As you prepare for the next exercise, the finished product is clear in your mind. You move swiftly over to the go-out setup, keeping your dog engaged the entire time, mark your dog on his “spot” and tell him to “go”. He runs halfway then veers off to the right. He was looking directly at his spot, what distracted him? Was it the sun spot on the ground by glove 3? Was it the dog in the next ring? Did you not mark him the same way as usual?
Some of the best advice I ever received was during a conformation handling seminar by George Alston. He told everyone to “slow down in the ring and do everything at half speed. When you are in the show ring, under pressure, everyone has a tendency to speed up. So, if you slow down, to what feels like half speed, it will probably be closer to the speed in which you actually train.”
I will be the first person to tell you to “show like you train and train like you show”. The problem is that showing is almost NEVER like training, especially for those of us who train primarily by ourselves. I almost never train with dogs working in neighboring rings (sometimes with handlers hollering way too loudly at them), tons of activity outside the ring, loudspeakers, or doors opening and closing. Heck, I am lucky to have someone call a heeling pattern for me every once and awhile!
So, what do I do? I slooooow myself down, in practice and at the show. During heeling, I count to myself (1,2,1,2,1,2…), this helps keep my heeling, turns and halts smooth while keeping my emotions under control. When I set up for an exercise, I almost always take one deep breath while I am smiling down at my dog. In other words, I pause. I stop what I am doing for just a second and connect with my dog. I do not delay the ring or the judging, but it is not a race to see who can complete their run the fastest. The important thing to remember though, is I do the same thing in training. And, guess what, I train the pause to build anticipation from my dog. Imagine that. 🙂
Pausing does not automatically bring your dog down (although an excessively long pause could), it can actually bring them up. Remember back to when you were about to open your birthday presents when you were younger. You were all ready to rip off the paper, but then your parents made you stop and wait until everyone came into the room or until they ran and got their camera. Did you get more excited or less excited? Me, I got more excited! I wanted to open my stinkin’ presents!! Dog training can be exactly the same way. “Okay Dog, you want to get to that super awesome go-out spot, you are going to have to wait a second and REALLY stare at your spot before I send you.” And, if you think only a border collie can do the stare and crouch, then you have not watched my Springer when he is really ready to go.
I also apply this same “pause” to errors. If my dog keeps messing something up, I require them to pause for a few seconds before trying again. Think about it as a mini-time out if you want to, but putting him into a down for a few seconds while I just stand there and think, puts us both in a better frame of mind to continue our training. And, honestly, very rarely does my dog make the same mistake after pausing for a few seconds to regroup. As long as he is put into the down without a huge negative emotion on my part; and as long as I bring him out of the down properly, I have lost zero drive.
So, in training and at the show, remember to slow down. Stop worrying about hurrying to the next setup, instead connect with your dog and move together. Think about your pace, rather than how you are going to move your feet when the judge calls the upcoming halt. Think about ONLY the exercise you are currently doing or the exercise you are moving to set up for. Train until everything that you need to do, happens in your subconscious without having to actively think about what to do next. Video is your friend! Tape your training sessions and your trials and compare them. Do you appear rushed? Are you heeling at the same pace? Are you staying connected to your dog? Remember, this is a sport about TEAMWORK!
Train hard, but remember to play harder!