This weekend my dog, Karma, and I competed in our first AKC Rally Obedience event. This was my first time ever competing in any dog event and it was quite the experience. I learned a lot in these past few days.
1) You don't need a group class to compete.
All my training was done at home. I had planned on taking some drop-in rally classes before the event, but they were canceled due to weather. I was very worried that I would not know all the right things to do and would be an embarrassment to myself. I found that all of the people at the event - those working the event and those competing - were very willing to help me find my way. Did I make mistakes? Certainly! In fact, I lost 10pts before I even reached my first sign because I started before the judge gave the "forward" command. The great thing is that I will never, ever, do that again! AND I learned that making a 10pt mistake is not the end of the world! I still qualified and got my first leg.
2) There is a time to be in "working mode" and a time to let your dog be a dog.
I spent a lot of time observing others at this event. There were a lot of very competative people who were very focused on winning and keeping their dog focused on winning. Unfortunately, it seemed as though they have forgotten that their dog really doesn't care about winning and is a dog. I'm sure that some people frowned at me as I sat on the floor next to my dog as she was sprawled out offering me "dead dog" and other various behaviors to see if it would earn her a reward. Those frowney people had stressed dogs next to them. Each time their dog would break from a sit or look to the side it would receive a leash correction. No wonder they didn't do well in the ring! I was sure to give Karma lots of down time in her crate with a stuffed KONG and go for walks and let her sniff around. If we were waiting to go in the ring, I asked for focus right before going in, but rewarded heavily with the last treats in my hand.
3) Premack is your friend.
I was practicing with Karma in an area that had seen a lot of traffic over the last four days. Their were unidentifiable wet spots on the ground, treat remnants, straw, hair, dirt, etc. A doggie olfactory Disney Land. Instead of getting frustrated with Karma for wanting to be a dog and sniff the floor, I used sniffing to reinforce each behavior I asked for. After a few good sniffs and a few great left finishes, it was out of her system and she was fully focused on me and waiting for a treat reward instead. That was SO much easier and friendlier to my dog than what I witnessed from some of the other handlers. You don't need to leash pop, yell or kick at your dog. Again, let your dog be a dog!
4) Your dog is making a decision each time you go in the ring. Help them make the right choice.
Every dog in that building was making a decision between paying attention to the handler and paying attention to everything else. Trust me, there was a lot of everything else. Babies, toys squeaking, clapping, doughnuts, hot dogs, dogs running by, smells galore... All things that dogs could become distracted by. So many handlers tried to force their dogs to pay attention to them by collar grabs, muzzle grabs, growling at their dogs, leash pops, etc. I sat there baffled as I just couldn't see why a dog would choose to pay attention to that handler when there were so many other things going on. If I were a dog, I would rather sniff gum on the sidewalk than look at these frowney people, too!
This is a time when positive training shines. My dog was boring holes into my head with her laser beam stare because I had 1) taught her that eye contact and attention were highly rewarding behaviors and 2) I rewarded those behaviors outside of the ring. I never asked for her full attention unless we were in the ring or I was trying to keep her from visiting another dog or person that was too close. And most of the time I didn't have to ask for her attention because she was already giving it to me.
Yes, she got distracted in the ring a couple of times. That's ok. I made plenty of mistakes. But I watch our videos with a smile because that tail is wagging the whole time. And when we arrived to the Expo center this morning, she jumped out of the car and started doing a whole body wag because she was happy to be there.
That is what it is all about. Love your dog and share the fun.
(Congratulations to Rebecca and Karma on their first leg and first place ribbon! What a great example of positive training and what it can accomplish and a reminder about keeping showing fun for our dogs.)