So, if it’s ‘Not For Competition’ then what IS it for?
By Tara Baggerman and Jared Davis
As you will recall in Part I we explored the use of NFC as an opportunity to help our dogs generalize their skills into a competition setting. We saw the importance of utilizing primary reinforcers to “pay” our dog’s brilliance when running NFC; as well as some common NFC blunders to avoid. In Part II we will discuss the mindset we use when running in competition; and how we approach our NFC runs to maximize our time and learning for our dogs. Our goal is to wrap all of this up by highlighting for you our approach to identifying where we are in training a particular skill and planning our training to get us to where we want to be.
“Running to Q” vs “Testing Your Training”
So many times we will see a wonderful novice team debut. Straight out of training this novice dog will have a lovely skillset: reliable start line, weaves, contacts, and nice response to handling. Fast forward a year of trialing and often this does not look like the same dog— and not in a positive way. The dog usually has “start line issues”, “contact issues”, “weave pole issues” or “handling issues” . . . which boil down to “handler training issues”. The handler has entered this dog in too many runs where desired behaviors were not reinforced, criteria was allowed to slide (or be obliterated) as that “Q desire” took hold. Handler’s often see climbing the ladder of levels in their favorite organization as a race. How quickly can my novice dog make it to the highest level?
Let’s consider flipping the above line of thinking. Instead of pushing to simply ‘qualify’ on each run, let’s think of each run as a potential opportunity to ‘test’ your training.
For Novice Dogs: utilize NFC to build confidence, strengthen and maintain correct behaviors. You want your inexperienced dog to learn that being in the ring is a positive experience! An experience where met criteria may lead to fun with a primary reinforcer.
For Seasoned Dogs: utilize NFC to challenge, train and maintain the behaviors that you want this dog to continue performing —and to the best of his abilities — weekend after weekend. An experience where met criteria may lead to fun with a primary reinforcer.
There’s More Than One Way to Play NFC
Breaking Down A Full Course Vs. Honing A Singular Skill
A common NFC misconception is that you must run the course the judge has presented you with. As UKI agility judges ourselves, we both appreciate the time and effort a judge dedicates to designing a course. But we are never offended if an exhibitor chooses to make up their own plan to best accommodate the training needs of their canine teammate. As competitors we do not always use our NFC time to breakdown the judges’ course, however, sometimes a judge will present a particular course challenge that we do want to run and breakdown to reward. In this instance we want to spend our walk-through time zeroing-in on the particular skills we want to train and be certain we are rewarding them properly with our primary reinforcer.
We receive standard course time for an NFC run. Therefore it is not always realistic that we will be able to run and break down the entire course without rushing our training. So good planning is key! Choose a section or two you most want to work on and have a specific training plan to maximize Fido’s learning on those sections!
Below are two examples of utilizing NFC to either train through short course sections or breakdown an entire course. Breaking down an entire course is more realistic to do within the UKI Home Trials as we do not have a course time ticking away as we train on our own. The UKI Home Trials not only allows, but encourages exhibitors to train and reinforce Fido’s skills with all types of positive reinforcers. These trials are prime opportunities to practice and hone our ‘NFC Chops’ to bring to a formal trial setting in the future!
Video Examples of Both NFC Options
NFC Video Example 1: Click Here
NFC Video Example 2: Click Here
Note: ‘NFC Video Example 2’ is from a UKI Home Trial. Both toy and food rewards are utilized. In a formal trial setting the food reward would not be used to reinforce startline behavior. We try to minimize the number of startlines we would ask our novice dogs to hold without reinforcement. So if Fido was entered in four NFC runs, we would perhaps only ask for 1 or 2 startlines, the other courses we would just send Fido to an obstacle so the run started in motion, therefore not overdrawing Fido’s ‘stay bank account’. Set up Fido for success!
Honing a Singular Skill
Most often we enter NFC with the goal in mind to test, train, and reinforce a very specific skill. With our seasoned dogs that goal might be to seek out scenarios where we can test our independent backsides or another higher level skill. We look through the course maps of the day searching for a layout within the course to create the types of challenges we are looking to test. With our young dogs the skill may be obstacle related, such as weave entries. If Fido is struggling with entering weaves at speed, then we will enter NFC with the plan to recreate weave challenges at speed. All of the obstacles the judge has laid out are available for us to play with! In the following example you can see the variety of options when a single obstacle (weaves) is your focus.
In preparation for our NFC runs, we use a HAVE-WANT-NEED training plan to improve any behaviors that are not yet at our desired performance standard. We utilize NFC to turn the skills we WANT our dogs to have into skills that our dogs OWN! This chart is what we would set up to work on the single skill demonstrated in our example with the weaves.
|What do I HAVE?||What do I WANT?||What do I NEED?|
|I have a dog who consistently misses weave entries at speed, particularly out of tunnels.
My dog can hit these entries successfully in my backyard and in class, but always misses them when we go to a trial.
|I want a dog who can hit and hold onto a weave entry at speed, including out of tunnels.
I want this skill to be confident and consistent regardless of our environment: backyard, class and in trials.
|I need to reinforce my dog’s successes at hitting weave entries at speed while in the arousing and distracting trial environment.
I need to enter NFC runs and bring my dog’s toy into the ring and I will focus my NFC runs on banking successful reps at speed in the weaves.
I need to bank 10 consecutive successful NFC runs where I test my dog’s weave entry at speed.
Take the NFC Tour
With a young dog, we already know what skills we want to test and reinforce when we are filling out the premium for the show.
As we discussed earlier, we like to think of a trial as an opportunity to ‘test our training’ versus ‘must Q!’. We are both training young dogs right now and we developed a plan to take them on an ‘NFC Tour’. Our goal is to attend ten different trials in ten different locations (a bonus should the equipment and surface vary a bit) and to test and reinforce specific skills along the way such as start lines, turns out of tunnels, responses to various handling maneuvers, contact and weave pole performance, just to name a few.
We want to be certain that we are able to utilize a primary reinforcer to acknowledge all of our dog’s correct choices while in the distracting trial setting. Every correct behavior that you can reward in a trial setting is a ‘dollar in the bank’ for your dogs successful trialing career ahead!
While using our primary reinforcer during an NFC run with our young dogs, if they can not ‘prove’ their ability to maintain trained criteria in a new environment; what chance would we have of success if we were running for ‘real’? This is all the more reason to utilize NFC and ‘test’ our skills with our primary reinforcer at the ready.
We do not want to put our dogs (or ourselves) in the position where they break their start line. Afterall . . . if they break . . . then what do we do? Do we leave the ring and lose out on our entry fee and a potential Q? Or do we go ahead and run, realizing that we have just ‘muddied’ start line criteria? We do not want to be in the position to have this inner struggle so like we said earlier; it is best to get ahead of it.
If we have already done our ‘NFC Tour’ then our novice dogs have already successfully held many start lines in a multitude of environments. Our dogs have also received consistent answers from us in response to any ‘questions’ they could possibly ask about their start line behaviors along the way. We are now confident that our dogs understand their ‘job’ at the start line.
During an NFC run if one of our dogs asks a question (breaks) her start line criteria, we now have an opportunity to train this skill so that she understands that her criteria is the same at home, in the training classroom, and in a trial. A dog could break their start line for many reasons: stress, impatience, fuzzy training to begin with. The reasons do not matter — by entering this dog in a ‘REAL’ competition run we are now helpless to clarify or improve the behavior. Do not put your novice dog in a position to fail where you can not control and reinforce the behavior you are aiming for.
Now you can answer the question we posed earlier: If a run is “Not for Competition” then what IS it for? NFC runs are an invaluable training opportunity. As a handler you can give your dog a training gift that develops his confidence in you and in his trained skill set that will last throughout his entire agility career. Being able to bring a primary reinforcer into the training ring to reward desired behaviors helps your dog to generalize the behaviors he is so skilled at in his comfortable weekly class or your backyard INTO the competition ring!
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.