Thursday, July 16, 2009

Frustration Tolerance and Stress

I've had a lot of thoughts about Tay lately. Her performance at trials has been troublesome and such a contrast to the dog I have in training (at different places) and at seminars. It has been taking me back to my days with Sonic and how he stressed about weave poles in trials.

She was the kind of puppy who was "easy" to train. My first dog like this. She learned almost everything very quickly and was eager to do more. She loves clicker training and while she is moving constantly when I'm shaping behaviors with her, she still knows what she was doing when I clicked. She could be a little circus dog. She learned to skateboard, roll buckets and balls, put her feet on anything - moving or not.

At trials Tay has been running between pole one and two of the weaves and then putting her nose on the ground and running around. If I repeat the weaves with my happy voice (thinking I'm de-stressing her) she usually does them perfectly. I've been doing AKC and USDAA lately where I can not repeat obstacles before the weaves. I've been concerned that I'm teaching her that I will "fix" the weaves for her in a trial. (Been there and made that mistake with my first Border Collie many years ago.)

She will sometimes go wide around obstacles and have her nose on the ground looking like she is sniffing in a stressed manor. She has frozen on the table and won't sit or lie down quickly and sometimes not want to get on it at all.

She has also been launching her aframe contact which is not as bothersome because I know her running contacts are a "work in progress" and will always require some management. She was taught a 2on/2off on the dogwalk which morphed into a running dogwalk via a quick release. The aframe was taught as a running aframe from the start but no one method seemed to work for her. This has been her weakest area of learning and yet she still seemed to gain an understanding of what was expected fairly easily. Her weaves however have been stellar in training.

So what could be causing these problems?

1. Lack of frustration tolerance. One of the things I've come to realize is that she has a very low frustration tolerance. Since she learned so quickly she never really had any extended "frustration" or stress in learning something new. She didn't really make a lot of mistakes as a puppy so she didn't need to be corrected much at all. However she loses focus at trials which causes her to miss cues and make more mistakes than she does in training situations. So I am theorizing that one aspect of the problem is that she stresses because she is not used to making mistakes like that and doesn't know how to recover. My other dogs have had some training issue to overcome where they have had to take time to work through it and have learned how to cope with struggles in training in their own way.

Lack of focus. I've observed that Tay seems to do best with courses that have more complex sequences of obstacles. The novice courses at trials have too much open space where she can get easily distracted. I talked to someone who was judging at one of our trials who knows her littermates out in California. I asked him how they were running and if there were any similarities with Tay. There are - he told me that the handler/breeder of her sister talks a LOT when running her sister and he also gets on her case when she loses focus. This handler is an excellent distance handler and is very quiet and soft spoken. So to hear that he is louder with her sister than with his other dogs was interesting. So I have tried talking more to Tay on course at trials and really keeping a very happy voice. It seemed to help somewhat.

3. Lack of self-control. Tay has some mild separation anxiety. At trials if crated indoors I've noticed that she doesn't seem to rest very well, especially before the first few runs. She gets very anxious if I take out any of the other dogs instead of her and spins in her crate. My other dogs will merely lift their heads to see if it is their turn or not. She wants it to be her turn all the time. She doesn't have a lot of natural self control.

What things could I do to improve these "problem areas"?

1. Proofing. I did more proofing in general and with the weaves in particular so they would be harder in training than at a trial. I placed open bags of treats so that they were leaning on the weave poles and she weaved beautifully - this is from an incredibly food oriented dog. I've tossed toys and done things with my body and she will stay in the weaves. I've had toys and bags of treats laying around the agility field while training her and she ignores them. I take her to a group class and she handles distractions of people acting like judges and ring stewards well. I've been taking her to group classes for a couple of years to help her deal with these distractions.

2. Minimize the situation. I've pulled her from AKC runs until I can figure out how to get her more focused and motivated at a trial. I've lentered her in trials such as ASCA and NADAC where I can repeat sequence and train to some extent.

3. Additional work. I've been trying to come up with additional "jobs" for her. Perhaps teaching her some new things will help with her frustration tolerance. My other young dogs have at least two performance type jobs. Tay has lacked the self control to do well in obedience and she has been slow to turn on to livestock for herding. I read Silvia Trkman's website for the first time (I had been meaning to read it for ages now). I was inspired from the first page alone because of her enthusiasm for obedience and for trick training.
Tay loves to do tricks and to be able to set a goal of teaching her 100 tricks really excited me. I have wanted to teach her more tricks but I need a goal of some sort - she is not a candidate for commercials because she is too dark so I needed some other reason.

4. Reduce her exposure to stimuli. I unexpectedly was able to recreate her trial behavior in training this week. I've been trying to do more with her and really try to find other "jobs" for her to do. I took her to Prior Lake for my classes down there and let her "hang out" with me. I worked on tricks during our down time and I worked on rewarding her for hanging out quietly (very hard for her to do). I usually practice in Prior Lake with her every week and she does very well - she is fast and focused. I've done weave proofing there and she has been great. This evening, she started out very anxious and antsy and then she settled down! I was very happy with how calm she was hanging out while I taught the classes. After the last class I wanted to run her to see how she would do after hanging with me for 3 hours. I had hoped she would be very fast and focused having to wait for three hours for her "turn" to play and having worked on "hanging out." To my surprise she was distracted right off of the second obstacle and I was able to get her back and restarted. Then she did what she does at trials and went between pole one and two in the weaves and put her nose on the ground to sniff. I was very surprised - it is the first time she has ever done that in a training situation.
So I got to thinking and wondered if the hanging around all day at trials is contributing to her stress. This is not uncommon for many dogs. I am considering that she needs to be more isolated from my other dogs and agility at trials so she doesn't become overstimulated to the point of losing focus.

5. Be more interactive on course from the beginning. I took her to her group class later in the week and had her out for the whole class hoping to recreate her stress behaviors. I also worked a stay at the start line which does increase her stress. The first time through she was great through the weaves. I rewarded the weaves. Then I tried the sequence to the weaves again and she couldn't do them. After making my voice sound happier and happier and making it easier and easier she finally got the weaves so we went on and then she launched the aframe contact. I had her redo the aframe and she launched again so I put a jump after it about 5-6 feet from the bottom. She did the aframe well and I rewarded. When I went to move the jump away so we could do the rest, she got distracted and I couldn't get her re-focused no matter how happy I sounded. So I gave her a time-out. I was starting to wonder who was training whom.
She seems to like agility but I really wondered if she was using the sniffing as a way to change my behavior or was she really stressing because of not knowing how to cope with a mistake. It occurred to me that this was like the behavior of one of my student's dogs but with a twist. I have seen an Aussie belonging to one of my students do amazing off courses that were not at all handler induced or miss entire obstacles at trials and then proceed to run the rest of the course fast and focused. The handler in that case admits she gets very stressed at trials and my theory is that the dog learned that the stress was gone once he made a "mistake" on the course. The handler would then relax because the pressure was off. This was a team that would often qualify in the classes that "didn't matter" but could not qualify in the ones that "did matter." I wondered if Tay was trying to train me to lighten up and to be more verbal because that is exactly what I would do when she would seem stressed. So I need to work on being more verbal on course and working on anticipating when I might lose her so I can be proactive. My default is to be very quiet when handling my dogs so I tend to get louder when I see she has lost focus.

6. Adding meaningful consequences for missed cues. At the group class this week, I trained the other girls and then came back to Tay. I did a short sequence and she did the one weave pole and went off sniffing. I stopped and took her by the collar and wanted to determine what to do because I had decided that taking her off the course was not meaningful to her. All of us in the class were in agreement that Tay should have some different consequences for not weaving. I also think she needed to start learning how to handle her mistakes. I weaved her on-leash through the poles, a correction that I have used occasionally with other dogs. She still tried to miss the poles but was not able to do so. Then I removed the leash and repeated the tunnel before the weaves and she did the weaves perfectly and I rewarded with a big party. We started at that point and finished the rest of the course with a very fast and focused dog.

In sum, I am going to handle her differently from my other dogs in that I will be more vocal throughout the course with her. I am more vocal with Feisty than with Sinco but I need to be more vocal evenly throughout the entire course and not just when a problem occurs. I will continue to do proofing with her to make training situations harder than trials and I am going to set her up for success by picking and choosing where I trial her until we start to see improvement in her demeanor on course at trials. I am also going to try to keep her by herself at trials so she is not aware of when I'm running the other dogs to help lower her stimulation level. I am going to teach her to do more things to help with her frustration tolerance and to help increase her focus and attention. Lastly the consequences will be different in training for mistakes that she makes when I'm confident that she understands what is expected. I never introduce corrections before I truly believe a dog understands what is expected.

Once again I have a dog pushing me out of my comfort zone and in need of different training and handling techniques than my other dogs. The alternative is to not trial her at all and I'm not ready to go that route just yet. She is a very fun dog with a lot of potential to do well in agility.