Are You Ready to Trial?
Randy Tosi's "Feist" with helper Tim Cutter during the 2016 Northwestern Regional Championship. Photo by: Brian Aghajani. Photo courtesty of Randy Tosi.
Your dog snaps neatly from front to finish on one command. Finally, he’s got this behavior down to your satisfaction. In protection, he’s clean with his out and in his guarding in the blind. There might be one little bump now and then, but overall, it’s pretty good. And tracking – he’s doing long tracks for you with great form, with little food on the track and the occasional article. Maybe, just maybe…Could it be that you’re finally ready to trial in the near future?
One could argue that you may never really feel “ready” to trial, so you just need to pick a trial date and get out there anyway. There's some truth to this. But should you really go out there and just “wing it?” How do you even know if you are truly ready?
TRIAL PREPAREDNESS CHECKLIST
While this certainly isn't the "be all, end all" of checklists, the list below should give you a good idea of whether or not you are prepared for a Schutzhund trial.
You know you are ready to trial when:
Your dog knows the exercises and performs them correctly and reliably:
with a low and variable rate of reinforcement.
when you don’t have a tug, ball, or food on your person.
with distractions from other dogs, handlers, and people on and off the field.
without extra handler help or corrections.
Your dog has focus and engagement throughout your routine, even when toys or food are not on your person, and even when reinforcement is low.
Your dog can reliably and successfully pass the temperament test and ID check (even if performed by someone else).
You know the rules and can perform the obedience routine without your dog, and with people watching you.
Your dog has a solid long down despite the distraction of gunfire and another dog/handler team on the field.
You and your dog can check in appropriately with a “judge” in each phase, and while paired with another dog/handler team in obedience.
Your dog can run a trial-length track with low reinforcement and can indicate articles while you are at the end of the line.
Your dog is under your control reliably, even if he is excited, goofy, or disobedient at the moment.
Your training director and helper agree with you that you are ready to trial. If they say you aren’t ready, then you should heed their advice.
What is meant by “reliable”? For a behavior to be reliable, the dog needs to perform the behavior correctly on command nearly every single time. Before you trial your dog, you should be certain that your dog will perform the correct behavior even under the stress of a trial. It may not be as fast or as straight as you like, but overall the exercise should be reliable. It might need a little fine-tuning, but this may not be a priority depending on your goals. You can still pass a Schutzhund trial with a dog who sits slowly, mouths the dumbbell, downs slowly on the article, or is even slow to out. Of course, if you want to compete at a championship level and earn top points, then fine-tuning behaviors is of more importance, and you will take longer to be trial-ready!
A job well done. Tyler Pluss with "Attack" during training. Photo by: Tamandra Michaels.
THE BIG THINGS
You must also check that your dog has “the big things” down pat. The “big things” are all the behaviors that have the potential to disqualify or fail you if performed incorrectly. Fast, accurate out-of-motion exercises mean nothing if the dog can’t handle the identification check at the beginning of the trial. A super long bite with a clean out is fantastic, but if you can’t even get there because your dog can’t check in while under your control, then you’ll never get to show it off.
Your dog should be reliable with:
Being comfortable in and acclimated to the trial setting (otherwise, there is no focus and engagement!)
Ignoring other dogs
Good behavior during the check-in, temperament test, and ID check
Heeling both on and off-leash in every phase
Having a solid long down
Having a reliable retrieve on the flat, over the jump, and over the A-frame
Having a good start to the track
Remaining dedicated to the track (not “quitting” the track)
Having a decent article indication
Having a solid ‘out’ in protection
Having a solid “Hier-Fuss” command in protection, not only for the call-out, but to regain control if dog is unruly
Gripping only the sleeve in protection
Having a solid sit, even in protection when picking the dog up from guarding
Running the first blind that you indicate
Your dog can pass a trial if he blows a motion exercise, but not if he blows the retrieves. Your dog can pass if he fails the send away, but not if he breaks the long down and engages the other dog on the field. Your dog can pass a trial if he skips other blinds, but not if he refuses to attempt the first blind and goes directly to the helper. The dog can pass if he takes cheap shots at the sleeve, but not if he takes a cheap shot at the helper’s leg. Your dog can pass if he tracks fast or downs slowly on the articles, but not if he fails to find the track at the start or quits mid-way through. He could even pass if he doesn’t indicate the articles, but if there are other any problems with the track, then you will most likely face a failing score, since missing the articles already knocks 21 points of your track.
Article indication during an IPO3 track. Photo: Wendy Schmitt.
THE DOWNSIDE OF RUSHING TO TRIAL
So why not just get out there and “see how it goes”? There are many downsides to trialing your dog before you are ready.
It sets you up for failure. Even with a well-trained dog, passing a trial can be a challenge. The dog decides to not out, or tracking proves difficult, or he blows the long down. Even when your dog performs 100% in training, you are lucky to get 90% of what you trained on trial day. Entering a trial with training that is only 70-80% accurate translates to getting 50-60% of what you have trained (maybe 70% if you are lucky!). That's a recipe for failure.
It is disrespectful to the judge, the other competitors, and the dog. It wastes the judge’s time and the time of the other competitors at the trial to sit there and watch a train wreck of a performance that clearly shows the handler did not prepare. It’s like taking a final exam without doing enough studying, or entering a marathon that you've only "sort of" trained for. It demonstrates a lack of respect for yourself, your teammate, and the sport. Additionally, it is unfair to the dog to force him into a high-stress situation without adequate preparation. It’s your job as the human part of the team to prepare both yourself and your dog for what you will face on trial day.
It is potentially dangerous to the other competitors. It’s not just you and your dog out there in obedience. You are paired with another dog/handler team; you count each other to have enough training and discipline to keep the dogs under control when they are together. If your dog is not under control, you potentially endanger other dogs, competitors, the judge, and trial personnel. A disqualification for general “out-of-control” behavior is one thing, but out-of-control behavior that results in a dog fight or in a person being bitten can carry serious consequences. Such instances can even result in a ban of you and your dog from events for six months or more.
It allows your dog to practice and reinforce incorrect behaviors in a trial setting. When the dog is given the opportunity to practice incorrect or unruly behaviors during a trial, it puts you in a powerless position. You are unable to correct the dog, and can only offer limited assistance to fix the behavior while taking deductions for “handler help”, or even earning a Disqualification outright. This can assist in the creation of the “trial wise” dog, who quickly learns that in the trial situation, he can get away with a whole lot more!
Axel gleefully ignores me during the blind search to go directly to the helper in Blind 6. Photo: Julie Baldwin.
It creates a negative trial experience for both you and your dog. The trial is already a stressful time, even when prepared. Add an undisciplined dog and out-of-control behavior to that, and the stress levels skyrocket. Having to handle an under-trained and not-trial-ready dog out there can cause frustration, embarrassment, and regret. If you aren’t prepared, then why enter? What benefit would you gain that isn't outweighed by the negatives of the experience?
The trial is a public venue that showcases you, your dog, and your training. It is expected that handlers have done their best to prepare themselves and their dogs. So take your time to train and proof behaviors, and to create that trial picture in training. Still wondering if you are ready or not? Have someone more experienced in the sport "spot" you during training, and offer their input. And of course, READ THE RULE BOOK!
Join me next blog to learn about how to avoid a Disqualification (DQ) in a trial. Happy training and trialing!