Stress and The Dog
Thanks for coming back!
This should be the easiest part of this series to write, because the dog himself has very little to do with “fixing” ring stress. He is obviously affected by it but there’s not much he can do about it without help - it’s unrealistic to expect him to just “get over it” without giving him the skills to do so. Some dogs WILL show improvement as they gain ring experience, but don’t count on that solving all your stress issues.
So let’s talk about The Dog for awhile.
Until Phoenix, I rarely had to deal with dogs stressing badly in the obedience ring. My dogs loved to show. Of course they had their share of problems along the way but generally they went into the ring with ears up and tails wagging. I don’t know why. I did nothing to build this and I realize that now. I was just blessed with incredibly awesome dogs who loved obedience as much as I did. OTCh. Connor and OTCh. Jamie were gifts from God.
Then God — proving He has a sense of humor — sent me Phoenix.
Phoenix loves obedience, too. He loves to train. He runs hot and cold on loving to show. He is an insane agility dog and a puzzling obedience dog. Showing him in obedience is a rollercoaster experience. He’ll work wonderfully at one trial, then be flat and stressy the next time we go into the ring.
I have learned (the hard way, of course) that Phoenix needs to be in a really good place mentally when we go into the ring - and I don’t mean just playing with him versus doing a formal warm up. I mean that he needs to have a strong foundation of enjoying obedience work that is not dependent solely on the deliverance of treats or toys.
In other words, I want my dog to view doing the exercises with me as its own reward and I want him to understand effort in the face of adversity (really, adversity is the wrong word here, we’re talking about a sport we do for fun on the weekends, not a humanitarian crisis) will be heavily rewarded. But to a dog, adversity might be an overwhelming show site or a judge who walks with a pronounced limp - it might be anything the dog could use as an excuse to say, “Oh, no, this makes me worried, I can’t work under these conditions.”
With this in mind, we’ll be spending this summer working to strengthen that foundation. It’s there now but it’s not as strong as I want it to be.
We’ve all said, “If I could only take a cookie into the ring, all our problems would be solved.” Well, maybe. At least until the cookie was gone. Then we’d be right back where we started, in the ring with a dog who didn’t think this was a lot of fun cuz there weren’t any cookies.
I’m not against using food in training. I AM against using food (or a toy) as a substitute for genuine praise and interaction. It’s easy to pop a cookie in the dog’s mouth or throw a ball and be off to whatever’s next without actually taking the time to TELL the dog how amazing he is and how proud you are of him and actually PLAY with him (tugging, chase games, whatever the dog might find rewarding and fun - not just standing in one place and throwing a ball over and over) and enhance the time you are spending together. Too often, we allow our “motivators” to replace us . . . when they’re gone, so is the dog’s desire to perform. I’ll write more about this later.
I can’t blame show sites for my dog’s ring stress because show sites will be chaotic and loud until the end of time and I’ll never be able to change that. It’s a fact of life. Even stand-alone obedience trials have their share of chaos and there will always be something there your dog doesn’t like. He won’t like the dog crated next to him or the patch of sunlight in one corner of the ring. My point is, there will always be SOMETHING at every show so don’t fuss about it. And yes, it’s okay to choose NOT to show at a particular site because you and your dog find it so unpleasant it would be counterproductive to enter there. No one says you have to seek out horrible places to show but I want my dog to be confident and able to perform at the many sites that are slightly less than ideal.
Do you know how to recognizing stress in your dog? Many times, handlers think their dog is “blowing them off” in the ring, when in reality, the dog’s ability to perform is being reduced by stress. Every dog shows stress differently. They yawn. They sniff. They do not want to make eye contact. They use appeasement body language (watch the ears and tails). They move slowly (the dreaded death march). Or they may flake out and run amuck like they can’t stand to be inside their own skin (the dreaded zoomies).
They also quit doing things YOU know THEY know how to do - like all the exercises you paid $25 for the privilege of doing in the ring in front of a judge. In some cases, yes, those are the result of training issues but I’m talking about the dog who trains well, then falls apart in the ring. Is it stress? Is it confusion? Does the dog need more training? You know your dog - you have to decide. Sometimes it’s all three.
Good preparation goes a long way to preventing ring stress. Don’t show if you don’t feel ready. That won’t guarantee success but you’ll feel a whole lot more confident going into the ring with a dog who has been realistically trained and proofed versus one who hasn’t. If you’re showing a green dog at any level, relax. Throw off any feeling of pressure or expectations of greatness. He’s baby dog, think about supporting and helping him in the ring, not expecting a class win.
Sometimes dogs will “grow out” of their ring stress as they gain more experience. Phoenix’s performances over the four trials last weekend improved steadily, although he certainly didn’t go from NQ-ing to 200s. The improvements were more subtle but they were there and I was pleased to see them. Don’t count on this happening automatically, though - training is still vital to addressing stress issues. I’ll write about that next time.