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I talk with my agility students and students considering competition often about defining what success in the ring means for them, their dog and their team. As I feel that definition can have a huge impact on not only your competition qualifying rates but more importantly on the relationship your dog builds with the competition environment and with you.
People at trials often comment on how relaxed, happy and easy going I seem. And how I can be that relaxed in competition?! For me, it’s all in how I define success in competition.
With my own dogs I define success in the trial ring as: I was able to maintain commitment to criteria as I do in training for all aspects of the run.
That’s it. Seriously. Simple as that. Yet often oh so hard to do. When there is this idea of a greater ‘prize’ be it a qualifying score, title or ribbon and when there is this feeling of ‘everyone is watching’ it can be really hard to be true to your training. It can be really easy to shift into ‘oh we can fix that really quick and still make time enough to Q!’ when in training if your dog say popped the weaves you would respond by restarting the sequence 2 obstacles into the weaves. Or you cue a rear cross and your dog spins. It can be really hard in a trial run not to throw up your hands, say “oh fine let’s keep going” rather than do what you would have done in practice of reworking the set up. It can be really hard to be as genuinely in love with your dog, the way you are in practice, when in trial your dog takes the wrong course or knocks a bar in a sequence you thought you both knew well.
Have I struggled or failed to stay honest and true to my definition of competition success? Of course. I’m human. I’ve failed. But I work towards that as my standard. I’ve found for me even the nicest ribbon or qualifying score doesn’t feel so great when it came at the expense of my training, my dog’s confidence and understanding, and our honesty in team work. And some of the best feeling runs I’ve ever had came when I was true to my definition, NQ and all.
So here’s my basic formula for getting qualifying scores and runs I’m happy with:
1. Read the rules. Know the rules, know the standard you are being judged against. Know the challenges you will face. Understand the set up. Have a picture before you even begin of what the performance looks like and what skills your dog and you need to have mastered in practice. Have a picture of what your ideal performance of a skill looks like and work towards that.
2. Train it until you trust it. And don’t do it in competition until you trust it in training reliably. If you learn in competition you made a mistake and something you thought was to the level trust really isn’t, stop putting it in the trial environment until you’ve found and worked through the challenges in training.
3. Trust your dog and be honest. If you cue something and your dog does something you didn’t expect, trust that they believed you communicated what they actually did. If you’ve followed #2 above, by the time you are in a trial run if your dog does something chances are you cued them to do that whether you meant to or not. Honor it. To not to erodes your dog’s confidence and will end with second guessing and decreased speed (ask me how I know this. First hand experience. So sorry Zora, Niche, Regal, James, Monty…I’ve done it to all of them at one point or another, and then have to go back, fix my screw up and rebuild. It’s much easier to believe and honor what you dog did as correct to begin with)
4. Trial like you train. Maintain same criteria and responses for obstacle performance, handling, cues, attitude, focus, etc in all environments both training and trial. To not creates confusion and can make it really hard to get the same performance you get in practice in competition. Just look at how many people say, “He only does this in the ring! At practice he’s a different dog!” Often it happens because the dog realizes early on their handler isn’t the same person in a trial that they are in practice. Their handler has different criteria and rules in a trial and responds differently. (it can also happen for other reasons but rather often it’s at least in part the reason I just listed) And going back to #1 if you don’t trust you’ve trained it to where you can trial like you train, don’t trial it yet.
and 5. Trial to find holes in your training. When you trial to find your weak spots, it helps you push yourself to improve your practice and training, and find the challenge in the courses. It helps you to try new things in practice and then on course. It gives you information and data on where to hone your training and where to focus your practice for visible improvement. It allows you to continue to work towards that ideal you established when you started off reading the rules.
Here’s what I don’t do. I don’t walk into any competition run with the goal of qualifying. When you walk onto the course with the goal of qualifying in mind you are more likely to accept a lesser criteria or micromanage things on course (ie see point # 4), and to change who you are toward your dog in the ring, and by doing that increase the odds over time your qualifying rate will actually decrease.
I’d say my formula has been rather successful for me over the years. Looking at Zora in 2017 out of 175 competition agility runs we had an 81% Qualifying rate for the year, completed 2 NATCHes and a Versatility NATCH, qualified for NADAC Championships and then won our division there. Our class with the lowest Q rate was tunnelers because 40% of our runs in tunnelers this past year I chose to work our extreme distances skills and attempt Bonus runs. None were qualifying runs but all were super awesome and furthered our training practice. And in Rally in 6 competition runs we earned our Rally Novice all 3 runs with perfect 100 scores, and Rally Advanced in the next 3 trial runs scores of 77 (serious handler errors that run), 98 and 100.
And with that, agility trial season 2018 begins next weekend! With our complete lack of usable yard space for the past months, and therefore lack of agility specific training, I’ve only entered us a couple of runs one day. We’ll be using those to get some rust off and I’m walking into it assuming we’ll be training a lot on the field. Remaining true to my criteria means success.