Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ring Stress and the Obedience Dog, Part I

Okay, here we go.

I probably should have titled this Part I of 100 Parts because it’s not a topic that can easily be resolved in one or two posts. I deliberately titled it “Ring Stress and the OBEDIENCE Dog” because I think obedience stress is different than agility stress. While both share many of the same roots, it’s like comparing apples and oranges and this is complicated enough already!

Ring stress plagues a lot of trainers and it’s a really crappy feeling to be in the ring with a dog who doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t look ANYTHING like the wonderful dog you’ve trained, so I’ll do my best to give you my insights - the why's, wherefore's and hopefully how to resolve it. Today’s post will be an overview of stuff off the top of my head. Then I’ll talk about more specifics in later posts. Otherwise this will get so long you’ll fall asleep.

A lot of this will be my own personal beliefs and observations, based on my own experiences, as well as advice and ideas I’ve gotten from friends whose dogs are lovely and happy in the ring. There’s no single answer that will fix every dog - these are just my thoughts.

First, I think most obedience dogs experience some degree of ring stress. Some just deal with it better than others. It’s not that your friend’s dog is totally stress-free, it’s that he can cope with it because of A) training skills; B) an excellent teamwork/relationship with his owner and C) his genetics and/or temperament - basically, who he IS.

Many of us take our dogs to train in different places to expose them to working amidst new sights, smells, sounds, etc. This is all well and good. Then we go to a trial and oh, dear, what a mess. “But we train in different places! He should be used to it!” we wail (I was definitely wailing last weekend when it looked like Phoenix had never worked beyond my back yard in his life.)

Our dogs are individuals and while some are oblivious to the chaos of show environments, others are very sensitive souls who pick up on every nuance they feel is “strange” or “not right.” And believe me, there is a lot that is “strange” and “not right” when you throw 1,000 dogs together under one roof and mix them up with a stew of human and canine emotions, not all of which are positive and supportive. There’s no way you can re-create this, no matter where you train, so don’t worry about it. You can spend your time more wisely.

I’ve noticed this environmental sensitivity especially with some herding breeds and although it’s certainly not restricted to any particular breed or group, I think possibly it’s more pronounced in herding/guarding/working type breeds. (Not an excuse for the behavior, just sayin’.)

In the comments on my last post, Lynn noted how “The Belgian need to manage the environment” often leads to conflict with what the dog is supposed to be thinking and doing. I hear ya, sister! Jamie was absolutely awful about this early in his obedience career. He was very concerned about everything in his vicinity. He was hyper aware of where the judge was standing, what the stewards were doing and what was going on in the adjoining rings. I always felt he was looking out for his own best interests and wasn’t totally comfortable in the ring, or didn’t feel I would protect him from “scary” people.

You might say he needed more attention work and you would be right. He wasn’t mature enough to focus only on me yet, and as he grew older and we trained more together, he got much better, he relaxed, he trusted me and life was good. But even after he had his OTCh., I could still see him multi-tasking now and then in the ring, with an ear cocked toward whatever else he thought might be important for him to be aware of. He was simply a dog who was very attuned to his environment, no matter where he was. It was the nature of the beast.

Stress is not the same thing as fear, although it may present similarly. If your dog is truly scared of men with beards at dog shows, he’s probably scared of men with beards in daily life, too. If he’s only scared of men with beards at dog shows, there’s probably more in play than just the man with the beard. If your dog has fear issues, they can make ring stress worse and vice versa. If your dog doesn’t normally have fear issues, don’t make the mistake of using them as an excuse for funky ring behavior. Dogs under stress may exhibit fear-like behaviors but ask yourself if it’s actual fear of the man with the beard or the fact that you’re in the ring, in a strange environment, acting a little strangely yourself and putting pressure on your dog to perform.

Okay, that’s all for today. I hope to have future posts address stress as it relates to The Dog, The Handler and The Training.

Please, please, please share your comments because they may kick loose another whole train of thought as I explore this stress mess.


  1. I know you can re-create the ring atmosphere but you could go to shows, not ones you are entered in and just work you dog. Get your dog use to being there and its fun!

  2. True, Diana, but you do have to be aware that some shows do enforce the "no unentered dogs" rule.

  3. Here is my very rookie comment. Coach has done really nicely in the ring for rally novice and the first two times in beginner novice. He did a bit of scratching so I knew he was a little stressed, but as soon as we were moving he was pretty perky. Then we go into the ring the second time at Scott Co and he has a MAJOR barking fit. He finally faced me, backing away and barking. I'm sure the judge thought he was going to attack. As soon as she let us go, he worked beautifully and she commented on how well he settled down. The next day was a little better and the second run on Sunday was back to scratching instead of barking. I really think he now knows that scratching is a more acceptable way of expressing his stress/excitement. I think he really loves being in the ring, but gets overwhelmed and over excited. I just don't see that he is negatively stressed, but I think positive emotions can be just as hard for a dog to handle. Especially a young and inexperienced dog. I don't really know yet, but that's my current theory. I will really be interested to hear your future ideas. Thanks.

  4. I have actually had one dog who, to the best of my observational abilities, had no ring stress. She was Kiri, my husband's rottweiler mix. The world was her oyster. The veterinarian? -- hurray, a wonderful friend she did't get to see often enough! A long sit with mom out of sight? -- hurray, plenty of time to really observe the surroundings! Stand for exam? -- yippee, a chance to be petted by a new person!

    An interesting thing is, I never felt any stress when I was in the ring with her. She could be a bit too exuberant and creative, so it certainly wasn't that I was confident that we'd always do well. It was that I knew nothing could fluster her or dampen her spirits. She *would* have a great time.

  5. Awesome post! Ring stress is yet another of several hundred things that I have to worry about when we start showing.

  6. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on ring stress. My experience with my young Mudi male is that he is very keyed in on my stress level and it affects his performance a great deal. If I can't be relaxed and confident in the situation, how can I expect or even ask my dog to be relaxed, confident and happy to be there? I look forward to your future posts on the subject.

  7. I do think it's somewhat relative to breed purposes. I have GSDs and I have to really make sure I have my stress level under control. If mom is whacked out their first priority is to check the environment and see why. Well, the only thing they see is this empty ring and that judge, is that what mom is concerned about, should I be hyper-aware of that for her? etc etc. I like using rituals to diffuse stress for both dog and myself. Something you can do and/or say between exercises that redirects/focuses thoughts for both dog and handler. My current dog, a Pom, is completely fear based...he's a breeder rehome, but poor socialization layered onto what I suspect is a genetically already weak temperament has created a very interesting ring project for me! Good post, look forward to more!

  8. OMG! thank goodness I've found your blog! I felt like you were talking about my dog in the "stress" post!! I have a 3 yr old rough collie, last weekend we entered a trial, our first Open, & Advanced Rally where he needed 1 leg...
    he ran around the high jump both ways, first time for that, & walked through his broad jump.
    Later in the afternoon in rally he lost his brain, he went from getting high 90's for the previous 2 legs to not knowing how to sit, it was painful !
    I know now he was stressed so I am looking for solutions to help the poor guy, please keep writing on this topic!

  9. I don't know if they have this option in AKC shows, but in Canadian KC shows, there's always the option to enter 'for exhibition only'. Some clubs charge the full entry fee for this, others only charge $10.