Stressy Dogs: To Trial or Not

Another dog agility blog action day, this time on the topic of stress.  A topic near and dear to my heart with the Toller.  I have written extensively on the work I have done and continue to do with Vito to relieve his stress in the ring and increase his motivation for working.  From ring entrances, to jackpot training, to tons of work on building value for behaviors I can use on the startline (in agility) and in between exercises (in obedience).

But now I'm going to talk a little bit on what it's like on the handler side of training a dog who stresses easily.  All the ups and downs.   That extreme high when your dog looks happy and confident and the crushing hopelessness when your dog fixates on a scary barsetter.  So much time spent wondering if you're doing the right thing by continue to train for the sport you love and maybe even trial.   Weighing pros and cons and assessing how determined you are.  And trying to ignore anybody who tries to steal your joy in the little, but huge, successes.  There's just so many helpful people out there!

There was only one period with Vito where I seriously considered retiring him from trialing in agility, although in obedience he has been in a semi-retired state for years.  In that lowest time I went through a lot of checklists and tried to assess where we were at and if trialing or even training was worth it or if I was being selfish in my want to play agility with my dog.  If you are wondering the same things, there is no right or wrong answer but I wrote some of my thoughts below.

Vito relaxing at the trial this last weekend.
- Is my dog comfortable in the trial environment itself?  In other words is just spending time on the grounds stressful?  In Vito's case the answer was no, he was always super relaxed hanging around at trials.  But if your dog is stressed, is there ways to minimize that?  Crating out of the car?  Outdoors vs indoors?  Really short days?  Being in the ring is less than a minute, but if they're super stressed all day at the trial then you have more to consider and weigh.

- What's the most likely "bad" case scenario if my dog is stressed in the ring?  Vito's Sad Toller runs are mainly a big decrease in speed now and in the past also included quite a bit of pulling off obstacles and occasionally some reactivity towards ring workers.

- Do you have reasonable hope towards improvement?  Is the dog being highly successful in practice at home?  Does the success rate continue if in a group class?  At fun matches or new places?  UKI trials where you can reward in the ring?  At one point I realized that while Vito was doing amazing when I practiced with no one around, he was showing some small signs of our trial issues in his group class.  I was having to work very hard to get him UP and running fast at the start line before each sequence, although once the on switch was turned on he was fine.  Switching to a smaller group class and a different setup helped work through that issue, along with all the other work I put in and continue to do.

Zumi can't wait to trial!
- Why do I want to trial?  My personal answer is that trialing helps me to set (super small) goals and honestly assess progress.  I know that without trials I become lazier in training and that spending one on one time with each dog training for a goal is very important to me.  With a retired dog this can still be accomplished through trick goals, or training for a different sport, but I really want to share my love of agility with my dogs for as long as they are physically and mentally able to.  And of course the other main reason I like trialing is the pride aspect.  I love my dogs and I know they are amazing and I want the world to see how amazing they are too.  Celebrate with me the first time Vito screamed at the startline without being asked to bark!

Depending on your answers to the questions above, and to other questions you likely ask yourself, taking a break from trialing might be the best answer.  Or maybe continuing to battle through issues and fully supporting your special dog each and every run is OK to.  Don't beat yourself up over your decision and don't bow to the pressure of others.  Agility is such a small part of our time with the dogs.

At this time Vito continues to trial in agility and is mostly on an upswing for the past year!  Obedience and rally trials are done on a much more limited basis and usually restricted to organizations where I can reward in the ring.  But we continue to practice and work towards our goals of eventually being the Happy Toller at both agility and obedience trials!

For more posts on the topic of stress from other agility bloggers, visit the event page!

achieve1dream  – ( June 17, 2015 at 11:05 AM )  

I think the fact that he is relaxed spending the day at a trial is key! If just being there was stressing him out it would probably be different. I'm glad you didn't retire him. He's been improving so much lately! Keep up the great work!!

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