This morning a friend helped me with Phoenix for a few minutes after we did a lesson with her dog. I wanted to see how he would react if another person deliberately put pressure on him while I was asking him to play and heel. (This is from Week 3 of the on-line class I'm taking, the topic is how dogs respond to the pressure we create, often inadvertently, by how we use our bodies and how you can add and remove pressure to help them in training.)
Susan did a great job - following, approaching, moving in close and really getting in both his face and mine. She never touched him, didn't need to. This was totally mental pressure created by her physical proximity. Her presence inside his "bubble" was enough to bump him out of his comfort zone even though he knows her and she is very non-threatening.
I've always known Phoenix has a big personal space when it comes to other dogs. But since he is such a goofball around people, I never thought much about PEOPLE exerting pressure on him by being too close.
What happens at an obedience trial? You go in the ring and here comes the steward to collect your leash and the judge to welcome you to the ring and direct you to the first set-up. No wonder Phoenix frequently de-railed quickly. People were invading his space from the get-go and it made him very uncomfortable because he was not free to go interact with them on his terms. Then they made it worse by following him around the ring the entire time he was there.
It took me a long time to recognize this - he warmed up well in congested areas outside the ring but no one there was confronting us directly, we were all going about our own business. But in the ring, both stewards and judge created pressure as we were the focus of their movements and they frequently moved into our space.
If Susan had sat on a chair on the edge of the ring, Phoenix would have been fine. If she had walked around the perimeter of the building while we worked, he would have been fine. But to have her THAT close to us, he was not fine. He didn't react aggressively and he didn't act "distracted," it was more of an overall concern that she was in his space and how could he be expected to think?
He had a choice to make: watch her or engage with me. He could engage on a tug or doing what Denise Fenzi calls "personal play," just interacting with me w/o toy or food. Heeling would be fine, too, if he could relax to the point where he could give it.
We started with hand touches and tugging. Initially, there was a great deal of eye flicking and ear twitching while Phoenix decided how to deal with another person moving around close to him. Every time he looked at her, I turned around and ran. He clearly wanted ME more than HER because he ran after me. Running and chasing was fun. It temporarily relieved the pressure. (I've noticed this in the ring, when he can "chase" me between exercises, he brightens a lot.) When he "caught" me, we tugged or I asked him to heel while Susan caught up with us and we started again.
It took about 2-3 minutes before he settled into a new comfort zone, able to heel with ears up hard, eyes bright and not flicking, no longer concerned by the presence of another person moving very, very close to him.
He had made the decision that Susan was not worth worrying about and he would rather interact with me. We accomplished it without adding any additional elements of stress or anxiety by trying to "correct" the lapses in focus. I kept the session short, we worked less than 5 minutes and stopped on a high note.
I think Phoenix will always have a big personal space. Now that I understand that space is not only related to other dogs, we can address it specifically in training since my friends are always up for helping.
Today, I am thankful for people who put new ideas in my head and friends who help me train.