The concept of "trial like you train, train like you trial" is a simple one, yet it is something that many people struggle with. In fact, I have even dedicated entire two-day seminars to this topic because I have seen firsthand how important it is for both the handler and the dog.
Recently, I read a post on a social media site for dog trainers who participate in IPO (Internationale Prüfungs-Ordnung) competitions. The person who posted had taken their dog to a BH (Begleithund) trial, but the dog was "lackluster" and "checked out" during the trial, even falling apart at certain points. This handler was a novice and admitted that during their training sessions, the dog was always "perfect." They wondered if they had overtrained the dog and that was why they were experiencing problems at the trial.
However, in my experience, 99% of the time, the issue is not overtraining, but rather bad training or a lack of preparation for the trial environment. Most people do not practice the exact "routine" of their chosen sport in a way that simulates a trial. They do not practice without rewards, praise, or training gear, and they do not practice in a new location with people around.
There are a number of reasons why people might not do this type of practice. For example:
Novice handlers may not be familiar with what an actual trial looks and feels like, so they do not know how to prepare their dog for the environment.
Nerves and anxiety on the part of the handler can impact the dog's performance.
Some people are afraid to not reward their dog during practice, which can lead to the dog becoming stressed when they are not constantly reinforced during a trial.
Many people train their dogs alone, which can be effective to a certain extent, but it is important to have others involved in the process as well.
Some people do not understand the concept of variable reinforcement schedules and how they can be used to strengthen a dog's behavior.
Without a consistent "warm up routine," it can be difficult for both the handler and the dog to get into the right mindset for a trial.
If you are planning to compete with your dog in any sport, it is important to remember that there will come a point where you need to proof and generalize the behaviors you have taught. This can be done by practicing the entire routine, whether it is tracking, obedience, protection, or agility, in a way that simulates a trial. This can be done once or twice a week and can even be recorded and watched back to get a sense of what the routine looks like. By remembering to "trial like you train, train like you trial," you can set yourself and your dog up for success in any competition.