So, if it’s ‘Not For Competition’ then what IS it for?
By Tara Baggerman and Jared Davis
What is a Not For Competition Run?
Not for Competition (NFC) on the surface is an option for handlers to enter a trial and utilize one or more runs for the purposes of training and REWARDING our dogs with a primary reinforcer. Our intent here is to show you that when we dig a little deeper into the value of NFC; you will see the pivotal role it can play in your team’s career.
Before we go too much further; let’s take a moment and examine some rules for our NFC runs. Knowing these rules ahead of time sets you and Fido up for a successful and enjoyable trial training experience! The UKI rule book goes into detail about all of the rules for NFC runs; but here is a summary of some of the key rules judges are likely to brief you on.
- You may run NFC in any class you are eligible to enter; remember to announce before you run, your intention of NFC. (Make sure the judge and scribe know!) If the judge doesn’t know and you start to train, you and Fido are eliminated.
- When running NFC you get to use STANDARD COURSE TIME for your training.
- You may use a toy (just not one that makes noise) and even bring a helper in with you!
- You can train any piece of equipment more than once AND in any order. (Just start on obstacle 1 for the sake of time).
- Once you’re in, you’re in; so if you leave the ring to reward you may not return.
- For NFC you may run a lower height than your select height- just please make sure you arrange this with the show manager ahead of time!
- FOOD! If you need to use food for rewarding your canine partner; SOME show sites have this option available in a designated area next to the ring. Special rules apply to the food option so make sure to read the rule book! (link below).
*Adapted from UKI Rule Book Pgs 33-35 (click here)
If a run is “Not for Competition” then what IS it for?
Now that we know the rules of an NFC run, let’s think about the experience of competing with our dogs. If you have been to even a small amount of competitions you have likely heard one of these lines; and if we are being honest, said a version of them ourselves:
“Oh, I swear Fido always holds his start line in training! He only breaks at a trial!”
“Rex has got such great speed in our backyard, I don’t know why she’s so slow in trials.”
“Every time we step into the ring Rover <insert any unwanted behavior>! But that never happens in our training class.”
In order to understand why our dog’s competition behavior is often dramatically different from her training behavior, we first need to understand how these two environments contrast from one another.
The Agility Trial
What is an agility trial atmosphere like?
When you and your dog step to the start line does everyone fall silent, whispering:
“SHHHHHH!!!! Be quiet! Don’t move a muscle! There is a team on the line!”
Heck no! The entire atmosphere is busy and loud! There are dogs barking, handlers chatting and applauding. There are ring crew seated around you, a leash runner behind you, a gate steward calling out dog names and a judge keenly watching your every move. Let’s not leave out the teams playing on the practice jumps, photographers, videographers and vendors! The trial location itself can vary from weekend to weekend. The footing might be grass one weekend, matting the next, then dirt, then artificial turf. Maybe one club has really fancy equipment and another is using a potpourri of several brands. There might even be a loud heating or air conditioning system causing another layer of background noise. If you are showing outdoors then Mother Nature may toss her own special recipe of distractions at your dog!
Phew! Just imaging the trial environment makes our heartbeats spike. How does this abundance of energy make your dog feel?
The Training Classroom
Take a moment to think about your dog’s normal training class. What is the environment like? Is it busy? Is it loud? Or is it . . . comfortable?
In your weekly class your dog has grown accustomed to the same dogs and handlers each week. While it is certainly fun and productive to run in class, it is also a ‘physiological safety zone’. The same building. The same footing. The same equipment. The same instructor. The same classmates. The same day and time. Week after week after week. If you train solo in your backyard then (squirrels and birds aside) your environment is also consistent and comfortable.
Oh, the toys and the food! Don’t forget those! Bringing primary reinforcement to the training floor helps garner focus and security for both members of the agility team. These “comforts of home” are gone when we arrive to a trial site; which is why we start to see the following events:
The dog who stays like a rock star in class begins to break their stays like a piñata at a trial.
The dog who struggles to make course time in a trial often has nice speed in the backyard.
The dog who ___ <insert any unwanted trial behavior>____ in competition usually does not exhibit this behavior in their class.
While the classroom environment is ideal for learning new handling maneuvers and training equipment; it is difficult for handlers to mimic the physiological response our dogs experience in a trial environment. When we look at the list of environment descriptors below; we start to see the role of NFC in bridging this gap.
Hopefully by now you have noticed our subtle use of the underline feature to draw your attention to the term primary reinforcement. An understanding of this concept is essential for MAXIMIZING the benefits of the NFC option. A primary reinforcer is one that meets a dog’s basic need; think food (COOKIES!); think prey drive (TOY!). The effectiveness of these rewards comes down to the value our dog sees in them; and how immediately we deliver these rewards. Secondary reinforcers like petting or our voice become valuable because they are associated with a primary reinforcer.
THIS THIS THIS is why taking advantage of the opportunity to run some courses as NFC is vital to the progression of your team! When you choose to run NFC; you are choosing to enter the ring with access to your primary reinforcers and the ability to deliver them in the very moment our canine friend performs brilliantly!
It is important to understand that not all dogs ‘generalize’ behaviors well. Let’s think of the Teeter obstacle as an example. Just because your dog is a pro at the teeter in your backyard, does not mean she will be a pro at the teeter in the trial. Your dog may become nervous around the trial teeter. She may even turn into a wild heathen and fly off!
The reasons for her change in behavior could be numerous: distracting environment, a different brand of teeter, or a challenging teeter approach. But instead of allowing her to have an undesirable experience or performance, let’s think ahead and ‘get ahead’! Our job as the human half of the team is to prevent an unwanted teeter experience from ever happening.
Let’s take our teeter example one step further. For this example we have two teams; we’ll start with Team A. On Team A Fido has done many teeters in class and reliably sticks his 2on-2off behavior. Since Fido performs reliably in training his handler feels confident in entering a trial and using an NFC run to ‘test’ her dog’s understanding of the teeter obstacle and that of his trained 2on-2off criteria in this new setting. Handler A aims to build Fido’s confidence and ability to generalize the teeter skill . Handler A plans to introduce Fido to this different teeter and will train and reward the correct performance. Handler A is not feeling rushed during her run time as she budgeted her entire NFC time to focus on the teeter. Since Handler A is so dedicated to the long term quality and confidence of Fido’s teeter performance she will continue utilizing NFC runs to reinforce Fido’s teeter for as long as Fido needs. This handler also knows to randomly enter NFC throughout Fido’s career to continue reinforcing correct performances in various trial environments.
In contrast we have Team B. In Team B, Duke has also done many teeters in class and always sticks his 2on-2off behavior. Since Duke performs reliably in class his handler feels confident in entering a trial and is ready to Q. On the big day, Duke hits the competition teeter, bounces off and seems a little startled; but Duke “hit yellow” and a Q is in sight so Handler B keeps running. As the weekend progresses and Handler B asks Duke to do more teeters without reinforcement his performance quickly deteriorates.
When we think of the two different approaches Handler A and Handler B took when entering their trials; we can see in the image above which way the scales (or in this case teeter) tip.
“You don’t get what you want. You get what you reward.”
— Bob Bailey
The above quote from Bob Bailey is an excellent reminder of the value in rewarding the behaviors we like from our dogs. The other important point is that the timing of this reward is of paramount importance. One of the added benefits of running NFC with your primary reinforcer in hand (literally if using a toy!) is the opportunity to reward your dog immediately. It stands to reason that the more delayed a reward, the less likely our canine partner is going to make an association with the behavior we are trying to acknowledge. Think of this example; my dog completes the weave poles faster than they ever have. To acknowledge this; when the run is over I exit the ring, find my crating space, open my bag and pull out cookies telling my dog she did an excellent job in the weave poles. This delayed reward not only does nothing to promote a repeat of that stellar weave performance; but also associates the reward with the behavior the dog is currently doing when the reward is being given.
By utilizing the NFC option when our dog is brilliant we have the ability to let her know IMMEDIATELY! If our goal is for Fido to perform a 2on-2off behavior in a trial, or respond consistently to our handling cues in a trial setting… what better way to ensure a consistent response than by rewarding in the moment the desired behavior occurs. Dogs live in the moment, you must reward exactly what you want exactly when and where you want it. So if Fido performs a spectacular set of weave poles . . . give her that toy and sing her praises immediately! Reminding Fido that her weaves were good after the run is over . . . well . . . that ‘reward boat’ not only sailed, it has been lost at sea.
If you never reward these correct responses in a trial setting then Fido may figure out that there is a different version of you (a cheap one!) who steps into the agility ring with her. To expect Fido to run an entire agility course 15-20+ obstacles weekend after weekend, without ever rewarding her correct choices is setting Fido up to potentially not perform to her full ability.
A more cautious dog may run below his speed capabilities. It is a tremendous effort to run such a large course over and over again for no primary reinforcement.
An ‘over the top Rover’ may simply learn that the equipment is now her reinforcement versus her handler. Once a dog finds the equipment to be #1 over the handler a ‘doggie pinball’ may be born — that is a dog who self rewards with the equipment regardless of the handler’s cues because the primary reinforcer has been replaced by the value the dog has for the equipment. .
Common NFC Blunders
As UKI judges ourselves we have been treated to watching many teams utilize NFC in wonderful ways to train their canine partners! It is a joy to observe a handler correctly and positively reinforcing her dog in the ring. We can see that dog’s confidence skyrocket before our eyes!
On the flip side we have also witnessed many teams who could certainly have used their time in the ring better. When judging it is not uncommon to see a dog end the agility run before the handler (often Fido hightails it outta the ring midrun). Some comments we hear regularly from exhibitors include:
“Fido is so slow on course, but he always RUNS FAST to the exit gate! He knows where his cookies are.”
“Max keeps looking for his leash during the run! Sometimes he will leave to grab it and I’ve lost out on Q’s from that!”
“Benji is scoping for the exit gate during our runs! Sometimes he just bails on our run and leaves the ring!”
Keeping in mind the quote from our previous section; If Fido’s favorite part of the agility run is exciting the ring… it’s because she only gets rewarded after exiting the ring. This is the behavior that is rewarded, so this is the behavior you get.
Let us look at some other examples of NFC blunders to avoid in order to provide the best experience for both members of your agility team.
Reward Early, Reward Often
Have you ever been behind a car at a red light; and the driver continues to sit long after the light has turned green? We know we have each been there. Sitting and waiting you are asking yourself, “what are you waiting for?” As judges and competitors, we have asked ourselves the same thing when watching NFC runs. We will see a handler running NFC with a toy in hand; the dog is giving a spectacular performance; and the handler does not reward any behavior until after the dog makes a mistake and corrects it. The following example illustrates this point.
During the run Fido banks a fantastic dog walk performance on the first pass and the effort from Fido goes unrewarded. Later in the NFC run Fido flies off the dog walk; the handler lets Fido know that a mistake was made; asks her to fix it and rewards when the correct behavior is achieved. The trouble here is that because a mistake was made and acknowledged, though Fido was able to “fix it” the odds that it is done with as much speed and intent are lessened and we have now rewarded a performance that is not as strong as the very first one the dog performed.
We also see this scenario play out on speedstakes and jumping courses. Rex jumps fifteen bars beautifully and none of these efforts are rewarded. The moment Rex does drop a bar this error is pointed out. Handler re-sets the bar and reattempts the jumping challenge and rewards when Rex is correct. Here again the handler only rewarded the ‘second take’, not the first. By rewarding Rex for succeeding on the first attempt you increase the likelihood that she will continue to do just that . . . succeed on the first attempt, which is what we need to earn qualifying scores.
This refers to seeing handlers enter the ring with a toy, announcing their plan to run NFC with their buddy, Duke and taking off. During the entire run, the handler navigates the course as numbered and Duke comes along for the ride completing obstacles and following handling. This team completes the entire course and out of the ring they go and Duke did not get to interact with the toy at all. In this scenario an opportunity has been missed to reward Duke for responding to cues and/or completing obstacles accurately. So is the toy really for Duke, or is it there as an insurance policy for the handler?
We also see handlers enter the ring ready to run NFC and at some point in the run it becomes clear that the toy was not the best reward choice. Take for example our handler and Max. Max successfully completes the weave poles and handler throws the toy forward. Max responds by glancing at the toy and then begins to sniff the floor. While this effort to reward was wonderful, the type of reward is meaningless to this dog and this set of weave poles was not rewarded. A reward is only a reward if the dog finds it rewarding. This handler would do best to experiment with a variety of different toy types to find one Max will enjoy playing with. Put the effort forth to teach Max that playing with a toy together IS a primary reinforcer. If Max is reliant on food as his sole primary reinforcer then the handler must re-examine her trial schedule and find trials where the UKI Food Reward Area is offered. While it may be an inconvenience to travel to some of these shows, the pay off will be worth it! A few extra miles on the van now will lead to a more confident teammate later. More importantly, Max will enjoy her time in the ring! After all if Max isn’t having fun, then what is the point of putting Max in the ring?
One of the things to keep in mind when running NFC is that you are given standard course time, while you can get a lot of quality training in during this time; it’s important to prioritize your work. For example, if your goal is to enter an NFC run and reward your dog for successful completion of the dog walk; the best plan would be to get to the dog walk as soon as possible. This seems obvious, but we see handlers get “behind schedule” in their run. They spend time completing the course on the way up to the dog walk and then start training. Remember, you do not not have to run the numbered course in NFC; so get the time started on the first obstacle and move right over to the equipment that is your priority. When the primary focus of an NFC run is left to the end you run the risk of having to end on a less than stellar performance. Example: Rex blows his contact criteria and unfortunately the course time has ended, handler must now exit the ring and end his run on an undesirable dog walk performance. This can leave a handler feeling defeated and that NFC is not productive. As handlers we need to budget enough time to ensure that Rex can bank the successful dog walk repetitions we are after and be rewarded for them. If the time ends you no longer have an opportunity for improvement and reward.
More is Not Necessarily Better
Just because a club offers six runs a day does not mean that you must enter all six, let alone run them all competitively. If a club offers six runs a day (and we actually enter them all) we will enter with the plan that some of these runs will be utilized as NFC runs. By continuing to use our primary reinforcer in the ring throughout our dog’s careers we continue to strengthen desired behaviors. Entering fewer competitive runs and more NFC runs is especially important for our young dogs. This allows us to test our training, and gather feedback on our next set of training plans; without asking too much of a green dog before they are ready. Entering too many runs with the lack of NFC becomes the blunder.
Part II Coming Soon!
Come back soon for part II when we will discuss the value of a “Test Your Training” mentality versus “Running to Q”, steps to break down and reward on a full course, or work on a single skill, developing your training plan, and taking an “NFC Tour”.
About the Authors
Tara Baggerman and Jared Davis are both longtime agility competitors, professional trainers at Follow the Leda and UKI judges. The addition of the NFC option is one of their favorite things about UKI. Both Tara and Jared utilize NFC with their young and seasoned dogs alike. They strongly believe in the benefit of a quality NFC run for the level of their dog’s performance; and more importantly the fun they have!
Interested in Honing your NFC Skills? Click the flyer below for details for an online course COMING SOON! Click the image below to visit the registration page.