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The 3 things that help me take training from backyard to competition

October 11, 2009 9 comments
7 may
Image by shutterflood via Flickr

My name is Pat, and I train dogs for competition performance events.

No, I’m not on the Agility World Team. I don’t make the list for the annual AKC Obedience invitational. I haven’t made the Front & Finish top dog in breed rankings since Casey was in Novice obedience and agility (1999.) The last time dogs I trained made first-in-breed listings in any venue was January 1, 2005 when Casey and Reu became the first English Cocker Spaniel and Gordon Setter in the US to earn AKC Rally Novice titles.

In 2000 I actively taught and trained two dogs in three to four obedience and agility classes each week, a schedule I’d maintained since I’d started training Taryn in 1981. I showed my dogs every other weekend in some combination of breed, obedience and agility. In 2009, after an intracerebral hemorrhage (stroke) and five years of cancer diagnosis, surgeries and treatments, it’s a good day if I have enough energy left after work to take a long walk with the dogs, let alone get my dog-in-training to one regular class each week. The day after a class (when I can take a class) feels like the day after I’ve been hit by a truck. I pick one cluster to show at each month, try not to combine too many venues in the same weekend, and generally need a day off after a circuit to ‘recover’ from my dog show vacation.

It may seem odd that a person who now trains mainly for her personal satisfaction actually considers herself competitive. Then again, you’ve probably never seen me cook – put me in the kitchen and I’ll trash-talk you all the way to the first-place ribbon. Yes, when it comes to certain things I’ve got a serious competitive streak. Where that shows up in my dog training is that I want my dogs to do their best, to improve every time we go in the ring. Our ‘bests’ may not lead to first place ribbons every time, but I don’t need more flat sateen ribbons. What I’m looking for are titles, letters after their names which tell the whole world that they are trained companions who work for a living.

How do I get my dog to a title when I can’t manage a class? Maybe even more important, how did I manage to teach skills to my dog when I spent the better part of 2008 on the couch recovering from either a surgery, a chemo infusion, or both?

The answer lies in keeping my training organized, but simple. During my recuperation, I made use of the three things that have always helped me understand where each of my dogs is along his individual training continuum:

1) A training log: This blog is an extension of the pen-and-spiral-notebook that I keep in the basket on my coffee table (you know the place–mine is where I corral the remote controls, pens, back issues of Clean Run and the spill-free zone where I set my coffee mug.) In a simple Dollar-Store notebook I jot down in my personal shorthand the results of each day’s training session, no matter how short or small. Even if all we did was practice a down-stay while I made my breakfast protein shake, I write it down. Which dog(s). Where. How long. What position. In or out of sight. If outdoors, what weather. Whenever an exercise doesn’t seem to be making progress or seems to break down for no reason, a quick check of my log lets me know whether I’ve been devoting enough attention to that skill.

2) An exercise binder: The hardest thing to do when energy is at a premium is create a practice on the fly. I save every course map (agility and rally.) I save copies of exercises from the ‘net and from issues of performance magazines like Clean Run and Front & Finish. I have every curriculum I’ve every written, every instructing and seminar handout I’ve ever received. They’re filed in the binder by venue and class. When I don’t have the energy to practice, I read through my saved courses and plans, and flag the ones I want to try next (Post-it notes are my friends.) Later, when I do have the energy to practice, I can quickly find something to work on in my files.

3) A calendar: The toughest thing about being out of dog-showing in any venue is getting back onto the superintendent’s mailing lists and into the swing of which show(s) are on which weekends when you decide to come back. My calendar is pretty low-tech — a two-year paper monthly vest pocket calendar with a separate notes section. It’s in the same plastic cover with a telephone/address section saved from an earlier organizer. I keep closing and circuit dates in the calendar, and update it regularly from the AKC website and various online agility calendars. I make notes about each run in the calendar’s notes section. I keep notes about judges in the telephone/address section (that section stays with the planner; the two-year calendar and notes sections come out and are stored in my office file cabinet.) By knowing when the shows are, I can plan my entries, evaluate where my dog is in ring-readiness, and get a reality check by looking at my notes about individual show/run results. My notes in the show calendar help drive my practices.

A really organized person would probably keep all three of these elements in a single binder — but I like them to be more flexible. I also like them to be closest to the spot where they’ll be needed, or where I’ll be likely to fill them in with notes. For now, the training log lives on the coffee table, where it’s most likely to be completed after a training session or class. The calendar lives in my purse, so that it follows me to work (where I make entries) and to shows (where I make notes about judges and runs.) The binder of courses lives on the lower shelf of my coffee table, with the current issues of magazines — ready to review and flag new courses and exercises to practice.

Sure, there are a bunch of other things I do to keep my dogs working when I’m laid up, but these three items — training log, reference binder and calendar — are the three things without which I would never get my backyard-trained dog into the ring.

What are your strategies for training when you can’t take a dog to classes? How do you keep your dog(s) in training when their training is limited by your own physical condition? Please share your ideas!

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