The concepts of acclimation and engagement are the 2 things that changed my dog training the most in the last 5 years. At that time I didn't really have any words to put to it and I muddled my way through it with Vito. But it was game changing. And painful. Really painful actually as I spent more sessions not working than actually working Vito and often questioned if this was the right path.
As I mentioned earlier, engagement looks differently from every dog. Some dogs may just stare at you and wag their tail, others may jump up and maybe even bark. The key with most dogs is getting them to move at you. If you back away from your dog do they follow and keep focus?
The lines of engagement and personal play often start to blend. If you don't reach for your rewards right away once the dog chooses to engage the question becomes will the dog continue to try and interact with you? Can you use just yourself and no formal work cues to keep up your dog's focus and energy? The dog making the true choice to work is thrilling and goes a long way to getting the same focus and energy you have when your dog sees your classical rewards to more advanced training when the rewards aren't on you.
In the ring you are stripped of all rewards. There are no food, no toys, and certainly no corrections. The only reward you can take in is yourself. But if you've made it that far in your training there's a good chance you have a great relationship with your dog already! Your dog chooses to work not just for the external rewards but for the whole package, including your attention, your praise, and your play. That package of work, rewards and human interaction are blended and really can't be separated out. Play may vary by your dog's temperament, but every dog can be taught how to engage in some form of personal play with you.
Here is Vito from a few months ago choosing to start the engagement process and gradually we flow into work. He is high as a kite in this session and is very pushy! Note that if you're just starting out you will not get this type of response and some dogs will never look like this no matter how much experience they have. In the below video you will also notice that while Vito does grab his dumbbell and I do some interactions with it, it's really not about the object:
And here is a much calmer Vito also starting the engagement process with me sitting in a chair. But in this case he doesn't really mean it. You can see how he looks around still and isn't really committed as I continue to ask him if he means it:
If I had chosen to ignore that and started work there is a good chance he would not have given me his full focus. Or I would have needed to overwhelm him with constant food, toys, or high energy just to keep him focused. That type of training just doesn't hold up in the long term. Be exciting in reaction to your dog's own energy, but don't try to use your own energy to overwhelm the dog into playing with you! The general guideline is to match the energy level your dog is giving you, or just 1 level above. Notice I am much calmer in the 2nd video than in the first video and that is so I don't use my own energy to overwhelm and try to pull him up.
Denise Fenzi has an entire online class on how to develop engagement in your dog and spells out stages to get there on her blog as well.
I strongly believe the best way to make sure your dog is really ready for the ring is to focus on the concepts of acclimation and engagement. When your dog is the one driving the work and pushing you to start then you're no longer the one trying to bribe your dog and shoving the rewards in their face to get work. Instead the responsibility moves to the dog. You don't have to try to be more exciting than their environment! You don't have to do cartwheels to get your dog's attention!
But this does take time. Get ready to settle in and be ready for the chance that your dog simply tells you they are not ready in that session.