As I mentioned yesterday, I wanted to share just a few thoughts about preparing a team for a draft test and I think it can be summed up in one word: fluency.
If you look up the definition of fluency you will discover that it involves something that flows and appears effortless. Consider what it means to be fluent in a language -- it does not involve pausing to make translations in one's head or stopping to read the English/Spanish dictionary or telling someone that you want to have sex instead of complimenting a very fine painting. No, fluency means the task has become natural, accurate, and even easy.
Fluency is achieved only through diligent, thoughtful preparation for a task. Being "draft fluent" doesn't mean there won't be an occasional mistake -- we are all human -- but it does mean the dog performs easily and willingly, with no wide detours, begging, pleading, etc. Fluency means the team goes in and does the job and makes it look easy -- that is what you should be aiming for before the dog steps a paw in the draft ring.
The key to achieving fluency is practice -- that is the bottom line. Mac and Zoey were "draft fluent" because of how hard we have worked at getting ready -- there is nothing magical or secret about it -- we prepared and -- at the risk of sounding boastful -- it showed.
Before one can even start the process of preparing for a draft test, one has to have a dog that is comfortable pulling and who can stop and turn. This basic work takes time and practice as well, and I was reminded of that when I was asked about getting a dog started. I am so fluent in training that I have to stop myself and think through the steps that have become so automatic for me -- like the harnessing (which usually I am good at ;).
When I start, I put the harness over the head -- and give a treat. Then I put one leg through -- and give a treat. Then the other leg -- another treat. I click/fasten one side of the girth strap -- treat. I click/fasten the other side -- treat. Of course I am also praising and petting as well but do you see what I do? I break tasks down into tiny steps and reinforce, and that starts with putting on the harness. If I had a dog who was scared of the harness, I would further break down the task and reward each baby step.
I think that is why I have good success -- because I have learned this skill of seeing the baby steps, and so I work in baby steps and not giant, scary leaps.
And so once I have a dog who is relatively confident and pulling, stopping and doing some semblance of turns, it is time to start serious preparation for a test -- I like to start this about 4 - 5 weeks in advance of a test. So here is what I really and truly did to get Mac and Zoey ready...
As you may know, I have a training arena at the house so I set up a draft test "ring" in the arena (but I have also done similar things to prepare before I had the luxury of my own arena -- parks work well). The "ring" included two sets of narrows, lots of things to weave around and make circles, and distractions. I designed a different course each week, and I included every single element that would be in ring exercises, including basic control, the movable object, backing, the slow, and the various required circles. I set the narrows at about one-half of the space allowed in the test, and did crazy weaves and tight circles -- in other words, I challenged the dogs and made it harder than we would see in a test.
Six days a week the dogs did the course in the arena and I am serious about that. Rain or shine we practiced the course of the week, usually 2 - 3 times in a session. But there is more -- three or four days a week, the dogs also did a freight haul. Just like a test, we would start in the arena with a stay -- Dear Husband put a tarp over my tire jump with a strategically placed hole in it so I could practice out of sight stays, and we would do the stay and then go out a gate -- the dog had to wait while I opened and closed it, just like the movable object in a test.
The freight haul was 2/3 mile and always included hills, since we have little hills at the house. The dogs pulled weight on the freight haul, and I increased it every fourth freight haul by at least ten pounds. On the freight haul we did changes of pace, stopping, weaving, different terrains, and turns -- just like you will find on a test freight haul.
On days when I did both the ring exercises and the freight haul, each dog took about 45 - 50 minutes; just the ring exercises was faster -- maybe 20 - 25 minutes. Since I had two dogs in full on test preparation, and Cadi getting conditioned to pull big weight, I would easily spend 1.5 - 2.5 hours practicing draft per day.
My draft training is heavily reinforced. I think of training as making deposits and showing as making withdrawals -- and so I built up the draft bank account with lots of excellent reinforcement, which means I used exceptionally desirable treats, I rotated treats during the week, and I used different treats during a training session; all of this is in addition to lots of verbal and physical praise.
I NEVER correct a dog during draft training -- it does not help me achieve my goal of happy fluency. This does not mean the dogs do not make mistakes -- or more accurately, do not offer a different behavior than I want. For example, I just decided 3 - 4 weeks ago to get both dogs ready to move up to open should they pass the novice test. Suddenly I had more elements to practice, one of which was the dog staying in the ring while I went out and got the cart.
This was surprisingly hard for both dogs. They wanted to get up and go to the cart as I pushed it in, or maybe they were worried I would run over their feet with it :) When they got up, I did not say anything -- I just noted to myself that I had made it too hard for them to be successful. I put them back on a stay and broke the exercise down into smaller increments -- so rewarding for staying while I walked out, then for when I had the cart, and then when I pushed it in a little and so on -- you get the idea.
I also changed how I did the exercise to make it easier for the dog. I had the dog facing me in a down stay and verbally reinforced the entire time I was getting the cart in ("good stay, what a good dog, etc.") as well as randomly going back and giving a cookie rather than always doing the whole exercise before reinforcing. I never turned my back to the dog, and I placed the cart at a decent, safe distance from them -- just things that helped them be successful. What I did not do was in any way physically or verbally "correct" the dog if the dog moved -- I work under the assumption that if my dog knows what I want, s/he will do it so any "mistake" is a communication issue and nothing more.
Practice makes perfect, but it has to be practice that increases confidence rather than creating stress in a dog by asking for more than she is capable of doing. It is this ability to accurately assess a dog that allows us to thoughtfully and carefully plan for appropriate practices -- what we do in practice ALWAYS has to be based on the dog, and not on what we think the dog should be doing. Accurately assessing a dog is respectful, and honors the reality that each dog has strengths and limitations that must be considered when training him or her.
Consistent and considerate practice creates fluency, and fluency is what allows a dog/handler to go in a ring and make it look effortless; Cooper Whitby and Jennifer achieved fluency even though they did not pass the test. At no point did it look anything but easy when you watched her and Cooper in that draft ring -- they were ready and it showed. And really -- that is what matters -- that the performance flows and looks effortless, no matter the outcome.
I would have been very shocked if Zoey especially had not passed the novice draft test, and I was pretty confident with Mac as well. This level of confidence is directly related to how well-prepared the teams were -- again, there is nothing magical or special -- it is all about being ready, and you do not get ready by wishing to get ready -- you have to put in the time and effort, and quite simply, we did.
We all have bad days at a show or test or trial, but a poor showing should always surprise us -- it should never be a big surprise when we do well. And again, I am not talking about passing/winning as a measure of doing well because a passing or winning performance can be ugly :) I am talking about performing in such a way that the loveliness of it is based on the performance and not the score sheet. It is nice when those two things both reflect excellence, but I will take a pretty -- but flunking -- performance over an ugly pass any day because fluency -- while it does not assure perfection -- gets us closer to success than relying on marginal preparation and good luck to carry the day.
And so there you have it -- the secret to doing well at a draft test is to achieve fluency through practice, and also wearing Lucky Socks. I think Lucky Socks are critical because they are an acknowledgment that no matter how much we have practiced or how much experience we have, we are not perfect and so we need help; they are like putting on a prayer.