Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ring Stress and the Obedience Dog, Part II

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.


  1. What is your input on dogs that aren't breed to be as people motivated. Dogs in the hound group for example. How do you convince them that playtime with mom and lots of praise is worth all of that work? I've been working really hard on improving tug drive. But it does seem like a real uphill battle. Do you think different breeds require different considerations in terms of preparations for the ring?

  2. Oh good question, thanks! I'll work that into a future post. My answer is yes. And no. ( :

  3. Very informative post. Thank you for sharing your experience. I am hoping to enter the Rally ring this year and the Obedience Ring in the future. The information regarding having Sophie view the exercise with me as the reward is something I have to work on. I have to admit I had not thought much of it until you pointed out that the foundation has to be them enjoying obedience work not just enjoy getting the treat or toy.

  4. Interesting topic! Ring stress is something near and dear to my heart :) Since I'm training my first dog in competitive obedience, I've never had the experience of training a dog that does not stress in the ring. It's probably a good thing because if I had, I'd probably have given up a long time ago! I have a breed that you do not normally see in the obedience ring, so it's somewhat of a relief to hear that people with traditional obed. dogs also deal with ring stress.

    Like many trainers, I have a dog that loves to train and can be brilliant -- IF there is noone watching :) Walk into the ring - and it all falls apart. We've come a long way over the years and hundreds of trials we've been in. But, in his case, I think he is just hardwired to be a worrier - it's a genetic thing that I don't think we'll ever completely overcome.

    I have a thought though about the 'lack of treats in the ring.' I hear that a lot. It seems easy to blame the lack of treats in the ring for a dog's poor performance. In reality though, if you have a dog that is a real worrier, they wouldn't even take treats in the ring if you could offer them - nothing it seems can get them working comfortably when they are stressed.

    Hey, I haven't given up though on finding the silver bullet, so I'll be following your posts with interest to see what things you're doing with Phoenix to address his stress. Thanks!

  5. OH I have another question! If Phoenix worries about the presence of the judge, do you find the stand for examination to be one of the more difficult exercises? This is what's currently keeping me out of the obedience ring.

    You talked about how daily stress can be exacerbated by ring stress and made worse. If you have a dog that is extremely uncomfortable being handled by strangers in general, is there anyway to convince them that any reward is worth not just tolerating the activity but enjoying it? If not, is it fair to subject them to that kind of stress (even if you can train them to tolerate it)? This is sort of a moral conundrum that I've been struggling with. It's what's really kept us out of the ring as of yet.

    On the one hand, the training is good because there are times in life (groomers, vets office, measuring for agility, day to day interactions) where a dog will be exposed to handling by a stranger. And being exposed to it during training decrease stress in those situations.

    At the same time doing it in competition for obedience ribbons seems exploitative. If someone paid me a thousand dollars to have a bucket of spiders dropped on my head I'd do it. Heck if they paid me a thousand dollars every week to do it, I'd do it every week. But I'd never enjoy doing it. It's just a shame to not compete because of that when he dose seem to enjoy all other exercises.

    I guess that question is a little off subject but it's still dealing with stress in the ring. What are your thoughts?

  6. Elizabeth - you have described my first Sheltie, Jess. He HATED to be touched by strangers but otherwise was insane about obedience. I trained and trained and trained that Utility stand for exam. He always hated it. But he learned to tolerate it and then it was on to something fun. So I guess it depends on how the dog feels about obedience in general.

    Thanks for another great idea - I'll try to write about it more in depth.

  7. Thank you! I can't wait. :) This is so helpful to us newbies still learning about dogs sports and competition. I think green mamas increase ring stress in their baby dogs even more because they are still learning what to do. Emotions run high all around. These posts couldn't be better timed. Thank you so much :)

  8. Elizabeth - interesting point (about green handlers adding to stress) I'm not an obedience person now(agility is my addiction)but I know green handlers that in many ways don't know eough to be stressed and they actually help reduce a dog's stress .. :)
    Lots of good stuff in this topic - this leaped out at me though "Do you know how to recognizing stress in your dog? ". I hear, at least weekly, and often more .. "no my dog isn't stressed - she's (pick a word - naughty, rude, blowing me off - whatever)" it makes me sad. Maybe I read too much stress sometimes but I bend over backwards to recognize stress and reduce it ..Brody starts off a start line slowly and I suspect stress and work to remedy it the second we are out of the ring. Looking forward to the next 100 posts :)

  9. There is the point that green handlers have lower expectations and therefore are less personally stressed so I see your point Andrea. In a word we take what we can get and are happy just being there.

    At the same time novice handlers cues are less clear and their dogs aren't as constantly trained (generally) which mean their dogs are less sure what they are suppose to do at any one time. I think that's especially true in agility. I know that my novice bumbling of handling cues causes my dog stress in the agility ring. A poorly timed awkwardly placed front cross and I can just see my dogs ears go back. As if to say "What the heck is she doing, where am I suppose to go?" Hopefully that's something I will do less as I become less green.

    There are equivalents in obedience of course. I have to remember my dogs legs are about an inch and a half long and if I take two big steps in an about turn I'll leave him in the dust. Hopefully muscle memory will take over one of these days and I won't do things like that.

    What's the saying? Your second agility (obedience) dog succeeds because of your training, Your first succeeds in spite of it.

  10. I find that most of my dog's ring stress comes from ME. Handlers nerves are the hardest thing to overcome. Time and again, video shows that I am acting "weird", nothing like my practicing self. Fun matches don't appear to create the same stress in me, so I will keep working on my mental game at trials. It is getting easier. Great Post!

  11. Elizabeth - great points :)

    D - so true :)