Regardless of how you train, the venue you show in, or the level you are competing at, you have probably heard the saying “train like you show, show like you train”. It makes sense, but it is sometimes hard to do. During training, we fall back to using different equipment or visible toys or treats to get the behavior which makes us feel good.
Huge differences between training and showing come into play with visible toys (or even hidden toys your dog sees you “hide”) and cookies. One of my biggest pet peeves in training is bait bags. Do you think your dog does not know your humongous bait bag is hanging off of your hip? Why do you think your dog is working for you? He is working and paying attention to you because he knows you are going to reach into that bait bag and pull him out something yummy! You may have attention, but he is not paying attention to YOU, he is paying attention to the bait bag! Puppy training, yes, feel free to leave the bait bag on since you are going to be rewarding a lot, but once you start progressing during your training, lose the bait bag and keep the treats somewhere else (pockets, mouth, etc.)
If you are trying to get the toys or treats off you altogether, but still want to reward your dog occasionally during the training session, I recommend playing small containers of treats or toys at several locations around the ring. These should be placed BEFORE you get your dog out of his crate. They should be inconspicuous to the dog, so don’t use a huge container or the largest tug you own. During the training session, if your dog does something brilliant or you want to take a short break to have a play session, you can make your way over to the treats/toy and reward your dog. After rewarding, put the container/tug back where it was and go back to work. The next time you want to reward, go to a DIFFERENT treat/toy location and reward your dog.
- After rewarding once, your dog tries to go back to the initial location for his next reward, just mark him as incorrect and encourage him to come with you.
- Dog runs ahead to self-reward, mark him as incorrect and encourage him to get back into heel position. While I don’t formally heel to the spot, my dog is still required to give me his attention while we work our way over there. If you do jackpot training with your dog, it is (in my opinion) imperative that you do not release your dog to run to his bowl without you. Keep him with you and engaged on your way to his bowl.
- Dog grabs cookies or tug before you. Not allowed. YOU need to stay a part of the reward process. Make sure the cookies are in a covered container, so the dog can not get to them. If using a toy, simply ask your dog to out the toy, put it back on the ground and work your way to a different toy reward. Just be prepared to manage your dog a little more as you get close to the tug. My dog who trains with treats is required to sit before getting his reward, but my dog who trains with tugs is only required to not grab the toy by himself.
- Do not be lazy and leave all your cookies or toy sitting on the table outside the ring. How often do we end up in front of the judge’s table in the ring? Depending on your dog, he may decide to check out the judge’s table when he should be doing something else entirely…like a finish into heel position!
You can do the exact same method in the agility ring. Before you get your dog out of his crate, put treats or toys in various locations around the ring. When he does something fabulous you want to reward, say your marker word and run over to the treats/toy. Again, your dog should go WITH you, not ahead of you. The last thing you want to do with a food driven dog is run around the course holding your bait bag in your hand…especially if you are having issues in the ring!
Think about the differences between your showing and training. These may include such things as:
- Equipment – It does not matter if your dog can heel like a rockstar when wearing a prong collar, if he can not heel when wearing a buckle collar.
- Double commands – Normally, I’m not going to give a double command in the ring, so why would I do it during training. And, if I do decide to give a double command in training, I usually release the dog and immediately set up to try it again.
- Visible lures or rewards
- Formal vs informal body mechanics – For example, not paying attention in practice to how you walk during heeling or helping your dog get his halts with exaggerated body cues.
- Repeatedly helping the dog find front or heel position – you only get one shot in the ring, so make it count! This does not mean I do not fix bad fronts or finishes in practice. But, if I have to fix it, the dog does NOT get rewarded. He only gets rewarded if he does it correctly, by himself, the FIRST time.
- Releasing your dog A LOT to reward him (Crucial for younger dogs in training, but be conscious of how much work you require an older, trained dog to do before releasing him…remember, random reinforcement!) If you are in Utility, you may be in the ring for 8-9 minutes. How often do you work that long in practice without giving your dog cookies or his toy?
- Avoiding components of the exercise which are not as “fun”.
While the dog may dictate what type of reward is used, I control how and when he earns it. If my dog starts to get sloppy and I throw cookies into his mouth to get him “up”, I failed as a handler. Instead, I will do everything and anything to get him motivated to work, then require a short amount of solid effort before I take a break to reward him or give him a rest break. This may include some collar bounces, hand pushes, or even some hands on scratching or rubbing while I try to amp him up with my voice. You may be able to bribe your dog into working with you in practice, but it is not going to earn you much carryover once you get in the ring. Also, take the time to learn what type of physical rewards your dog enjoys…because these types of rewards CAN go into the ring with you. And, remember, your DOG dictates what is or is not a reward. If he finds petting on his head offensive and you insist on giving him a pat each time he does something good, there isn’t much value to the dog, is there?
Remember, every time you train your dog, you either build value into your working relationship or you erode it. Make every session count. Train hard, but play harder.