One of the most common problems I see with all dogs in general and certainly many who compete in dog sports is the lack of skills to deal with stress and the lack of ability in people to recognize and understand their dog’s reaction to stress. I am not sure if they have ever thought about what it is like for their dogs going from a practice with familiar dogs and familiar faces and zero traffic to a dog agility trial. I am sure new handlers think about their own stress level, as I see it in them and talk to them about it on a regular basis. Most are nervous and since many don’t have a lot of experience competing in sports, they admit to their nervousness and anxiety.
Most often when it comes to stress in their dogs though, I see people get frustrated in Dog Agility when their dogs run away, or go sniffing, maybe start to do a little nipping, or some aggressive behavior towards a judge, or maybe run to the dog running a neighboring ring. All are signs the dog is experiencing stress. And this should not be surprising when most have never even seen the trial environment or ring prior to being entered in their first agility trial. And of course, let’s not forget, dogs are very perceptive and if a handler is nervous about competing, this is going to amplify the high level of stress felt by their dog.
When I talk to people about it, they always say, “but my dog does so well in practice and knows how to do this” and they are frustrated they cannot do it on course at a trial. Often this is seen as being stubborn or bad and really it is not. It is just a normal reaction to stress. Stress they do not at all feel when practicing in most cases. Most practices are simplified and the environment often becomes protected from distraction to get the performance from your dog that you want to see. And this is the reason they get stressed and cannot run in the trial environment. As in everything I do with my dogs, I accept 100% of the responsibility for their performance and preparation for the cognitive aspect of running in these exciting and varied environments and running under pressure with a goal to achieve the best run possible by us is my responsibility.
It is unfair to my dogs to expose them to pressure of this nature and expect them to succeed on their own without being given the skills they need, only to blame them for failing when they don’t succeed. This is our failure and not theirs! Obstacle performance and handling skills are required, but not sufficient and certainly if your goal is to perform at the top of your game, then these cognitive skills are required to be honed to a level where you can succeed with the pressure of an entire Country riding on your performance. Training with stress and building a system to reduce and eliminate the impact of stress while running in the ring; that is what Bullseye Performance is about.
So it is certainly okay to simplify and remove excitement in a practice environment in order to enable the basic shaping of the behavior that you want to see for obstacle and handling performance, but you must add stress and excitement of all kinds back into their development and practice under the same conditions you will trial under. Sure when I begin shaping behavior, I make my environment very simple and as unexciting as possible. But this is the start of shaping the behavior. And at all times, I try to work with my dogs at the peak excitement they can handle and still think clearly and learn. In fact in my training I try, just like in shaping any behavior, to increase this level of excitement they are capable of thinking clearly since this is the upper limit they will hit and need to perform at while running at agility trials.
When I get into a trial environment, I need a lot more than knowledge of obstacles and handling maneuvers. If you do not know how to manage stress and neither does your dog and you have never practiced under stressful conditions like occur at agility trials; then you and your dog are doomed to fail. And it is not in any way their fault. There is no reason to be mad, except maybe at oneself for failing to train the cognitive skills necessary for them to perform in the trial environment, regardless if you are running for clean runs/”Q”s, or to win. Either way, this is pressure on you and pressure on your dog.
By the time I leave my yard and start training my dogs at a practice facility, I have been working on stress management and desensitization and training cognitive skills for them to use to manage stress in a positive way, for some time. They have worked on excitement and maintaining focus, paying attention while excited and they know I will help them and reassure them and never chastise them no matter how they are doing. They are ready to work with distractions and I try to control those distractions until they are able to retain their self-control and focus, but again, the purpose is to introduce distraction and practice under pressure for every run, not avoid it.
Solving the problem of stress is mostly about creating a great relationship, creating confidence and training under a variety of conditions that specifically includes stressful conditions. I want to introduce distractions like people and other dogs and even birds, toys, cars, rivers, trains, parades, etc. The gradual introduction of stress is best, rather than overwhelming them with it. This is not done by going directly from a protected practice environment to a trial environment.
The fact that I use desensitization early on with my dogs and I train away sensitivities and train familiarization for all kinds of things and circumstances in actuality is also preparing them for dog agility trials. Not only am I constantly making them more resilient to distraction; I am also giving them the skills they need to manage stress. As I teach swimming, noise desensitization, etc., I am always exposing them to some manageable level of stress and I control how much exposure by knowing and watching for my dogs early signs of anxiety as a result of the stressful stimulus. I do not want the exposure to become traumatic in any way. Fear flooding often uses this excess exposure to stress; however, it is not a very good method if you want a dog that really enjoys doing dog agility with you.
In addition to controlling the conditions in the environment that produce stress, I also influence and shape the consequences; shaping them into a positive learning experience and teaching them a skill to manage their stress level. By allowing a dog to move away from the source of stress sufficiently to calm themselves a little, I allow them to lower the stress level directly. Self-control is important in this process; it cannot be forced or hurried. I also move away from the source of the stress too and help them calm if I can; this is important. I have worked on being able to help calm my dogs with my behavior, a calm voice and calm actions; I am calm and reassuring when they do come, but just enough to get them to think clearly about the task at hand and regain their focus.
Once calm enough, they can then investigate the source of their fear, getting closer to it on their own and at their own pace. Again this gives them control, which is so valuable in managing one’s own stress. This gives them the skill and allows us to help them with it. Jimmi is now very experienced with this allowing us to get back on track really quickly after she is stressed in the ring at a trial. When she runs past an obstacle due to excitement, I move away from the obstacle and call her to me. She comes pretty quickly in most cases and I calm her down for a few seconds, then away we go, full speed into the obstacle and back on track. No pain, no punishment, no expectation, no frustration, just one happy dog and one happy handler!
Think of running away in the ring as though your dog was on a trail hiking with you and was suddenly scared by something ahead and suddenly flees in fear. This is a natural response to stress; fight or flight. After an hour, or so, or a day maybe; you find your dog as they return not to where they lost you, but somewhere earlier maybe, like the beginning of the trail. How are you going to feel? How are you going to respond? I suspect you will be relieved and grateful and very loving and reassuring, even if there is a little frustration for the fact that they left you. Running away on course is no different!
I assist my dogs by understanding their situation, giving them the ability to have some control over the stressful situation and providing reassurance and support always. Frustration and expectations make things worse and provide nothing they can use to get better, or become functional again. Jimmi has shown amazing growth in this regard. She still gets excited and afraid, but how she deals with it is very systematic. She will investigate the most unnatural and strange things now and gains confidence quickly, but she is still a fearful dog in many ways, just now she has a way of dealing with it, reducing it and getting over it.
As we continue to manage this excitement she will gradually gain control of herself and her excitement and her need to reduce stress by running away will diminish. By reassuring her when she returns and allowing her to manage her stress and reduce it, she never hesitates to come to me and she gets over it quickly. Because of this she will always function at a high level of excitement without being bothered by strange cities, new equipment, or new venues. The alternative, getting frustrated, if you haven’t noticed, leads to a dog that is not having fun in most cases. Yes they may do agility with you, but only because you ask, or insist, however. To me and for my dogs that is not acceptable. Both the handler AND the dog MUST have fun!
Richard Ford, M.Sc.