Please visit my conference and seminar notes page for more notes from this seminar.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I audited a seminar in Dallas earlier this summer with Michele Pouliot. Michele is a very talented dog trainer who has won international competitions in the sport of canine freestyle. She has also worked for almost four decades with Guide Dogs for the Blind, training hundreds of guide dog teams. Michele really knows her stuff and it was great getting to spend two days learning from her.
On the first day of the seminar, Michele discussed training for performance settings. In this post, I’ll be talking a lot about a dog’s performance in the show ring. However, even if you don’t participant in dog sports or show your dog, you’ll still find useful information in this post. Just think of the “show ring” as any place you might take your dog (or other animal!) that is quite different in appearance and routine from where you do your daily training.
Some dogs perform quite differently in the show ring then they do during training sessions at home. Many people also act differently in the ring. According to Michele, many people do things in their daily training that actual detract from their dog’s ability to perform successfully in the ring. If we want our dogs (and ourselves) to perform brilliantly in the ring, we must make sure that our daily training supports and enhances our performance goals.
How do you feel in the ring?
Many people feel nervous, excited, or both when they step into the show ring. For some people, this is because they feel pressure to perform well. Others feel anxious or tense because they are uncomfortable being watched. Dogs pick up on all of this and realize that something is different.
Training should include preparation and practice for both the dog and the trainer. Unfortunately, most people forget the second half of this equation and only focus during training on the dog’s behavior. However, if you can teach yourself to be calm and at ease when performing, this will help your dog respond better to you. Ask yourself: “Can I focus while I’m in the ring in the same way that I would at home, or am I different?”
Michele suggested simulating performance environments during your practice. For example, many people only perform in front of an audience when at a show. If “being watched” makes you nervous during shows, try inviting some friends or some of the neighborhood kids over and then show off your obedience or freestyle routine. Find public places where you can practice your training. Don’t let the only times you train in front of other people be at shows.
What will you look like at the show? Will you be wearing clothing, shoes, or hats that are drastically different from what you normally wear during training? This is particularly important during freestyle because competitors often wear quite interesting costumes. Practice in these clothes! This will help both you and your dog feel more comfortable and relaxed on the day of the show.
Every trainer has what Michele calls training rituals, even if they don’t realize it. Training rituals happen before and during your training and tell the dog “Hey, we’re training now.” For example, many trainers begin their training ritual by going and getting their treat bag and treats. Or, a trainer may begin her training ritual by setting up the equipment and props she will be using during training.
Michele cautioned to make sure that your training rituals support your performance goals. Many times trainers develop training rituals at home that are significantly different from their routine at a performance. On show day, you probably won’t start your routine by going and getting your treat bag and then going to the kitchen to chop up some meat to use as treats! This is important, because dogs easily learn the environmental cues that say “today we’re doing a performance” and “today we’re just practicing.”
It can be good to have a routine that tells your dog now it is time to train. However, Michele’s point was that trainers should be aware of these rituals and be purposeful about them. Practice training sometimes by beginning without your ritual or by beginning with a different routine. If each training session usually begins with you clipping a treat bag to your belt, practice sometimes without a treat bag. Make sure you practice your show day routine so that your dog is accustomed to what you will look like and how you will act on the day of the performance.
What reinforcers do you have in the ring?
For most types of dog sports and performances, the trainer cannot take food, toys, or other types of commonly used training rewards into the ring. This is the lament of many trainers because their dog learns the difference between training at home with lots of rewards and performing in the ring with very few or no rewards.
Michele gave lots of suggestions for how to prepare your dog so that this is not a problem. At home, practice sometimes without carrying a treat bag and treats. If you still need to occasionally reward great behavior during these practice sessions, you can put a few treats in your pockets, put treats in small bowls around the room, or stuff a tug toy in a back pocket or in your sweatshirt.
Also, Michele suggested figuring out what reinforcers you do have that you can take into the ring with you. If you’re competing in freestyle, you can incorporate behaviors into your routine that your dog really, really likes. Or, if you’re competing in a sport that is less flexible, you can let your dog do a few of these favorite behaviors right after you finish performing.
Michele cautioned against running out of the ring with your dog to go get treats at the end of the performance. This often backfires on people, because toward the end of the performance the dog is only thinking about rushing out of the ring and running off. Also, this rewards leaving the ring. A trainer is better off finding ways to make the ring a good place where the dog will want to be.
Finally, your relationship with the dog should be a form of reinforcement. It can’t be all about the food! You and your dog should enjoy being together and enjoy interacting without food or toys. Michele suggested finding ways to integrate moments into your training sessions where you aren’t actively training a behavior (or giving out treats) and you just interact or play with your dog.
Even though I do not compete in dog sports, I really enjoyed this portion of Michele’s seminar. I think many of the points she discussed apply to much more than just competition settings. They are applicable to any setting where the environment is different, the rules are different, or where you are limited in the types of rewards you can use.
Also, it was interesting hearing Michele’s perspective on training for competition, since she has so many years of experience with this. From a training perspective, training for performance settings is interesting to think about, since the appearance, atmosphere, and rules in the performance setting are often drastically different than the setting used during training.
Do you compete in dog sports with your dog? Do your practice sessions prepare your dog for ring performance? What sorts of training rituals do you use in your day to day training?