Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reflections on ring stress and dog mental management

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on where I’ve been with Feisty and with my other dogs over the last month as the reality of earning a MACH with Feisty was getting closer.  I have also been doing some reflecting on what it was about her that kept me going in training her.  I certainly won’t judge anyone for why they stop working with any dog.  I have had dogs with serious issues in the past that I wasn’t able to make progress on after working with them for a long time.  So please don’t judge people for why they choose to do what they do with their dogs.  Every dog and human is different and has different life choices to make and not every dog is cut out to do agility.  One of the things to really keep in mind is that when it comes to dog agility – it is a tough performance sport that requires the dog to have athletic ability, mental focus, and mental and physical stamina.  Not all dogs (just as not all people) possess these qualities.  The dogs who do well in this sport have to have a desire to do things and the ability to focus on these tasks. 

Why did I decide not to give up on her?  I also train her in obedience and have since she was a pup.  She loves obedience and I did proofing in obedience before I did in agility with her and she loves it.  She loves solving the problem and she gets so excited with herself when she works through difficult things.  So it was knowing this about her that made me think I could help her work through the distractions and stressors of agility.  Little did I know how many obstacles like this would come along.  Many or even most agility dogs never get bothered by the things that bothered Feisty.  I also knew that it was agility related because she was an awesome dog outside of the ring.  I also have access to agility equipment, agility people and other training resources to help me have the time to work on it.  Not everyone has these things.  It cannot be done once a week in a class – there is so much to do – teaching the handling cues to the dog, building speed and confidence on obstacles,  training cues for turns, collection, acceleration and much more. Proofing these things comes when the obstacle performance is reliable.  There is a lot to do – I know this because I’m often overwhelmed by how much I have yet to train my 18 month old puppy to do and she gets trained several times a week!  It is hard to focus on all these at once so it is best to pick one thing per training session.  For example you cannot focus on both handling skills AND proofing obstacle performance at the same time.  Just as you can’t focus on teaching a single obstacle performance at the same time you are also trying to complete an entire sequence of obstacles.  You have to pick one thing to focus on per 1-2 minute training session.

I did spend some time trying to do stress reducing things for her and honestly they were not as effective as going the other way and building her confidence under stressful conditions.  Some of the things from the Kathy Keats seminar have helped me to have a better understanding of what we as people experience with performance stress and I do think it is analogous to what many dogs experience.  What I decided to do with Feisty was to make a concerted and systematic effort to build her confidence rather than try to reduce her stress.  What do I mean by that?

Well I knew that she (and many dogs and many Pyr Sheps in particular) would be very sensitive to her environment when trialing.  So when she was about 2 years old I put her in classes around the Twin Cities where I knew there would be different equipment, different instructors (different genders, sizes, voices etc.), many loud dogs and different running surfaces.  I did it purely for getting Feisty used to working in different environments and I never worried about handling.  For the first few weeks we did very short sequences with high rate of rewards.  Gradually she worked up to being able to do longer sequences in these different places.  Then over a period of several months she could do sequences with different people running alongside the dogwalk, crowding the table, crowding the start line area and being ring crew.  She didn’t demonstrate her stress at these things in obvious ways but I could tell.  People would often wonder how or why I thought she was stressed but she would go really fast around something or take an off course that was away from the stressor and things like that.  What kept me going with her is that she also wanted to work through her stressors.  She would get more and more confident all the time.

When I started trialing her she didn’t like tunnels she hadn’t been in – she shut down in Tunnelers the first time I ran her in it.  Then she avoided teeters she didn’t know and she would stop and sniff them and walk around the base of it and then she would get on it.  She knew a teeter she’d been on even if it was in a different location (like the MAC equipment that is rented out).  She knew a different teeter in a familiar place.  We went through this with almost every obstacle.  She ran around an aframe the first time she saw one that was wider at the base than at the top.  Now she can go out of town to a place she has never been and get on any piece of equipment.  It is interesting that she has not ever had a table problem in USDAA but there the table is higher and so she may not have associated the taller table with what had happened to her on the shorter table in AKC.  She has attention to detail and I swear she has a notebook somewhere in the house with her name on it and all this information. 

While I was working on this I was also training her on obstacles to the point where she had above average skills on the obstacles.  She had to do weaves past toys, fluff, treats, bones etc.  She had to do lots of difficult weave entrances and she had to do weaves at a distance and with me right next to her.  She had to do weaves with a tunnel 1 foot from the end of the poles.  As a result she just loves weave poles.  I also did a lot with her running aframes and dogwalks.  I went to ASCA trials and had friends stand at either end of the dogwalk with the assignment to cheer if she got the contact (I couldn’t wait for the judge’s hands) so I could mark it one way or the other.   It took a lot of work to get the dogwalk to be as consistent as it is now.  I also traveled to work with Dana Pike several times for help training her contacts and to work her in yet another different place.

Then she ran in NADAC and she would just fly around the courses.  She loves NADAC – there is no one in the ring to distract her.  CPE is her next favorite and I believe that is because the environment is more relaxed.  She is very sensitive to negative energy.

Then we did AKC.  I still recall the first time she ran in Open AKC and she stopped in her tracks in the middle of the Weaves and I got her back and we ran out of the ring.  I knew I needed to keep working on her weaves and proofing her obstacles.  I started for awhile in AKC doing short courses and avoiding hard obstacles and doing Jumpers with Weaves a lot.  Many an AKC judge and exhibitor scratched their heads as I ran out of the ring early with a big smile and we had a “beef party” for doing ¼ to 1/3 of the course.  There were the times when she wouldn’t get off the start line – probably because the judge and the ring crew were stressed.  If there were any loud voices or arguments around the ring gate she would not run or she’d run slowly.  So I kept working on things.  Then she was in Excellent Standard at Soccer Blast and she was on the table, the judge, a tall loud man was saying the table count.  Feisty stared at him and would not get off the table.  After a lot of coaxing I got her off the table and then she noticed Amy on the floor and shied away from her and then I could see her scanning the entire ring noticing that there were people everywhere.  That was the beginning of our table problem.  It was also the beginning of her dislike of male judges.  When that same man was judging Jumpers with Weaves the next day she was on the start line.  I saw her stare at him while he stood in the middle of the ring.  I lead out.  When I released her she tried to run out of the ring.  I got her to do the last jump as we left and I knew exactly what had happened.  On the third day I only ran her with the female judge and she was fine but refused to get on the table.

After trying a couple of more trials where she would freeze and not do the table I stopped showing her in Excellent standard for many many months – close to a year.  I enrolled her in another training school’s class where I knew there were male students and I worked on major proofing.  It was fascinating – at that point inside the agility ring she refused treats from everyone.  Outside the agility ring she would take treats from those same people.  After a number of months she went from working though having people stand in normal places where judges and ring crew stand to running the aframe with someone laying on the aframe, getting on the table with three people sitting on it and doing the dogwalk with 7 people hovering on the down contact (and she got the contact!).  It took a lot of work and that is all I focused on every week at these classes.  Fortunately these other students were friends and acquaintances of mine and they understand how I wanted to use my time on the course.  I didn’t work on handling in trial or group classes  – just proofing.  It was all consuming.  I worked on handling in places where it was quiet and she was comfortable.  I could do this because I had a way to do training on my own time.

Meanwhile I just did NADAC and CPE with her where she was getting faster and faster running those courses and building her confidence in trial settings.  When I entered her in Excellent Standard she started to run cleanly – not as fast as I knew she could but she was running cleanly.  She was running faster and faster in Jumpers with Weaves.  I wish I could say she has been perfect but she still has runs where she will refuse the table – as recently as Dec. 4th.  In November 2010 I discovered that I had caused her to be afraid of camera clicks.  She totally shut down at a trial in St. Louis and would not take the first jump because a photographer was taking her picture.  It took the whole day for me to isolate the cause of her fear.  I won’t go into details but this has been another hurdle for us and it is a very difficult one that is still a work in progress. I have been able to get her within about 30 feet of a camera click with treats and tricks.  She can’t yet do agility within 30 feet of a camera click but I am determined to work on it.

Now where Kathy Keats comes in…  She talked a lot about (and many of you have expressed this) being able to really work on committing a course to memory so it is second nature to remember the course which then allows more of the brain’s power to be able to focus on handling and the dog.  I hadn’t really thought about that because I’ve not ever had a problem remembering courses but I know many of you have had this problem.  A few of you have said that since the seminar you are better able to remember the course and now you can focus more on your handling and your dog which is great.  Well I’ve always known that proofing dogs performance makes it better – faster, more accurate etc.  One of the reasons is that they develop better focus on the tasks but I also now believe that the dogs who have strong skills of obstacle performance are better able to work with distractions because they are thinking less about how to perform the obstacle – it is more automatic for them.  I see this in Feisty.  Today in the Jumpers with Weaves class the judge was close to the exit of the weave poles.  Feisty was flying until she turned into the weaves.  She can have very fast weaves.  She slowed down but stayed in the poles.  She was able to maintain accuracy in the poles because she has had such extensive training that she doesn’t need as much brain power to weave but the pressure/stressor of the judge there caused her to slow down.  Once out of the weaves she sped up again.  Now I could have taken it as having a slow weave pole problem but when I looked at the big picture and friends pointed out to me where the judge was it all made sense.  She was actually being a VERY GOOD GIRL!!!  When she first started in agility she would have avoided the weaves all together.  On the standard runs I do pay close attention to where the judge is and I do take it into account for my handling strategy if I can.  Usually in Jumpers the judge is off to the side and not in the middle of the ring as she was today.  Feisty has been known to veer away from a judge who is walking toward her as she is approaching an obstacle – especially a male judge.  So I know I need to keep working on this but I pay close attention to the judge’s path before I run her.     

It is a result of this that I have introduced more and more proofing exercises into my Monday and Thursday night beginners classes.  I’ve always done some but I have definitely increased it as I’ve become more and more aware of how much this can really help to boost a dog’s confidence in obstacle performance.  I also do this in the Weaves and Contacts special classes.  Providing more distractions in training than the dog will see in trial and having the dog work through it builds confidence which in turn increases speed and accuracy.  Many of you have seen your dog get faster in the weaves working with distractions.  It is much easier to do this on shorter sequences and on specific obstacles that we have in the beginner classes and I like to do it early on in training the dog before doing longer courses.   It is impossible to focus on handling skills and proofing performance at the same time.  When I have a free Friday night I plan to offer more classes on proofing of obstacle performance for those who need/want more work in this area. 

It will be awhile before I have a free Friday because at this point I am focusing a lot on trialing in AKC between now and the end of June. Feisty is currently the #2 Pyr Shep AND Sinco is currently the #5 Aussie so they are both on track to qualify for the AKC Agility Invitational in December 2012.  This is something I’m very proud of and really want to strive to accomplish.  Therefore I may not be able to offer as many Friday classes as I usually do this winter and spring because I will be traveling out of town for many of the trials.

As a post script: even though I have this goal with Feisty I am still stepping to the line with her as if it is just another chance to have fun together.  Today we had a very good Jumpers with Weaves run.  In Standard she went off course on obstacle 3 so I made a short course to the exit and said “Thank you!” to the judge.  I left in good spirits and loved her up – it is also a good way for her to know that sometimes we do just short courses out there – random reinforcement!  Off courses are my fault not hers but I don’t see a need to keep her out on a course – she doesn’t have to prove anything to me and I also don’t want to risk unnecessary mental or physical trauma to her.  So let’s leave early – wow sometimes we just do a few obstacles!  It will keep her fresher and on her toes.

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