Sunday, July 17, 2011

More stuff about stress

There are so many things in dog training (and in life) that are interconnected. Behaviors, beliefs, experiences and just plain who we are and how we view life weave together to create the tapestry that is our reality. This reality is a little different for everyone. I hope these posts help you understand your own dogs a little bit better but by no means should they be taken as the gospel.

I'm glad folks seem receptive to hearing about how Phoenix and I are learning to work independently with nothing but me, him and a collar he can wear into the ring. I was a little afraid I'd be getting screaming hate mail cursing me for being the Obedience Nazi and never giving my dog cookies.

I think maybe I haven't made myself totally clear on the thought process behind the "no treats, no toys" approach as it relates to resolving stress issues in the obedience ring.

Your dog gets treats in training. He works well. He gets treats outside the ring at a show. He works well outside the ring at the show. He goes into the ring. There are no treats. He turns into a different dog.

Is it stress?

You better believe it . . . but stress is caused by a lot of different things. Maybe it's NOT just the lack of cookies that's causing a ring funk. Some stressors are physical. Some are mental. The key to solving stress is to pinpoint exactly what is causing it — noises? Men in scary hats? Worry about a specific exercise? If you can untangle that big generic lump of "ring stress" and find the specific thing is worrying your dog, you've got a better chance of resolving it.

I feel that 99% of Phoenix's stress in the obedience ring is because he does not know how to continue working confidently if he's not getting regular feedback in the form of treats/toys. He doesn't know what to do, confusion sets in and there goes my happy dog. Yeah, that's stress. But it's not the same as stress induced by fear, noises, etc. That's probably an over simplification of our problem but that's the general idea. I've spent too much time relying on giving him "rewards" that he will NEVER get in a ring and undermining my own value as the ONLY reward he will ever get in a ring. (Not that food training is evil, it isn't. It's valuable for puppies and young dogs who are just starting to learn and it works brilliantly for some dogs' entire careers. It's just very, very easy to let it become a crutch and when the crutch is gone, you fall on your face.)

For a while, I thought the size of show sites had something to do with our performances. And I'm sure it did to a small extent, but I noticed through the spring and summer that Nix gave me pretty much the same ring behavior regardless of the site — small and quiet or big and noisy, didn't seem to matter. If he were truly stressed by external factors at an obedience trial, he would act outside the ring like he acts inside the ring. But outside the ring he was happy, social, bouncy, silly and responsive. Inside the ring, he was a zombie malinois. Fortunately, he doesn't have a hang up on a particular exercise or fear of a piece of equipment or specific type of environment. It's his overall understanding of what is expected of him that's the problem. And unlike agility where you're in and out of the ring in a matter of seconds with no time to dwell on errors, obedience means staying in the ring for an extended time, which gives your dog plenty of opportunity to fret about the environment or let his brain spontaneously combust because this does NOT look like training.

My goal of working my dog without treat/toy rewards, etc. is to teach him that "stressing out" when he's not getting those rewards simply is not an option and that my praise is valuable and worth earning. It's a way to recreate the ring behavior in training so I can finally address it. I'm showing him that he does not have to be a drama king just because he's not getting a treat at the end of every exercise. I'm pretty sure if I gave him a couple of treats in the ring, all his "stress" would magically disappear, which tells me it's not so much actual stress (I'm scared of the judge, I think the gates are going to eat me, etc.) but confusion about, "Why are there no treats? There are ALWAYS treats. If she wants me to work, she gives me treats. No treats. No work."

I'm still working on a "corrections" post. The thing about corrections is first, you have to be absolutely certain the dog understands what he's supposed to do — he's just choosing not to do it. And second, the correction has to show him the error of his ways without demoralizing him. Plus 101 other things. Stay tuned!


  1. I think you are on the right track and look forward to seeing the results. It took me a long time to realize that I was allowed to smile and look fondly at my dog in the obedience ring! Most people look so stiff and grim that I thought you had to be that way. I believe that smiling at the dog as a reward and being encouraging between exercises should be enough reward to help the dog feel confident. Since I may have the worst obedience dog in the universe, this is only pondering on my part! Thanks for being the one to actually try it out!

  2. Hi there,

    I'm really enjoying your posts about this stuff. I relate to a lot of it in relation to my scent hound and, in her case, agility rather than obedience. The treats have always come fast and furious in our training, and then when we go to a trial -- what, no treats? And the stress sets in. I love all the insight you're sharing on your blog and looking forward to following along.

  3. Melinda, I have a Belgian Sheepdog and recognize your situation! Pi does not turn off completely in the ring, but we do have problems there that I don't see in training. In Pi's case, I think that when he's not focused on working for treats, he's not only having less fun but also more aware of what's going on around him (like a good Belgian!). Therefore he's thinking, "Hmmm, I really don't like dropping way out here with that stranger behind me, PLUS I know I'm not going to get anything for the extra effort it will be, so screw it." Then when I give him a second signal or voice command, he decides that I really do mean it so he might as well do it. Otherwise, why wouldn't he drop on the first signal??? I have asked him that many times! If you can drop on the second signal AFTER YOU'VE ALREADY FLUNKED, why not on the first one??? I was lucky enough to work through it (for now) with many foodless matches and run-throughs, rather than the extensive retraining you are doing. But Pi is already eight. With a younger dog like Phoenix, I would do just what you are doing. I am being more aware of food and toys as crutch with my young Sheltie--yes, I'm going from Belgian to Sheltie while you go from Sheltie to Belgian!