Last year at this time he had a complete meltdown at the trial, very worried about the judge in the ring and for whatever reason continued his panic attack even outside of the ring. Usually Vito is pretty darn relaxed at dogs shows until he steps across that magical threshold into the ring itself where all the pressure of people watching and the pressure to work gets to him. But for whatever reason he panicked that day last year. And we haven't been back to AKC since. Actually it was shortly after that trial that I began my obedience experiment with Vito and began to play with not his stress issues but his motivation issues. That was extremely interesting but meant that Vito also did not enter any CDSP obedience or WCRL rally trials until last month. I was excited to see that Vito was able to be a very sassy and happy Toller in his WCRL runs but also knew that it wouldn't really mean anything for how he could handle the AKC environment again.
The atmosphere of AKC trials are just different. There is a lot more stress in the air. Ring entrances are typically more crowded with nervous handlers. Dogs are more "traditionally" trained and you will see a lot less play around the rings. People still love their dogs and are trying hard to do what's best, but in general stress levels are higher even if you as a handler are able to stay relaxed.
So at the trial yesterday I knew that we might not even make it into the ring. If I was going to enter the ring with Vito I wanted to see if he would happily play with me outside of the ring before our turn and start the engagement on his own without needing much effort from me. And I am happy to report that he was able to do that. He even showed his sassy side again with doing a little bit vocalization at me and we worked on a few quick squish-release to play-reward sequences before our turn. Our final release into the ring started great, and then he saw we were not just playing near the steward table (like we had successfully earlier in the day) but going into the ring and he lost a bit of focus.
Because I think it's important to share successes, mistakes, and in general what my philosophy is towards my dogs I'm going to analyze the video I have from Vito's run. Pretty boring analysis but maybe interesting to some!
You can see he's focused until we get to the table and then he starts staring. I pause and hope that it's enough for him to refocus on me. It is.
3-6sec he is capable of giving me pretty eager eye contact as we step through the ring and approach the startline/judge.
6-10sec is sketchy as the leash actually very lightly restrains him from greeting the judge. In Vito's case, and really in most dog's cases, greeting isn't because they are happy to see the person but because the dog feels stressed and conflicted.
10-17 is our leash removal. I pause my first attempt to remove it as Vito is trained to look at me during removal and I want to see if a quick restart is enough help to both remind him of his job and to also give him a tiny bit of time to settle in. I'm actually fairly happy that he was able to refocus so quickly. If Vito had not been able to offer me focus at this time it would have been a very time to re-evaluate and consider leaving the ring as odds of it improving are low if you can't get stationary focus.
18-22 Another sketchy focus area while waiting to start. Vito's glancing at the judge and worried about him standing so close. A point where I again should have considered leaving the ring. Ultimately I decided in those few seconds to see if moving out and AWAY from the judge would allow Vito to relax or not. Right decision? I don't know.
23- I praise Vito as soon as he moves with me at the start. But it's not enough as Vito does not feel safe enough to continue without checking out the judge.
26- Vito reconnects with me pretty much as soon as he gets to the judge. I actually ask him to do a hand touch to see if he can jump up in the ring and engage with me. He can't do it. More feedback.
30-36 For better or worse I decide to continue as he is giving me focus again. Unfortunately it's a crappy first sign that involves a stay with his back to the judge. Continued heeling would have been so much better! A few more glances at the judge and moving his feet to come to me but holding it together.
36-40 He connects with me as we move to sign #2 but energy is lower. Certainly not in risk of being a forging toller
41-42 Second sign also not a good one for Vito! He knows backing up very well but doesn't want to do it with the judge behind him. I am thrilled to see that Vito is still keeping focus on me though and I move on without any attempt at re-doing it. Praise to Vito for trying.
42- tiniest glance to judge as we move away. 44- Hand touch cue given to try and drive Vito up to heel and get him moving more. Of course I know that due to his lagging position at that time he couldn't actually do it and I take it away before he gets there. In this context it's a light and playful tease as hand touches are heavily rewarded with Vito and are used frequently with him to reinforce more energy.
45-50 Here I'm thrilled with the increased energy he actually did give me. Trotting more and feeling pretty good.
51- Looks away when I look away to see what's next and a bit slow to start with me.
56- Catches up nicely and then looks away again at the environment.
1.01-1.02- I know that if Vito isn't feeling it then downs are the first to go. Here he does his down pretty quickly but does need to look away again. I wait until he's looking back to cue the sit.
1.05-1.08- Happy prancing toller again!
1.09-1.21 two more glances at the judge. And another few seconds of needing to look around after his stand cue. I wait.
1.24- Left turns are pressure and you can feel Vito just lose a bit of energy on it.
1.32-1.36 is more pressure halting into a wall followed by a left pivot. Bit loss of energy from Vito again but keeps focus.
1.40- Connects after the jump but not completely focused on me until 1.44. I praise him again when he rejoins me.
1.49- much better left turn in terms of keeping up his energy level.
1.51-2.05 pretty good but 3 tiny look aways in this serpentine.
2.05-2.07- back and doing pretty well.
2.08-2.14 as we approach the gate Vito is a bit unsure again. Lots more looking around and conflicted between looking at me or looking at the people.
Looking at this, am I happy with Vito's run? Personally I am thrilled with Vito's recovery. He was stressed and able to not just go through the motions but actually give me many moments of nice enthusiasm. However I will not be showing Vito in AKC again for another long time. Vito is trained to look at me during heeling and it's pretty darn well proofed against distractions. If Vito is happy and relaxed his focus point during heeling is so second nature that he doesn't need to even think about it. Therefore deviation from that is a very good indicator for him on how he's feeling. Taking away the first 42sec of the run, the minor look aways he does during his run are just that, minor. But they still add up to extremely good feedback for me. If your dog doesn't have the same criteria then it's obviously not a good indicator for you! Adding in the issues at the startline and I don't feel comfortable trying Vito in another AKC trial at this time.
I don't need a perfect dog but I do need a happy and relaxed dog. Continuing to enter Vito in AKC trials would likely deteriorate his performance more. "Ring experience" is a myth. In a trial you're extremely limited on what you can do to support your dog's performance and overall you're not really helping your dog learn that trials are a happy thing. You may think your dog is learning that nothing bad happens to them in a ring, but dogs don't view events the same way we do. Now simple exposure to the environments with no pressure attached is a very good thing! IF your dog is relaxed in the environment you can work on your dog choosing to engage and play with you despite the feeling of stress in the air. And of course lots of ring confidence games.
If I wanted to prioritize Vito and really see if I can get him back to AKC I would need to put in a lot more work then I've done. Traveling to the traditional obedience clubs for their run through nights (lots of stress in the air!) and work on our ring games. Showing up to AKC trials and just hanging out, playing if he wants to. And lots more work with gradual people pressure in different environments. But the truth is that while I am not giving up on Vito and am still going to continue our work in obedience/rally, it's not a priority for me. So it may very well be another year before I see if we can try again. Hopefully I can continue to use CDSP/WCRL runs as a partial evaluation of how Vito does in a trial. In those cases the pressure of the judge and stewards remain the same but the overall stress in the room is WAY down. And with the allowance of food at certain points (or anytime if I go into training mode) I can actually reinforce Vito's good decision in a trial setting. Of course I still need a happy and engaged dog entering the ring or risk digging an even deeper hole!