After 2 days in a strange city, living in a strange house and playing in a strange yard with all kinds of wonderful new farm animals to see and also playing agility in a new barn on equipment she has never seen led Jimmi to be a tad excited on day 2 of our first CKC trial (2nd trial in total). Jimmi was vibrating; literally shaking with excitement when I took her out for our last run of a 2-day trial weekend. Every piece of food I offered her seemed to stoke the fire inside. She was not listening, or connecting with me; everything else in the facility was so much more exciting. I could see where this was going – “thank-you for your donation!”
To make matters worse; I had forgotten Jimmi was in Intermediate now and missed our walk-through. Of course our Judge offered me some extended time due to the fact that I had been building all of the courses all weekend, but we were behind schedule and people were waiting anxiously, so I did one quick, half-hearted pass to figure out where the obstacles were and what I could do (not what would be best).
I would certainly recommend against this approach with most novice dogs and handlers since it is only going to further degrade performance and the likelihood of the dog regaining self-control wanes as their brains and body cannot cooperate to perform at their best. Neural control is lost and rest, just like with a tired child is often the only thing that can help.
Because I was building every course at the trial including those I ran with my 2 Staffy Bull Terriers – Jimmi and Joey; I was never able to warm them up properly, often getting only a few sits and downs in with treats and then right into the ring for our run. On day 2 this began causing more problems for Jimmi as her level of excitement continued to rise. Her first 2 runs on Sunday were a little tough on her and the stress of her new world showed on her level of focus. In our second run of the day, I left the ring positively without completing the course. There was no point to going further by that time, as she just was not focused on the equipment at all.
For our third run; our first “Jumpers With Weaves” of the day, Jimmi performed a little better and since it followed a lunch break, I was able to get her out for a moment. However, because Joey ran each run first and she was 3 dogs later, I never got much time to prepare her after running Joey. Due probably to the extra time with me during our previous break, she managed to stay focused enough to get through our third run and qualified, getting her first title, Agility Novice Jumper (AgNJ) and moving up to Intermediate JWW for the 4th run.
So after I had forgotten and was now 5th dog in, with Jimmi shaking and staring frantically at everything and anything, especially the dogs in the ring, I decided to get rid of the food which seemed to be making things worse. She was getting worse and not better to start her run. So; change of plans!
I fed all of the treats I had to her (maybe 5, or 6 treats) and then showed her I had no more. She continued to watch the ring still vibrating, so while she was on my lap, I held her tight across her shoulders and neck, squeezing her tightly across her body into my chest, not touching her butt or her, ribs or head to avoid stimulating more excitement and wiggling. I calmed myself and slowed my heart rate and respiratory rate as I relaxed. I used a couple of early slow and firm loving bites on her neck to get neurons in the brain to notice and then just sat, holding her tight for the next 2 dogs.
By the time the dog before us was on the line and running, Jimmi had stopped shaking and was acting less frantic. She was able to pay attention and seemed to be more focused on equipment and me. Her heart rate and respiratory rate had also slowed with mine.
She was likely still tired from a long weekend, so I did not care about speed or anything other than having a good experience while on course. I was certainly not going to let my lack of knowing the course, or my need to qualify cause me any trouble whatsoever in the run and very likely at all events in the future, as can easily be the case if you put too much pressure on them when they are obviously stressed and tired.
The result was what I would consider a great run and worthy of her first Intermediate “Q” and certainly a great performance training experience. We were not at all perfect, swinging wide and almost missing an obstacle or two, and a little slower probably; but again, considering the circumstances, this was the perfect outcome for Jimmi and I. Self-control when there was absolutely none coming out of her kennel prior to the run is a major achievement.
Under extreme pressure and unfamiliar circumstances, being calm and the ability to keep our partner calm is a valuable skill for a dog agility team! Dealing with stress; recognizing it in its many and unique forms and having tools to cope, reduce and eliminate it are essential for performance at any level.
It also demonstrates my role in the level of stress my dogs’ experience. The power I have to exacerbate stress, or even be a significant component of the cause is immense and obvious. Our dogs see it much better than we do. If we are stressed or frustrated, they have lost their only support. We may not see this, but I know they do.
Or we can have the power to assist in coping and managing all situations and stress that our dogs’ experience. It is up to us, however, to give them the skills before they get to the ring and we must develop and use them in our preparation for our performance, no matter whether we are going for the win or the Q, regardless of whatever goal we have.
Our dogs don’t see this goal, but they do see how we behave with them and whether we help them perform, or not.
Richard Ford, M.Sc.