Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ring Stress

Oh what to do, what to do. This is a problem that is really starting to plague me. I went through some ring stress with Heffner in agility for a while, but we seem to be pretty well over that. I think his problem there was just me being stressed about having him in such a highly charged arena and managing everything. I will whole heartedly admit that managing his environment and keeping him from having reactive outbursts was incredibly draining at first and I needed to learn how to better deal with. I feel like I've got a lot better hold on that and therefore he's happier. It's still draining to a certain extent, but nothing like it used to be.

Now that I have him entering the obedience arena, we're kind of dealing with that all over again and I'm going to chalk up his stress in the ring to me having to adjust to managing him in a new setting that is very different from agility. I think that once I get beyond that, he and I can start working as a team a lot better and he'll be a much happier boy. I've seen glimpses of good runs when we've been at smaller trials and I've felt as keyed up and on high alert. So for Heffner, I feel like I can figure it out and manage it. Bess, however, is really a totally different story.

RCC was honestly pretty much a melt down for her in the agility ring and I'm not entirely sure what to do about it. We had some minor improvements in that she was starting to actually pay attention to HOW she was jumping again instead of trying to swim through the jumps. That's kind of something, but not really. So we know now after Thursdays escapades that Bess is stressing up in the ring and that totally makes sense. What I noticed over the next few days is that her manifestation of stress outside the ring really depended on what I was doing with her. If I wasn't doing much with her and didn't have any treats to take her mind off of things, she totally started stressing down. I wondered how that would play out in the ring. Once we got out there, she still stressed up, just not quite to the extent that she had previously. Oy! So I now have a dog who stresses up and goes a little crazy inside the agility ring and unless I keep her mind off of thing with food treats and run her through a variety of tricks and focus games, she shuts down outside of the ring.

While you're mulling that over, here's another little tid bit. I took the dogs out to the agility barn last night for some practice (Heffner's still not actually doing agility, but there's some fun ground work that we're doing and he's really enjoying). I always start them out (separately) with a warm up of jogging around the perimeter of the ring for several laps, all off leash. Often Bess will get a bit of the zoomies and kind of zip around the ring, but she's good about coming back to me and getting down to business. Last night she was just full of zoomies. It was way worse than what we've had at trials. She was every where! I normally work the dogs for a half hour each and give them a brain break in the middle to grab a drink, relax, goof off, chase a toy, or whatever. I will often toss a toy for Bess who ignores the toy and uses it as an excuse to zoom. That's fine because that's HER time to take a mental break. She usually comes back even more focused after having the break. Not so last night. She was taking whatever opportunity she could to zoom at her discretion. Not okay and hasn't happened before. So not only are we experiencing this stressing up in the ring, but now also at the practice barn. Houston, we have a problem.

I've been talking to a few people who've done performance sports for a number of years with a variety of dogs to get some feedback and try to figure out how in the heck I should handle this. I'm really kind of at a loss. And there are a variety of different things that I could try, which also helps to make the situation more daunting. Among the options that were discussed one was to do what I started to do at RCC and take her through a few obstacles and then pull her from the run. While that's great, I really don't feel like knowingly throwing away over a hundred dollars on a trial weekend to get not a whole lot back. And to be honest, pulling her after a few obstacles didn't seem to have a whole lot of effect in the ring or when I tried it at the barn last night. Another option was to just run her through the course and ignore the errors. Just keep her running and get her to get through the course. Don't correct the mistakes because those "corrections" are possibly causing her to stress out more. I kind of like this option more because we at least get to make it through the course. However, that's again throwing away over a hundred dollars a weekend on entry fees when I know that we're not going to Q. As harsh as that may be, I just don't feel like throwing that money away when the outcome isn't necessarily going to fix anything.

The other option that I'm pondering right now is just to pull her from everything and give her a complete break. There is a possibility that I have pushed her too much more recently and it's taking it's toll. For that, I feel really bad. Bess is a softer dog and more stress sensitive. She generally holds up well, but I think that my expectations for her combined with a competition schedule that may not be best suited for her may be stressing her out too much. My expectations for Heffner are lower and I'm not really pushing him and maybe that's also been part of why he seems to have started to come around in agility. Maybe that's what Bess needs.

Anyway, I've got a lot of thinking to do. I've got Bess entered in an agility trial the first weekend in Feb. and I'm already going into it expecting that it's not going to be a very productive weekend. Something that I'm just not used to thinking with her. We've got some deadlines coming up for some trials in March and I'm starting to think that I may be flying solo with Heffner on those. Maybe I'll just pick Bess back up in the spring for a trial and see how she does. Who knows?

For anyone reading this post who may have something to say, by all means, leave a comment or email me (I believe that my email address is in my profile for the blog). I'm looking for feed back right now. Do you have ideas on how to handle this? Are there exercises that I can do to help decrease her stress? Are there books, articles, or web sites to read that talk about ring stress in dogs and how to conquer them? What are your personal experiences in dealing with this and how did you over come it? Or did you over come it? I can't help feeling discouraged right now. I realize that there are always ups and downs in training and sometimes you just need to ride them out. I really hope this is one of those things. It just sucks when you're in the middle of a trough, because sometimes it feels like you might be stuck there forever.


Kennedy said...

After seeing Bess at the last trial or two and thinking a lot about this, I also did some Googling. I really like the information in this article:

So as to an answer, who knows? I think you're going to have to go through trial and error with her. I do think perhaps going to some trials and dog events with her not entered are a good idea. Even if you go to events Heffner isn't entered in and just spend a couple hours hanging out and watching with her. Feeding goodies, goofing around, and then home. No expectations. No training work. Just Bess being a dog in that environment.

Perhaps even the fun matches on Friday nights at SDTC would be a good idea. Go with Heff but don't work Bess. Or go to the pet store with her just to get some love from the employees and a treat. Take her for a walk in a busy place with lots of people but just for fun. How about a romp at the dog park? Maybe she just needs to be a dog for a while and not have her world revolve around training.

Kennedy said...

This is interesting...and reminds me that praising through what they do versus just directing them is important, too. Craig taught me that last spring - remembering to give the atta-girls right away when Vegas did well.

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

Ok I'll add in my 2 cents. Bess is fairly new to trialing right? I think you're going to have to work through. A break might help her but I don't think it would transfer over to trials a whole lot.

1. I really think that even if you do decide not to run Bess in a trial you should at least take her to as many as you can. Get her out and walking around the environment. See if she'll tug and do tricks. Use the warm up jump when it's free during walk throughs. See if you can get her relaxed just hanging out at a trial.

2. When Vito first started I didn't fix any mistakes. While he didn't stress, I still wanted him confident in a trial setting. I didn't want to nitpick so if he ran around jumps I didn't care. Even now I don;t always fix things with him.

3. I also like the baby course idea. Plan a very flowing short course so you can end with her connected to you before she has a chance to zoom about. You don't want her practicing those behaviors.

I know that skipping obstacles and doing short courses is money loss but I think it's worth it. She's a green dog and I don't see you having to do it forever. If you're not qualifying that's money loss too and if she's not having fun out there it's a bigger loss. Try and find fun matches where it's cheaper if you can.

Jennifer H. said...

Falkor stresses up as well and I know how frustrating that can be! One thing that works for him is to let him do some off leash running before trial. I take him to our field or to a fenced in baseball field and let him rip around. I'm sure you've done something similar before and I'm not sure if it works for your kids but it can't hurt!

I notice a huge difference with Falkor at the trials where I haven't take him to run off leash before our run(s).

We are here to support you and commiserate a little too. ;)