.  Evaluate.
  20. If you did not develop your sense of humor somewhere between #1 and #19, go ahead and do that now. Because your team will probably fail. A lot. That is part of the game, and part of the learning process. It’s also part of the joy when your dog gets it all right. Figure out what went wrong in the above 19 steps, address it, and try again.

Good luck!  Fenzi Dog Sports Academy offers classes for pretty much all of these – check out our schedule or send me a note through the instructor’s link if you’re stuck, and I will give you some direction. Registration closes on the 15th, so don’t wait much longer – classes started on the 1st.