Engagement is a super difficult skill for some teams, especially if you have a high-drive dog that is in the habit of going straight to work and if personal interaction or play has not been part of the dog’s upbringing.
So why do we insist?
Because eventually, if you do opt for competition, you will get to the point when your dog will realize there are no reinforcers in the ring. It is stressful for the dog to work for several minutes at a time for “nothing.” It really doesn’t matter how amazing your backchaining program is; dogs begin to struggle under the stress of frequent competition. Maybe they start out very low energy and get hyper as they go through, or maybe they whine or bark at you during the work, or maybe they just opt out because they don’t think it’s worth the effort.
Backchaining is one route but it is not a panacea. It causes problems for both low- and high-drive dogs, and is best used with other reinforcers as a part of both training and competition.
Engagement is the process of interacting with your dog in a positive way. It allows you to reconnect. It allows you to destress your dog. It allows you to reward your dog at a low level within the competitive environment. It is hard! Indeed, the dogs that struggle the most with engagement are the highest-drive dogs, because they just want to work for the classic reinforcers!
If you plan to compete sporadically — here and there — you may well get along without engagement. So you can’t touch your dog — who cares? But if you think you might want to compete more often, you’ll need it.
Both of my obedience champions were on the high-drive side. Both of them struggled badly at various points in their careers. And what I learned is that I had to rely on engagement rather than classic reinforcers if I wanted to be successful. When they learned to accept personal interaction rather than expecting food or toys, we made it.
I know it’s hard! Work at it a little bit here and a little bit there. Learn to modulate your dog’s energy — start small! Better yet, if you have a puppy, incorporate it into your training right from the start and you will find that it becomes a natural part of your training sessions.