Here are some very general tips of how to use Heelwork to Music training shows to benefit your dog’s performance in competition. I recommend you listen to the advice of your trainer, who will know you and your dog best.
1. Make sure your rewards (food or toy) are hidden somewhere on you. It should appear to your dog that this is a normal competition where you will not have food/toy on you. If you go into the ring with rewards in your hands, then your time in the ring will not benefit you when it comes to competing.
2. Do some work with your dog – how much depends on your dogs experience level. If your dog struggles to work without food/toy, you might only do the first move or two before surprising your dog with a big reward. You might do 10 seconds, 30 seconds or a whole minute of work. Ideally you want to reward your dog before they start to lose focus. The reward in the ring should come as a complete surprise to your dog, as they didn’t know you had the food/toy in the ring. The next time they are in a Kennel Club competition, I would hope the dog will be thinking, through their training show experience, “Wow.. at any time, I might be rewarded!!” Keeping their motivation and focus as high as possible.
3. Once you have rewarded your dog, remember to hide everything again.
4. If your dog loses focus, please do not get the food/toy out to encourage them. Some handlers do this so much that the dog ends up learning that switching off gets their handler to reward them. Get your dog back (whether you ignore them and wait for them to check back in, use your voice in an exciting way, puppy recall run away from them etc. discuss this with your trainer and try different things to find the best approach for you/your dog) before you reward them, so that rewards only ever come when your dog is engaged with you.
5. Barking – if you have a dog with the potential to bark, have a plan before you go into the ring of how you are going to address this (again, best discussed with your individual trainer). Don’t just ignore it and carry on. You will hugely regret letting it continue when you have a dog that can do a lovely routine, but is getting marks docked for barking that prevent you from progressing in competitions. In general, we want the dog to know that barking = temporary loss of opportunity for reward/we will not continue the routine. Make sure your response to barking is not aversive to your dog – looking at your dogs body language will tell you if it they find it aversive.
6. Reward value – If you are having trouble with your dog’s commitment or focus in the competition ring, something I really encourage you to look at (and really be honest with yourself) is the value of the rewards you deliver to your dog. I don’t mean whether YOU personally think they are/should be high value. Look at your dog’s behaviour in response to the reward you have delivered. Is your dog looking at you excitedly, desperate to have another chance to earn that reward again? Do they disengage? Go off sniffing? Do you feel you have to gee them up a bit to encourage them to do more? Don’t be stingy with your dog or you will notice the standard of their work in the ring declines (unless you are lucky enough to have one of those collies who works for the sheer love of the work!). Work out what really lights your dog’s fire, whether it’s scatter feeding (if doing this perhaps do it on a little mat or blanket) for a sniffy spaniel, throwing treats up in the air for them to catch, food chasing (whether along the floor or just chasing your hand as you run away from them), a ball, a tug toy etc.
7. Remember you are training!! This is an opportunity to show your dog that you will be the same/be as consistent in the competition ring as you are in training. Don’t feel compelled to perform to your music for the audience. Sometimes you can get caught up and dragged along with your music and end up letting mistakes go, or forgetting to reward, because you are performing the routine as if competing, instead of remembering that this is meant to be training. If your dog makes a mistake, don’t just let it go – stop, help them get it right and reward them for getting it right.
8. Video feedback. If you’re not making use of video feedback, then you are missing out! At my training shows last year, Paul Ballard started off the video feedback method, and I personally would not have it any other way now! In traditional training shows (and you still get this at Trickstars training shows if that’s what you prefer!) you get a piece of paper with feedback, that can be difficult to attribute to what you did in the ring, as you might not even remember which bit the judge is talking about, or it might be something you didn’t even realise you were doing!! If you give your phone to the feedback judge and ask for video feedback, they can film your routine and do the feedback voice over at the same time. This makes the feedback so much more usable and valuable, as you can see exactly what the judge is talking about, exactly as it happens. Video feedback has made a huge difference to me personally with my own dogs.
You want your dog to give you their all in the competition ring, in the absence of visible reinforcers, so you should make sure their experience is (in training and at training shows) that even though they can’t see any treats/toys, at any time, a very worthwhile reward may come!
I personally do more training shows than I do actual competitions. So many people drag their dogs to competition after competition and the dogs (there are a few exceptions, those collies that work just for the love of work!) end up becoming “ring-wise” and their performance suffers. The competition ring becomes a place where the dog KNOWS there will never be a reward (and where my handler acts strange due to nerves etc!) – this is what training shows aim to prevent if you utilise your time in the ring correctly.