Saturday, November 17, 2012

Malinois in a bubble

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.


  1. Interesting! All I can think of is John Travolta and "The Boy In The Bubble" (or whatever that movie was called!)LOL

  2. so cool! Both of you to figure out testing it and him to figure out howto work through it ... great discoveries all round!!

  3. My Canaan Dog taught me to not "correct" loss of focus. He had a natural need to be highly aware of his environment. The more comfortable he got and more he trusted me, the more he COULD focus on me and ignore the rest of the world. And this trust could not be gained through correcting his mistakes (which would reduce his confidence), but by supporting him and the behavior I wanted.

    I am not saying that all corrections are always bad, just that you need to understand the dog and what is underlying the behavior so you can work constructively. He did get an occasional correction when I thought it was warranted -- though even then it was usually just enough to make the tags on his collar jingle and bring him back to me mentally.

  4. I also bounced a ball near Phoenix with him ignoring it - an amazing feat! Congratulations on both of your successes!

  5. I also was surprised to notice this in my very, very hypersocial sheltie (yes, sheltie). He loves people and would dump me for a stranger, but very much feels the pressure of them in his space in the ring (I think he spends a lot of time wondering if they think he's cute ;0). I found he can work scent articles with some pretty extreme distractions (another dog about six feet away barking at him, in a crowd of people, etc) but someone standing and watching him totally blows his mind. We were using friends standing around chatting as our distractions and he has very little problem with that, but let one person come up and actually start watching HIM instead of chatting and he develops performance anxiety, which manifests by not being able to settle down and "commit" to that exercise (swing by the judge, take a good look at the jump, check out the path to the go out spot...oh, YEAH! I forgot about the article pile. Silly me. OK, NOW I can work it. Well, maybe one or two more barks first). We have been trying to "take it on the road" and work at parks where we often have an audience, but with the onset of winter that will be harder too. I have set up my employees at work to stand and stare at him while he's working, which helps but doesn't seem as stressful as a "judge" (even if it's a friend) in a ring situation, which has the added distraction of those beloved jumps. I have yet to find a magic bullet but we keep plugging away...

  6. Your stories are very helpful. My mini poodle Charley is four years old, has his CD and we've started Agility too-now at Open level in JWW. We finally got a leg on the CDX. But Charley shows a lot of stress in the obedience ring, manifested by lagging and succumbing to any distraction on the floor. As he gets acclimated to the ring, he does much better on the recall/down and retrieves and jumps in the usual Open A sequence (I'm a raw newbie). He's rock solid on the long sits and downs.

    Away from the ring his heeling is super, for long walks and around town. In the Agility ring he shows no signs of stress, but there the judge is far away and Charley loves to jump and run. We're plowing through Agility.

    Based on what I'm reading, I'm beginning to suspect the stress comes from the people, including the judge, in the obedience ring. In the last few days, I've been trying to introduce more play in my training. He's not a big tugger; poodles have very soft mouths. Any suggestions on how to work us through this stress?

  7. And most importantly, you didn't "bribe" him to choose you and the work/play.....:)