Phoenix is the dog who has taught me the most about stress as it presents in training and showing. I’m sure stress was present in my previous dogs but it either wasn’t that big of a deal for them or I just plain didn’t recognize it. Every dog is unique - some thrive on stress, others are simply oblivious while others melt into a puddle at the first hint that something might be “different.”
One big mistake many of us (myself included!) make as trainers is not deliberately introducing stress in a controlled environment where we can help our dogs learn how to deal with it successfully before being faced with a multitude of stress-inducing elements at a trial. The problem is that when you start introducing stress (you can call it pressure, distractions, proofing or whatever word you want to use) dogs will start to make errors.
The dog who can perform brilliantly in a sterile (stress free) atmosphere may fall apart when faced with unexpected elements of movement, noise or scent. As a result, trainers may avoid introducing deliberate stress because they don’t want to see their dogs making errors and/or they’re unsure how to deal with it when it does happen.
This was an element of training that I seriously overlooked with Phoenix. Sure, we did some proofing at each level but I did not realize the extent of this type of work he needed in order to ignore environmental factors and remain focused and confident in his work. And I was the poster child for not wanting to see my dog struggle and make mistakes. After some time spent wandering in denial, I’ve started re-addressing this in our training.
Adding deliberate pressure or stress or distractions (again, I am at a loss for a single word that encompasses everything a dog might encounter at an trial environment) is a skill that requires finesse. If you do too much, or do it at the wrong time, you run the risk of overwhelming your dog, who may then think he cannot possibly do anything right. This makes for a dog with a crappy attitude about obedience. If you do too little, you’ve not realistically equipped your dog to learn how to handle stress. You’ll head into the ring unprepared for the proverbial kid with the hot dog sitting on the other side of the gate.
I’m not talking about setting dogs up to fail. That was the commonly accepted type of proofing back in the day (set dog up to fail, correct dog when it fails, repeat) but I’d like to think most of us have moved past that. I will not deliberately ask my dog to do something I think is beyond his skill level but I will make my tests incrementally more difficult as he shows me he understands what to do. My goal is to increase his confidence in his ability to make the right decisions needed to perform his job when other options can interfere. This will be a tremendous help in reducing stress in the show ring.
I’m talking about doing things in training that allow a dog to make decisions beyond simply performing the minimum skill required by an exercise. For example, once a dog has learned to retrieve, he can run across the ring, grab a dumbbell and return. There aren’t any other options - just the dumbbell. What if you put a toy along the edge of the ring? Now the dog has to make a decision. Get the dumbbell or get the toy? What if you put the toy in the dog’s path? What if you put it next to the dumbbell? What if there’s more than one toy?
The simple retrieve has suddenly become much more complex. Decision making is required. Since I’m making the exercise harder with the addition of the toy, I want to make other parts of it easier. I’ll have the dog on leash so I can control the situation if my dog chooses to grab the toy and self-reward. I’ll be closer to the dumbbell (not at the opposite end of the ring). I’m not going to throw 10 toys on the floor at first, just one.
The first time I did this with Phoenix, a long time ago, he predictably went after the toy. I reined him in (he’s on leash, remember), unemotionally took the toy away, put it back on the ground, took him to the dumbbell, told him to get it (“Horrors, I repeated a command, surely my dog is ruined for life,” she said) praised and played with him when he took it and we tried it again. He had a few false starts. That was okay. When I do this, I EXPECT my dog to make errors initially. As we do more and more of it, I expect him to make fewer and fewer errors as his ability to make the right decision under pressure improves.
A huge aspect of this type of work is deciding in advance how you are going to respond to the dog’s behavior. Knowing ahead of time that my dog may choose to get the toy instead of the dumbbell allows me to have a plan in place so I’m not caught flat-footed about what to do. Allowing my dog to grab the toy and have a party all by himself while I scratch my chin and think, "Hmmm, what to do?" is not the point of the exercise.
There are probably a dozen things you could do with this scenario: place the toy further away, have a friend stand near the toy and step on it if the dog tries to get it, use a lower value toy, move closer to the dumbbell for a shorter retrieve distance, hold the dumbbell and have the dog take it with the toy lying nearby, have a friend hold the toy and offer it subtly (or blatantly) while the dog retrieves - the possibilities are endless but each one allows the dog to make a decision and successfully overcome any stress induced in the process. Some dogs will find a toy lying 20 feet away very stressful. Others will not become concerned until the toy is on top of the dumbbell. Correct decisions can be rewarded lavishly. Incorrect ones can be stopped before they become self-rewarding. Few dogs will continue to repeat a behavior that offers little or no reward, especially when given an option (get the dumbbell) which IS rewarded.
This is just one example of inducing stress in training. Each exercise offers its own challenges. It’s about building up, not tearing down.