Trial Preparation….  something that is often neglected but is critical in getting a dog adequately prepared for the rigors of competition…  Competition is HARD on a dog AND the handler!  Is your dog prepared to step to the line with 10 seconds to acclimate in a new and scary space and work?  Are you ready to read your dog and is your handling to the level that it needs to be at your level of competition?

For most trainers, trial preparation is solely finding a lot of different hides.  Classes are usually held in the same places.  Skills are learned but the dog isn’t actually prepared.  But is your dog truly ready?

Judd is my current, main competition dog.  He’s a Labrador with a true love of scent detection.  I also know he is trial ready.  Judd is actually a very timid dog by nature which surprises most folks who meet him in the Nosework world.  Judd has competed and titled in six sports now, but where he really shines is in Scent Sports.  Through careful generalization and proofing, I take him to the line with complete confidence that he is 100% focused on his job and knowing that the environment isn’t important.  To Judd, only odor matters.  Judd has searched successfully in extremely distracting and scary environments.  In fact, at a recent NW3 trial he WON Exteriors with heavy artillery practice going on nearby.  Yes, he’s a stable dog but he was also prepared!

Trial Preparation involves balancing the dog’s temperament and stress levels, with new challenges.  When I teach Trial Preparation, we analyze a dog’s temperament and stress level, handler skill, dog skills and proofing needs and we put laser focus on where the team needs help in order to succeed.  Trial Preparation should never be haphazard!

Even if you do A LOT of searches in novel environments, that is only a piece of the puzzle.  There is a really big difference between searching in a new place, with a calm handler, under ideal circumstances and trialing.   Consider this…  your dog has to deal with the following at every trial:

1. A Stressed Out Handler

2. Back to Back Searches, Long Search Times, Extreme Weather

3. Occasional Crazy Level of Distractions

4. Novel Environment with No Chance to Acclimate

5. Stress of an all day event where they need to stay in the car and be comfortable regardless of the weather

The way you prepare your dog for a trial needs to take these challenges into consideration!

With most other sports, you might trial every weekend.  The time in the ring can be mere seconds to minutes depending on the sport.  In other sports, you can also walk your dog around the grounds and get him used to his environment.  Many people bring non-competing dogs to trials just to get them used to the atmosphere and to work them in a novel location.  Matches are used extensively in trial preparation.  Also, by the time the dog moves up in level, the dog typically has a great amount of ring experience.  Nosework?  Not so much…

Getting into a Nosework trial can sometimes be an accomplishment in and of itself and typically, the times that a dog will actually trial are pretty limited.  Once you title in NW1 or NW2, you are no longer eligible for that level.  If you have a strong dog, it’s quite possible that you will be faced with competing in the rigors of NW3 at your THIRD TRIAL EVER.  Without careful preparation there is little chance to title and be successful in NW3 in under these conditions, and in many ways you’ve actually set your dog up to fail.  All of a sudden the handler is thrown into an intense competition where the number of hides is unknown, and the searches are more plentiful and longer.  Sometimes the handler and the dog will be able to rise above this challenge, but the odds are stacked heavily against the team.

I have a trainer who tells me “Train Hard to Trial Easy”.  I love that tag line and I find myself using it often.  Thank you Lisa!  My interpretation of this statement is to be SMART in your training.  Think about how you prepare with respect to the five stressors above.  Put together a plan and practice smart training.  Think of preparation as a process and check your progress as you go.  Above all else, consider the mental status of your training partner, your dog, as you prepare for your next trial.

Happy Trial Preparation!!