February 17, 2014 by Julia West
People like to say that training with your dog is a journey, not a destination. Consider every NQ a pit stop on that journey. And everybody NQs. Unless you and your dog are robots, it will happen to you at some point. I’ve seen some seasoned handlers NQ in rather spectacular fashion, so it isn’t just the newbies either.
I was lucky enough to learn how to NQ relatively early. Xena, my Novice A girl, was environmentally sensitive and I spent the beginning of our career learning how to work with her particular challenges. When we were competing in Rally and Novice A, I suffered through some painful NQs. Being a green handler, I was absolutely crushed that my dog who “could do everything” in class would completely shutdown at a trial. I remember sitting in my camp chair with tears streaming down my face after one of our first NQs. I felt like a failure.
I was lucky enough to have excellent mentors who helped me with two key things: They reeled in my rush to compete and they helped me learn to work with Xena in ways that allowed her to be successful. I learned to NQ without breaking down and both Xena and I benefited immensely from this change. All 6 times we left the Open A ring, we were both happy. We only left once with a Q.
Here are the lessons I learned. I hope others can use it on their journey.
#1: Don’t go into the ring counting on a Q
Lots of people say you shouldn’t go into the ring until your dog is performing at 110% in practice. I don’t believe that, but you should not walk into the ring if NQing would put you to tears (or make you pissed off, if that is your default. I’m a crier.). I do think in order to be “ready” for a Q, you need to have trained your dog to perform consistently under a variation of distractions. Taking a dog into the ring when it doesn’t have a chance just isn’t fair, as much as putting yourself in the ring when you are expecting only one outcome isn’t fair.
#2: Never stop handling (catch them before they fall)
Your #1 job is to be a partner to your dog. If they are struggling, you need to help them. This could mean intentionally NQing by giving your dog the help they need – be that giving an extra command or thanking the judge and leaving the ring. And if they’ve already NQ’d, for Dog’s sake, support them, even if it “breaks” the rules. This applies to dogs that shutdown OR dogs that go wild. Plan for what you’ll do if things go south – how can you help your dog and work through the problem?
This fall I entered Delta in Beginner Novice her second-ever trial and she began to fall apart on the recall. She looked worried and moved towards the gate, and even sat down for a bout of nervous scratching. I gave her an extra command, which NQ’d us. I didn’t regret my decision – she needed my support much more than I needed a Q. When I left the ring, my only regret was putting her in a situation that unnerved my normally confident girl. I focused on what I wanted, rather than what I didn’t get, and made goals around that.
#3: Focus on the positive
Fellow competitors have an unfortunate habit of asking “What went wrong?” While you need to understand your performance gaps and work on them, focusing on them will not serve you in the long run. This concept was reinforced for me when I listened to Lanny Bassham’s With Winning in Mind. I made a conscious habit of mentioning things I liked in our performance whenever someone asked me why we didn’t Q. I was determined that there would be something good to say even if we failed every exercise. My favorite example of this (friends have probably seen it enough), is Xena’s first time in Graduate Novice. She bombed nearly every exercise, but she didn’t shutdown or give up. I was so pleased by her effort, I couldn’t stop smiling.
#4: This is your sport, so PLAY
I once described getting nervous before entering the ring to one of my trainers. I told her I was forgetting to breathe so much, my face felt tingly and numb. She said “For goodness sake, Julia, this is supposed to be FUN!” I learned how to have fun in the ring with Xena, I’m relearning it with Delta, and I’ll probably need a refresher when I start to trial my next dog. Make fun a regular part of your training so some of it can make it into the ring with you.
Don’t let fantasy “ruin” reality
I still walk into the ring with a hopeful picture in my head of a nice qualifying score. If I’m being entirely honest, that image usually includes a ribbon too. But if that fantasy doesn’t become reality? That’s OK. We’ll be back.
Dedicated to Xena (03/10/03 – 02/16/12), Renee Fulcer, and Brenda Finnicum, without whom this article would not be possible.