Shhhh….

The Story So Far
I compete in HTM and Freestyle in the UK in the advanced classes with two dogs, Border Collies, Flash who is 10 and Danny who is 4. Flash has won several Advanced HTM classes and Danny has won Advanced Freestyle – both qualified for the Crufts Semi-finals in January 2012. Neither of them made it to the finals: Danny was injured and could not compete; Flash had a number of points deducted because he barked. 

Flash is the first dog I worked competitively. We started dabbling in HTM in 2004 when he was 2. I had never done anything like this before and had a lot to learn. Looking back, Flash always had a tendency to bark when doing certain moves in training, and he often barked at random in the competition ring. I was too naïve then to realise that I needed to address this, there were too many other things making my mind whirl. As Flash and I progressed his barking became more persistent and at the same time the Kennel Club introduced a formal marking scheme which penalised barking. Something had to change – and it has –it has taken a long time and involved a lot of learning, and we are not there yet.

I came out of the ring at the Semi-finals very pleased with Flash’s performance. I knew that he would not qualify for the finals because we would face penalties for his noise but…he walked into the ring with me – as opposed to running at the audience, he worked happily and accurately – as opposed to losing confidence and stopping working, he made noise in the first 1 minute 50 seconds but then he stopped and worked without noise for the last 2 minutes 10 seconds and finished doing a “high” (standing on two back legs) which is a move I would have previously avoided because it produced noise.

So, how have we got to this point? Two major things have had to change to allow us to get this far: I have had to learn about myself as a handler, how to prepare and how to manage my reactions in the ring; I have had to learn more about Flash and what I should and should not be asking from him. I think that those are the two main principles, know yourself and know your dog. I will tell you what we have done – but it may not be the same for you because you and your dog may be different.

Jucando Newsflash HTM A Ex FS N Ex (Flash)
Flash very rarely barks at home, when he does it is as a warning. He does not bark when he is excited and he does not bark to get attention (Danny is the opposite, he barks when he is excited and whines and barks for attention). When Flash plays, he plays hard, fast and silently. He lives with my two other dogs and if there is “trouble” because one of them is misbehaving, Flash goes out of the way. He is very reactive to movement and given the opportunity will chase any quick moving animal. He also reacts to applause by diving at the sound. He likes working and is very intense. I have done some small obedience shows with him and had to be careful because at the end of the stays – when the dogs are released – Flash would dive at the dog next to him.

When we began the sport he appeared to learn moves very quickly and so when we started to do HTM I trained many different things and rehearsed large sections of routines. He also appeared to be very confident, so I did not consider the need to build his confidence. In this I think lies the basis of Flash’s barking, lack of confidence and frustration. His quickness to learn was actually his responsiveness to my hand movement and he did not always understand what he was doing; conversely at times I would give a verbal command which he knew, but my hands suggested something else – result, noise! Interestingly the thing that I have found the most difficult to teach Flash is to touch his muzzle with his paw – although I have put a hand signal to this as a cue I could not find a way to teach it by moving my hands. Having come to realise these things I now do the following with Flash: 

  • Teach/train each move in a routine separately (even ones that he has done before) and link them gradually – give lots of food rewards, especially if any noise accompanies a move or an attempt at a move.
  • Keep hand movements to a minimum and make them clear and distinctive – be aware of possible confusion.
  • When using a verbal command rather than a signal keep hands still and/or train the move with hands doing different things
  • Know that the time in the ring starts from the moment he comes out of the car – use other dogs, people, applause, as distractions and reward for attention, focus and responsiveness to me. Don’t allow him to have any “blank” time when these things can get into his head – but keep it positive and keep building his confidence every time and at every show.

Rewards/Consequences, Focus/Commitment
One of the first strategies that I tried with Flash to control his barking was to do a “timeout” if he made a noise. I did this consistently in training and in competition. Two things resulted from it: he lost motivation and he anticipated the timeout by stopping himself as soon as he made a noise. If I was lucky this stopping was a sit – but he could hurl himself down on the floor as if he had been beaten into submission, not a pretty sight. Both of us often left the ring feeling defeated. As a balance to the motivation I would give big, play rewards for working which he loved – but the play and the barking did not seem to balance each other.

I was at a point of despair when it was suggested that I should feed his barking. It did not seem to make any sense but I was desperate and so I decided to try it. Using simple moves I would feed if I got noise and indeed the noise decreased. What I now link this to is the issue of his confidence and his understanding of what I was asking. Coupled with this was asking him to give more, to be more focussed and more committed to what I was asking him to do. When I asked him to work in this way he soon became very tired, mentally, in training and needed shorter sessions and more frequent rests. When I started doing the sport I would often do an hour training Flash all in one go. When I got Danny this was reduced so that I shared my time between the two dogs. I now take a kitchen timer with me – set it for 5, 10 or 15 minutes (never more) and alternate the two dogs. The longer sessions are for things we are learning or developing if I want focussed, accurate rehearsals I use shorter time periods.

Flash’s work in the ring improved in leaps and bounds and the noise decreased. I obviously could not take food into the competition ring with me so I tended to compete in heelwork, less likely to provoke noise, and train with toys in freestyle competitions.

It then became apparent that I had by now two sources of noise. On the one hand was the worried noise and on the other was noise which came from habit developed over our years of working. If I deemed the noise to be “habit” then I would stop, ask him to come to me and talk quietly – while stroking him and touching his muzzle.

When training in the ring I had to use a toy but I now use toys very rarely with Flash during a training session, although he can still get a big play at the end. This is not because the toys cause barking but because they reduce his focus on me. If I work him with toys spread around the floor he is always partly focussed on the toy and waiting to be told to get it. His reward in training is food. It helps him to keep focussed.

The major thing in preparing Flash to go in the ring is getting his mind focussed. Ideally I will work him, with food rewards, for about twenty minutes with breaks, before we go in the ring. This is not possible at every show, and sometimes the atmosphere of the ring can overpower his concentration but we are both getting better at being focussed on each other when we walk in. There was a time when I had to take him into the ring on a lead because he would herd the audience. I have not had to do that for over a year. At a recent training show I was very pleased because I was able to do this mental warm up slightly differently. The weather was very rainy and windy and I could not warm him up outside without getting very wet, there was no room to warm up inside. Instead we sat by the ring and worked on looking at the dog working, looking at me, and he then went in and did his 4 minute routine without barking.

Changing the Handler
I always knew that I was nervous and tense when I went into the ring but two things made me realise how bad this was and that I needed to change this.

The first happened when I had taken my mum for some treatment at our local hospital. I knew that I would have a significant time of waiting for her and so I took my MP3 with my routine on to listen to. I sat in the waiting room and suddenly realised that as soon as the music started I became tense and nervous. So, I began to listen to my music whilst doing relaxation exercises.

The second thing happened the first time I took Danny to work at a competition. I stood at the side of the ring with him and he sat next to me. I realised that my hand tightened on the lead and I was prepared to check him whenever the music or applause started or a dog was working quickly; but I did not need to, he just sat there. I was programmed to be tense by the side of the ring.

I have had to learn how to relax but stay focussed, how to focus on my dog on the way to the ring, in the ring, and after working so that I can respond to him in the best way for him. I have had to learn that each competition is just a measuring point of how far you have got towards your aim of the “perfect partnership performance”.

I do still get nervous but I can channel and manage those nerves and I do “enjoy the round”.

Giving Credit
I hope that there is something useful in all of this. I have had great time learning about the sport, myself and my dogs. I have not done it without the help, encouragement and wisdom of other handlers, trainers and competitors. If I began a list of those who have helped me I would undoubtedly omit someone crucial but I feel that I should mention two people: Kath Hardman and Domini Allday. I have also benefited greatly from two books which I still go back to for ideas: ‘Control Unleashed’ and ‘That Winning Feeling’.

By Annette Lowe, England
March 2012

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