Home » Field trials » The Journey Or the Destination?

Photo: Hanna Nilsson, http://www.kennelblagul.se/

Information, information and information. That is what I gather from trialing and training. Sometimes that information is easily digested – ”no surprises there, we simply need to work more on xx in this specific situation”. But sometimes, the information is truly hard to digest. For me, it’s the most difficult when I don’t understand it. If I don’t understand it, I can’t do anything about it and I find not being in control very punishing.

During the last couple of months, Seeker and I have entered three Novice trials. I’ve gained a lot of useful information from the trials – both of the easily digestible kind and information I first really didn’t know what to do with…

The first trial – our first entry ever – and I was ever so happy with the work we did! Great deliveries, good marking skills, nice steadiness – a year before the trial he wouldn’t even have considered giving me the game in that kind of situation and a couple of months before that, he wouldn’t have given me the game in any situation… 😉 ”Spacious heeling” (that was a very nice way of putting it from the judge), no wind when hunting and a lack of experience in going deep in those conditions, on top of distractions in the shape of previously retrieved water marks behind us, rendered us with a third prize. Back home to practice more difficult hunting situations and more heeling!

The second trial provided me with information that was more difficult to digest. I was sooooo happy with the heeling (we had been working on it in challenging situations almost every day since the last trial and we did get the feedback that he followed really well). He showed great steadiness, good deliveries and marked retrieves, and the hunting went great (he went deep and really worked very well). And then he took a crow and a gull in far too hard a grip. WHAT?? That had never ever happened before. If anything, his grip has been a bit too loose. From being really happy about what we had trained (the heeling, the hunting), I dived headfirst into a black hole of how on earth that could have happened.

I simply didn’t understand why and had no idea of how to fix it. After a lot of thinking, discussing with training buddies and trainers and some testing, it turned out that it had to do with Seeker’s mental perseverance. When he gets tired, he simply can’t deal with handling the game correctly. Good! Now I know what to train – game handling when he’s tired! I’ll also see if I can help him with his perseverance, not only by perseverance training, but also by thinking about his diet and energy levels before something that I know will be hard on him.

The third trial – time to try out the analysis from the last trial. I kept the warm up shorter and not so focused on the heeling and precision, which made our heeling more ”spacious” again – but he kept himself together well on the first stretch, bounced once on the second stretch and once on the third. The marked retrieves, deliveries and steadiness were great. He covered ground well when hunting and then he caught scent of a gull when he was coming in with the second to last piece of game (a crow) and swapped game… If I had blown the recall whistle just a couple of seconds earlier, I probably could have saved it. But I didn’t. More information. Go home and work even more at retrieving the first bird and coming straight back in. Oh, and of course keep working on that heeling…

I’ve received so many positive comments after posting videos and blog posts after our trials. A lot of ”fall apart and get back up”, which a lot of dog training can be about. After all, the dogs are individuals and not robots J But people have also commented that ”how nice that you post videos even when you didn’t get a first prize”. That got me thinking.

I know from experience that my students appreciate me showing videos when the training doesn’t go as planned, showing how I handle that and solve the problem. And the comments I’ve received after our trials have really got me thinking about results and the purpose of trialling.

Sometimes, I feel that there is great pressure to get a first prize – if one doesn’t, there isn’t really a point in taking part. If you don’t get that champion title in six consecutive starts, it’s not worth anything. ”You’ll only have a long career in Novice” and all that. Naturally, qualifying is great fun and the competitive devil gets to me too sometimes. I want to win and at some point get that champion title, but the road to get there is more often than not somewhat winding. It’s easy to get pulled along in all this, but I would like us to pause and take a look at a few things I’ve been pondering for a while.

Why have I made the choice to trial, knowing there are issues? Well, in order to be able to analyse those issue. We do try to have mock trials when we can (we’ve had three or four this year), but that still isn’t the same thing as entering a real trial. So at least I feel the need to get out there and try things out – what do we have, what’s working, what do we need to keep working on? It’s also to give both myself and my young dog more experience of being in a trial situation- how do we warm up, when are we at our very best and a really good team, even in challenging environments, etc. Naturally, we’re aiming to qualify in the end, and we would have at the last trial, had the odds just been slightly more in our favour. They weren’t however, so all we can do is to go home and train some more.

To me, it’s about choosing a perspective – why do I trial? What’s in it for me? And in the end that brings me back to why do I train dogs at all?

I train dogs because it’s fun, both for the dog and myself. It’s relaxing and I also have goals I want to reach. To me trialling is a way to find out how my dog will do in those situations – I’m curiously gathering information. It’s also what I return to every time I hear ”it’s so easy for you (enter whatever you like here, but normally it will be something beyond your control) because you’re always so lucky, such an easy dog, so much time on your hands, etc.”.

Would things progress faster or better if I had done things differently, had another dog, another way of training, more time to train, more experience, better access to training that more resembles hunting? Maybe, maybe not. But this is the way I’ve chosen to do things and I’ll work within that in the way I can and with the way of training that I’ve chosen. Naturally I also try to learn more, in order to become more skilled as a trainer. Do I get criticized and questioned? Sure. And I’m happy to answer both the critique and the questions, since I know why I’m doing the things that I do. I like to discuss, it helps me become a better trainer. My conclusion is always (unless the dog is unhealthy in anyway): It’s not working because we haven’t trained it well enough yet. Period. Full stop. The end. That’s it. Sure, I could have wished for different circumstances, but it always comes down to priorities and opportunities. If you prioritize your training (and work on the right things…), your training should progress. If you don’t train, things normally don’t progress. In the words of Ingemar Stenmark, the Swedish skier: ”The more I train, the luckier I get”.

If you take a look at other dog sports there’s nothing odd with coming home from a weekend of competing in agility with four DQ’s. The weekend after, you might qualify. I don’t think I’ve heard of an agility dog who’s taken a champion title without a single DQ. That DQ that you might bring home after a trial doesn’t tell you everything either – you can DQ in ever so many ways. For example, some of the teams at the last trial DQ’d by refusing to get into the water, swapping game and running in. But they also did many great things before that one thing happened. I think that makes it more important to look at the judge’s critique than the price you might have brought home. It’s a pity that not all the breed clubs post the critiques after a trial so that it’s available to everyone. We would all learn more from that!

But since that’s not the case, I can at least show you mine. I show it both for my own sake – it helps me analyse my training and get feedback and nice comments from others regarding how they’ve solved the same issue. I also show it for the sake of others – so that you can see that you’re not alone or so that you can get to have a good laugh at my problems 😉 I choose to show when things go wrong because that’s a natural part of the learning process. When trialling, I get information about what we need to dedicate more work to and so I will keep entering trials even when I’m not sure that we’re going to qualify. I’ll also keep showing the information I take with me from the trial, simply what we need to train more. To me, the journey is more important than the destination, even if prizes are nice. Dog training isn’t easy. It’s a lot of time dedicated, long days in the pouring rain and a lot of analysing. And even though it would be nice if everything would just work every now and then, all this pondering and training is what makes dog training so much fun and so much of a challenge. So, get out there! And dare to talk about what didn’t work and the challenges you’re facing. Most likely, someone else is facing the very same challenges and you can support each other!

I would love to keep this discussion going and hear your thoughts on this. Have you felt ”the pressure”? How do you handle it? Why do you trial/compete (or why don’t you) and what is your take away from doing so?


Retrieving for All Occasions - Foundations for Excellence in Gun Dog Training
Retrieving for All Occasions - Foundations for Excellence in Gun Dog Training

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