When I say a dog is “trial ready” I mean that he is fully prepared to compete and has a good chance of being successful at a real event.
That means that my dog is comfortable in crowds, can handle the pressure of the competition ring, and is not relying on classic motivators like food and toys on my body. It should go without saying that the dog knows how to do the basic portions of all the exercises.
So what is there to talk about?
In one of my steady stream of learning quizzes, I asked a question about “trial readiness.” Here is the question, along with the possible answers:
Your dog is back! This week in class he’s fantastic. All of his behaviors are rock solid. You’re seriously thinking about going to a dog show. But how do you know if you’re ready? Which of the following might be a reasonable test of trial readiness?
a. You head to a nearby training club and have a stranger put you through a formal run-through. You have no cookies on your body, and you expect your dog to finish all of the exercises.
b. You head to a nearby training club and have a friend put you through a run-through. You reinforce each exercise with a cookie from your pocket.
c. You head to a nearby training club and have a stranger put you through a formal run-through. You ask the person to pressure your dog in a variety of ways, some of which stress your dog but you expect him to work through it. Because you are given several opportunities to enter the ring, you repeat this randomly throughout the evening.
d. Any of the above is a fine test of trial readiness
Here is the full quiz for those of you who want to try it: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HKDS9LC
The most commonly selected answer was B, followed closely by D. The correct answer is A.
Let’s talk about this!!!!
Look. I’m pretty optimistic, and even with my cheerful spirit I would not consider a dog trial ready if I were not comfortable doing an entire program, pretty much exactly as it would take place at the dog show, without reinforcing every exercise. Heck, forget the dog for a moment. What about me?! To be trial ready I need to be comfortable ending an exercise without handing my dog a cookie. What do I plan to do instead? The time to figure that out is not the dog show.
If you want to know if your dog is trial ready, then you’re going to have to run through an event, pretty much exactly as it’s going to take place when it’s the real deal. You don’t need to do it several times. You don’t need to have the judge stress your dog out and create problems for you. And you cannot be relying on cookies.
Once you are mentally targeting dog shows and you want to know if your dog is ready to compete, then test that and exactly that.
“But”, you say, “weird things happen at the dog shows!”
Yes they do. I do not doubt that most individuals who have competed can tell you some stories. So in PRACTICE you might want to teach your dog about novelty – weird things. But this is a run-through. Treat it for what it is, and that is a test of readiness, not a training opportunity.
If you want to know if your dog is likely to get through a trial class, then run through that class. Exactly as it should take place. No more and no less. No cookies in your pocket. No weird stuff. Can your dog do it? What were his strengths? What were his weaknesses?
Now take the information you got from that run-through and go home and start practicing. Did your dog seem a little nervous about the judge? Okay. Now with all of your food and toys and games and personality, work on that!
Did your dog struggle with the lack of reinforcers? Work on that! You can do it a variety of ways, from back chaining to substituting ring-acceptable alternatives.
And please, don’t practice five times just because you can. You want your dog to love this! Even an enthusiastic dog is going to start to worry if you keep doing the same thing over and over again.
Now, before you move on from this article, there’s one more thing to consider. When I say “Trial readiness”, it’s up to you to decide what “ready” is. And we may not agree on what that should look like.
Here’s an example:
I entered my nine-year-old dog in a Mondio Ringsport trial, even though I knew perfectly well she wasn’t properly prepared. I figured we had about a 50% chance of qualifying and I decided that was good enough. She would be emotionally comfortable and physically ready for the event, and I knew no harm would be done by competing. However, I also knew that she wasn’t fully prepared for the exercises and I decided to go forward anyway.
I recognized that at her age this was probably our last chance to qualify. We had picked up the sport late in life and I simply hadn’t prepared her to do all of the things she might need to do. I also considered the fact that if I did not enter this trial, my next opportunity would be about 500 miles away and six months down the road.
Were we trial ready? Not in my book. Did I compete? yes.
We got through by the skin of our teeth on one day and did not qualify on the other. We had a good time, picked up a new accomplishment and made a few friends, so I’m glad I did it!
You get to decide for yourself if you’re ready or not. But you won’t even know what your baseline is unless you try practicing a few times with a scenario that is as close as possible to the real thing. What you do with that information is up to you. You might decide to stop preparing for competition and instead focus on cleaning up your weak areas or you might decide you’re ready to go forward. But you’ll be in no position to make that decision if you don’t actually try it in your mock run-through opportunities.