You are preparing your dog for competition, and you are at the point where you take your dog to novel places to practice. If you do obedience or rally, that includes jumps, signs, etc.  For agility, you’ve packed up a few jumps and a travel board and whatever else you might need, and now you’re heading to the park.  You’re getting serious!

Now let’s do some visualization.

Before reading further, I want you to consider what I wrote above. Let’s say you’re free tomorrow. I want you to visualize the location. Where will you go? Got a place in your head? Excellent. Now I want you to visualize what you plan to do in that space and where you plan to do it.  Exactly where are you going to set up?  Where will the jumps go? Got all of that?

Okay, now ask yourself this question:

When you visualize where you plan to set up, did you unconsciously make it as easy and as predictable as possible for your dog? For example, did you set up your training right next to (or over!) a walking path, or did you go into the middle of a big open park where you were least likely to face distractions?

Did you face a parking lot or a busy walkway ten feet away, or did you face a tree line 200 feet away which is unlikely to have distractions?

Did you set up in a place that includes trees and bushes right in the middle of your training area – things that might attract your dog? Or did you set up in the most open, flat, and least enticing environment possible?   Did you place jumps near corners where the dog will feel the tightness of the space around them?

Now let’s think about what dog shows look like. Dog shows are generally crowded because there are other rings. There are other dog-handler teams walking around. There are walking paths between the gates, doors opening in the distance, and a generic hustle and bustle that involves…reality.

Where you should set up in your mock training situation would depend on your stage of training and what you are trying to accomplish. But if you are working in Utility or Rally excellent or if you have a seasoned agility dog, you definitely shouldn’t be going into the middle of the park where there is as little going on as possible! You should be doing your “go outs”  facing the parking lot and your heeling routine should cross surfaces so that you go from the grass, over the walking path and onto the dirt area….right along the bushes! Agility?  Your start-line should face the people, distractions and cars, not the empty side of the park.

All of these minor challenges are part of what make your dog stronger and help them be more successful when you’re ready for the real deal.

What if you are in a training facility? Are you facing the direction where the crates are situated for your recall? That’s a completely different picture for your dog than a blank wall behind you. Have you considered leaving the door open so your dog can see and hear what’s going on outside?   Do you always enter the ring from the same location and can that be altered? Are you using the entire ring for your heeling pattern? Try squishing yourself into 25% of the ring and see how that feels.   Or include a heeling trip right outside the ring entry and then do an about turn to come back in.

Our tendency is to unconsciously make things easier for our dogs in training.  Consciously, we know that we have to add distractions and challenges!  Instead of worrying about adding distractions for your dog, start by taking advantage of what is already out there. Believe me, if you heel straight towards that bush that’s been peed on by 20 dogs, that is going to be much more attractive to your dog than anything you might place in the environment. Set it up as a training exercise! Can you heel 5 feet towards that bush and then make an about turn? Give your dog a cookie! That’s perfect. Now how about 3 feet? But if you set up in the middle of the grass you can’t use that bush at all.

The trick to making your dog stronger is to add small and incremental challenges that your dog can master. The goal is not to set up for failure and punish your dog, the goal is to set up for success and to have the dog vaguely aware of challenges around them – a little bit at a time!

If this way of thinking is totally new for you, setting your dog up for success rather than failure in order to proof their work, check out a book I wrote called Beyond the Backyard; Train your dog to listen anytime, anywhere!  If you use that direct link to my store, you will receive free shipping on orders over $18 (for the next week), which covers the book.  If you’re outside the United States, head over to Amazon.

Good luck!