Dancing Hearts Blog

Are you ‘Training’ Your Way to Herding Trial Failure?

Are you training your way-

My first herding trial entry for the year was made two weeks ago. My calendar is programmed to send me beeping reminders over the next month to mail entries to all my favorite trials coming up. I know that if I miss the opening date, I won’t get in.

Lots of folks trialing these days. More entries than spaces, usually. I hear it’s the same in most dog performance sports like herding, agility, rally, tracking. We are definitely passionate about our dogs, our training and showing our hard-earned skills and teamwork to the judge of the day.

The pressure starts long before we arrive at a trial.

All that building excitement gets us to thinking about ‘getting ready’ for the launch of trial season: This is the year we want to shine. Earn those points, get those Q’s and legs, finish those titles. This year, we’re better handlers and our dogs are more solid in their training…at least we think so, right?

We count off the time: 8 weeks to get ready for the first trial of the season. Some of us are more organized: we make a list of the skills that we want to polish before then. Others of us simply decide to practice and train more frequently. Some of us hope to be carried forward on our success from last season.

Most of us will rely on some intense training sessions the week or two or three before the trial.

And that, my friends, is where it falls apart.

That last minute pressure to get ready is a killer. We push ourselves. We push our dogs. We push so hard that something breaks. Our dog is injured, our partnership teeters on the edge. We’ve basically made our dog crazy with all the pressure. Then, we have regrets: If only I would have (fill in the blank). It’s something that we know would have made such a huge difference in the outcome. Our first trial would have been a happier, more fun and more successful event…if only.

I remember doing this so many times when I first started competing in sheepdog trials. Looking back, I can’t believe Dallas stuck with me through some of it. She just kept trying and trying to please me and get it right. Getting faster and more tense by the minute. My little Reno didn’t stick with me so much. Whenever I put too much pressure on her before a trial, she would just stop working and look at me like I was an alien. Then I would be worried and frustrated because now my dog was broke, and we had a trial this weekend. Ah…the good old days. Not!!

Now, I Plan for Herding Success — it’s way better.

First, take a good, deep breath and as you exhale, push out all that anxiety or worry or pressure about getting ready. Maybe you need to do that again. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Good. Feels better already, right?

Next, Let’s look at the bigger picture. 8 weeks is a fairly short time, but a lot can be accomplished with a good plan that focuses on the areas that will most likely bring success. If you train 3-4 times per week, and you have 8 weeks to your trial, that means you have about 25 training sessions to work with. That number gives you a clear idea of what is possible in the time available.

Now, you need to be honest and ask yourself if you and your dog are close enough to having the skills needed to trial at the level you plan.

And then you need to know your purpose for entering this trial. There are lots of reasons to enter a competition. To win. To place in the top 10%. To finish the course. To get a score better than your last. To get experience. To work on your mental conditioning in a trial setting. To remain calm and connected to your dog, whether things go well or not.

Knowing the reason you are entering a herding competition will either make this a successful adventure for you and your dog…or leave you miserable and frustrated.

Once you know your reasons, assess your strengths. What do you and your dog already have in place that will make this a successful trial? Then, look at your weaknesses – where can you improve? How can you use your strengths to boost the areas that you want to improve? And, how can you chunk down those things into small bits that can be easily learned in one training session? Small, thin slices that are fun and easy. So important. Spread those chunks out over 18 of your 25 training sessions. Then spend the last 7 sessions having fun and rehearsing all the things your and your dog have learned. Now, you are ready for a successful outing at your first trial!

Maya and Kathy work at the Bluegrass ClassicSharing My Plan

This year, I plan to be a better handler…to be the best I can be. To notice every relevant detail about my dog, the sheep, and myself during our runs and to fluidly and expertly facilitate a beautiful communication circuit between me, dog and sheep.

I plan to bring that into every training session and to chunk it down. This week, I am focusing on my breathing, my posture, the sound of my voice as I bring my dogs to the starting place for our work. I am focusing on keeping my dogs fully engaged with me as we enter the work area and I will not send them to work until I sense they are with me and I am fully with them. Next week, I will be better able to focus on my breathing and posture as we work. I will notice how my breath and posture changes when my dog is working well, and when he/she is not. And I will regulate as I go, rehearsing staying fully present, focused and calmly in sync with dog and sheep.

The third week my breathing and posture will be subconsciously regulated when all is well, and I will notice quickly when it shifts out of sync and adjust. By this time, my dog and I are working nearly as one, and my dog gives me instant feedback when I am out of sync. The fourth week my breathing and posture are fully subconscious, and I can stay in this coherent state the entire working session.

Awesome awesomeness!! I love this plan already. And, I have a similar plan for each of my dogs and their skills.

So, How About You?

Have you experienced that Get Ready craziness that happens two weeks before a trial, but doesn’t work out so well in the end? I’d love to hear your story!

When is your next trial? Do you have a plan? Tell me your strategy for getting ready.

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