Getting Your Dog's Head in the Game

Today many dog agility bloggers will be writing on the topic of the Mental Game.  Having a special dog like Vito I find that there are so many variables that need to be thought about in order to get him both feeling comfortable about his environment and excited about the task at hand.  Here are a few of the many things I'm constantly re-evaluating to get my Toller in the right frame of mind.

1.  Where to crate from?
Many people find that dogs who are a bit worried about the crazy atmosphere at agility trials, and dogs who seem to feed off that atmosphere, getting more and more hyped, do better if left in the car.  Others do best if crated in the building, giving them time to acclimate to it.

If you choose to crate in the building, please try and practice this skill before it's really needed.  One constantly barking dog can make it difficult for other dogs to relax, especially for the other worry wart dogs.   I find most dogs do best with a crate cover if they are in a busy area where dogs and people might constantly be getting to close to their space.  I've even seen some people put a little jar of dog treats and a sign telling people to feed their dog when walking by to help get them used to the environment.  I'm lucky that Vito does very good in the environment itself as long as he can hear people near by and has his crate covered to block out stimulation.

2. How much stew time is needed?

Once you've arrived at the site and have gotten set up, does your dog need time to look around and take everything in?  I will often walk Vito around a little bit at trials or at least let him hang out with me outside of the crate.  I typically don't focus on walking everywhere on the trial ground as ultimately part of the test is the ability to walk through the ring gates of an unexplored area and focus.  I find this is a bigger challenge in obedience than in agility, but it's still something I carry over.  Mainly I let Vito look around versus walk around so that he can see everything is safe.

For dogs who get hyped up, one could also experiment with some mat work on arrival, and calm delivery of treats.  I think that the ability to relax on site, when you're not asking for any specific engagement from the dog, is a crucial part of the trial experience and one that some dogs will always need work on.

3. What type and length of warm up is needed?
Coming out of the crate does your dog need additional stew time before he will engage 100% with you?  At first I was asking Vito to tug and play with me immediately upon exit of his crate, but it was always a struggle to get the attitude I wanted right off the bat.  I was certainly working harder than he was.  So now I let him look around, without the ability to wander off anywhere, and wait until he is asking me to play.  Way less effort on my part and better results as he just needed a small amount of time to ground himself before being ready.

Type of warm up is also a huge question.  Rev them up or calmly focus them?  In general I lean towards the rev up side for most dogs.  Dogs who stress down often need to do a lot of moving tricks.  Vito's favorite trick is vaulting off of me and many dogs respond well to any jumping or fast moving tricks like spinning.  Barking on cue is often a great way to get a dog more excited.  I am thrilled that while it took awhile to get Vito to scream at me before going into the ring, it's now uncued and chaotic!

I also believe that many dogs who stress up would do well with a rev up type of warm up, mixed with some quick responses to control behaviors like sit, down, or heeling.  Calming warm ups might work well for some dogs, but for many it just gives a false sense of control if the dog immediately spirals up on entering the ring. Ultimately, warm up length and type take the most experimentation.

4. When and how do you enter the ring?
Do you keep the dog focused on you with tricks, or do you let them watch the dog ahead of you? Do you sprint into the ring with intensity at the last minute or do some controlled heeling?  If the leash removal isn't required to wait until the judge's signal, how early do you remove it?  Do you do a lead out, or run off together with variations of starting including drop and go, pushing back, or a quick trick?
Screaming Toller!!!

Vito's current solution starts with me letting him watch the dog ahead of us, or at least looking into the ring if he's first.  I whisper are you ready?! type talk into his ear and try to get him excited about entering.  For the most part it's a good answer for us, but sometimes he will find a scary person to fixate on so then I try and jump to having him scream at me.  When I tried to focus on him just playing with me, he often needed to look around upon entering the ring and didn't get enough time to decide everybody was safe.  For crazy dogs, looking into the ring may be a disaster if the dog loses the focus they hand on you!

We then always sprint into the ring together.  I ideally like to get in  the ring just early enough to build some anticipation, but not too early that he has time to look for people.  I take off the leash as soon as possible (NADAC is harder) and toss it far away so the leash runner doesn't approach.  Then focus needs to be 100% on me and I encourage him to scream at me and do his favorite tricks if there's a delay.  A tiny lead out works best as it builds a little anticipation and allows me to get just enough ahead that he's chasing me.  He does not like push backs in trials, although he does in practice.  I often chant to him as I do the slight lead out, getting him on the edge of self control and breaking.  And then if he breaks I smile and let him :)  The Corgi is upset at Vito's special rules!

Are there any other considerations you think about for your anxious or overly excitable dog?
Check out all the other blogs for more great ideas on improving your own mental game!

Elayne  – ( December 4, 2013 at 9:29 AM )  

Right now I run a dog that becomes overly excited by the dogs in the ring. He doesn't really stress but he can get in a place where he's too overly stimulated to focus on me. This was more a problem when he was younger and we were starting out. For him, I take him out of his crate about 7-8 dogs away from his run, do some running to warm him up, let him play crazy tug games to burn off some energy but once he's physically warmed up I work on having him calm down and focus on me. Heeling, sit, his lie down with his head on the floor trick, sometimes even just looking at him and talking to him, keeping his brain engaged and his attention off the dog in the ring.

For my dogs that stressed up I started out trying to get them riled up but they didn't like it (tug, etc.) so I'd do a combination - a little bit of physical stuff then more mental focusing on me, tricks, heeling, etc.

Amy / Layla the Malamute  – ( December 4, 2013 at 9:43 PM )  

Layla is VERY excited so I do more focus games than anything. If I revved her up, things would quickly spiral out of control - and there's no guarantee they won't anyway! Most of our obedience foundation is Terri Arnold who does a lot of Attention games, and we play a lot of attention games before our runs. Watch me, etc.

Muttsandaklutz  – ( December 5, 2013 at 8:37 PM )  

Great post, thought provoking perspective. I appreciate the reminders of all the various things to consider for the dog's sake, especially with potential trial debut for my new guy next year. Never thought to delay getting into the ring until the last minute and then running in with excitement -- love that!

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