Green Doesn't Mean Full Steam Ahead

                Entering a green dog into his first tournament can be a fun, exciting, and highly rewarding experience for the handler and the dog.  You get to see all your hours of training put to the test in a whirlwind of adrenaline, excitement and competition.   Not to forget to mention all the compliments and pats on the back from your teammates and friends with how well your new little guy is doing.  Well, that’s if things go well.  Quite often I’ve noticed that this isn’t the case.  Whether in the slower divisions or the faster divisions it’s not uncommon to see green dogs dropping balls, chasing other dogs, running around uncontrollably in the runback area, running around jumps or even T-Boning opposing dogs while we all watch and cringe as it unfolds.   What makes or breaks a green dog from competing successfully in their first tournament? ???

                Let us begin with the training side of things.  Having your dog fully prepared to enter a tournament is a must.  Often people are pushing their young dogs because they are excited to race them or the team is in need of them in order to become more competitive or even race at all.  Skipping fundamental training exercises regardless of the excuse is a recipe for disaster.  Safety of your team dogs as well as opposing team dogs should be your number one priority.  Bringing and unprepared dog to the floor just isn’t fair to the dog or your fellow competitors.  One wrong error could set you back months in training or even be career ending mistake.  Don’t be the “eager to race but too lazy to train” dog competitor.  Fully prepare your green dog in a practise setting first so he has a solid understanding of what to expect.   I believe the following criteria should be met before allowing your dog to even do a recall in a competitive setting. 

  1. Should have a reliable recall without using a visual bribe
  2. Should have a solid motivator/reinforcement that they won’t let go of without being cued or grab and takeoff
  3. Should be able to perform the entire course in a team setting racing against another team in practise with many months of successful reps
  4. Should not be ball obsessed
  5. Should have no fear of people or dogs

Having the following criteria in place does not guarantee success however it does decrease the odds dramatically of unsafe errors happening. 

                But say you have done all the preparation you can do and you feel confident it is time to take the next step.  How you plan to introduce your dog to the very distracting tournament environment plays a huge role in the resulting success or lack of it.  When I take a new dog to the tournament I make sure first that he is listed on a team where the competing dogs don’t need a lot of warm-up time and everyone on that team has the same goal (get the newbie some experience).  Basically this team is catering to the new dog and are not out to win their division.  Secondly, I make sure I start with the most basic and simple exercise I can think of that my dog has been doing since he was 8 weeks old, the RECALL.  I may spend a few warm-ups just doing recalls and making sure my dog is having success right of the start. The recall is simple, non-stressful, motivating, and fun.   If this goes well I will progress to up close “hits” off the box without a ball.  Again I’m making sure my dog is successful in the most basic concepts I have taught him.  I’m building confidence and limiting confusion with every successful rep.  Next I will ask my dog to catch a ball from the box, basically doing up close box work.  This may be all I get to do in the first day of my dog’s debut.  Next day I will start where I left off, up close box work and a recall.  All goes well I will take my dog back 1 jump release him to the box and run back over 4 jumps.  By my 3rd warm-up on day 2 I will ask my dog to complete the course on his own.  If successful on warm up 3 and 4 I will allow him to do 1-3 heats in the final race of the day.  If in any heat and error occurs I pull my green dog and he will be finished until the next warm-up or next tournament.   Basically over the weekend I’m doing all the behaviours I have taught him for flyball in the past year at an accelerated rate.  We like to ease dogs into full days/weekends of racing gradually over many tournaments.  This is to ensure they can physically and mentally keep up to the pace and endurance a tournament asks of them.  I don’t want my new dog to get sloppy and learn that when he gets tired he can give a fraction less in his performance and earn the same reward.  Far too often I see great dogs debut and within the year look burnt out, sloppy, and running 4 tenths slower than they debuted at.  It is a shame to see when so much potential is there. 

                Lastly, I think that debuting green dogs in the fastest most competitive divisions is completely unsafe.  Not because I feel these divisions are more important but more because the speed  the dogs in div 1 run leave very little time to maneuver out of the way of an uncontrollable green dog.  The crashes tend to be more severe and scary when the dogs are running at full speed.  Quite often a dog running 3.5-3.6 seconds doesn’t see or have time to react to a change in the pattern they have been conditioned to repeat.  In my experience I have only seen bad crashes in the faster higher divisions and the slower lower divisions crashes tend to be averted by dogs baling out of the jumps or moving out of the way.  Nothing bothers me more when I watch teams even top teams try and run dogs they know are going to cross putting everyone (people and dogs) at risk for injuries.  It is just a very selfish stunt to pull on your fellow competitors that have put the time, energy and knowledge into getting their dogs to run to their fullest potential.