Maisy and I are going to a trial this weekend- we’ll be making our UKC debut in level 1 rally- and I thought that this would be a good time to review our trial management strategy. I didn’t fully understand the importance of this when Maisy and I began trialing, but over the past year, we have gone to a number of trials, in a number of locations, and I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t to keep her calm and relaxed.
In the week leading up to a trial, I’ve found that there are a couple of things that contribute to a good trial experience. The most important thing is that I need to ensure that Maisy is getting adequate exercise. There have been lots of studies that link exercise with the production of endorphins- the feel good chemical- in the brain. Some sources even link exercise with a reduction in cortisol, a stress hormone. No matter how it works, it does seem that Maisy is calmer when she gets regular exercise.
Along these same lines, I try to avoid any high stress activities during the week leading up to a trial. I’ve heard (but can’t find any sources right now) that following a reactive episode, the stress hormones remain in the dog’s body for several days. Since stress tends to accumulate, I try to keep things low-key around the house for Maisy in the week building up to a trial.
I also try to keep Maisy to her regular training routine as much as possible without overtraining. The week before a trial is not the time to try out new approaches, hand signals or exercises. We continue to practice what we know- Maisy goes bonkers without mental stimulation- but I don’t drill or introduce new concepts.
On the morning of the trial, I try to keep things as normal as possible. I will give her breakfast, but I go a bit light because I know that I’ll be using lots of treats later in the day and I don’t want her to get an upset tummy. I also take her for a nice long walk. Again, this helps to produce endorphins, but it also ensures that she “empties out.” We’ve never had any embarrassing “ring fouling,” and I’d prefer to keep it that way.
Something I’ve been playing with is giving her a dose of Rescue Remedy, as well as spraying her collar with DAP. I’m not sure how much either of these things help, but they don’t have any negative side effects, and if they ease her anxiety even slightly, it’s probably worth it. I’m also considering giving her a small dose of pain reliever to alleviate any discomfort, since pain really plays into her reactivity. I need to discuss this with her vet, though, since there are plenty of potential side effects to common pain relievers.
My management really goes into full swing once we arrive at the trial site, since I need to minimize stress while still helping her to cope with a busy environment. The biggest and most important thing to do once we arrive is to minimize her exposure to the chaos.
When we arrive at the trial site, I leave her in the car and check in without her, which means I need to park in an out of the way location to minimize stress while I’m gone. Then, I find an isolated spot to set up her crate. This spot needs to be away from other dogs and pathways, and away from the warm up areas. Maisy does really poorly if I leave her in her crate- even if I’m next to it- so I plan to use it only if it’s absolutely necessary, in which case, I’ll leave her with a stuffed Kong.
I’m going to add something new to our car crating routine this week: the CD Through a Dog’s Ear, which we’ve used at home when relaxing. The music itself has been designed and researched to calm dogs. We’ve also used it during calm times at home, so hopefully she’ll also have a conditioned emotional response to it.
At the trials where she’s been most successful, we’ve spent a lot of time walking. Again, the walking helps boost endorphins- for both of us. I’m more relaxed when we’re out moving and connecting together. This reduces my ring nerves, which in turns reduces the possibility that Maisy will pick up on my stress and worry as a result.
We do have to come inside at some point, though, and I plan to do this gradually. We’ll go in for a few minutes, walk around so she can see where we are, and play “Look at That” with a high rate of reinforcement. After a few minutes, we’ll return to the car or go for a walk. We’ll do this several times, increasing the amount of time we spend inside, while hopefully reducing her stress at the same time.
Hopefully, we’ll be later in the running order so that she can wait in the car while I walk the course. If we’re first, I’ll put her in her crate or leave her with my husband. I’m very lucky to have a supportive husband, who often hangs out with Maisy to help keep her calm.
For our warm-ups, I like to start with about five minutes of clicking for eye contact and connection. Then we play “get into heel,” where we do pivots in both directions. Next, we heel straight lines with a high rate of reinforcement. Finally, we practice any of the “tricky” signs in the course. This weekend, I don’t anticipate any of those, but at APDT trials, we might practice a moving down or a stand for exam, just as a refresher.
Finally, one of the most important things I will need to do is to watch her stress levels and be ready to scratch our entry or walk out of the ring at any time. If she’s too stressed to work, it’s not worth trying. This is an area I’m still working on, and hopefully I can live up to it!
All of this management is about being sensitive to Maisy’s needs and connecting with her. The thing I really love about dog sports is the way she and I can come together as a team, as friends, and work together. Some people call it focus, but I call it connection. Our relationship is really what’s at stake here. Each time we interact, we can build our relationship. My whole training philosophy is built on relationship and respect, so I do take my commitment to keeping her calm and relaxed to heart.
So, fellow competitors, what do you do to keep your dog calm and relaxed at trials? Have I missed anything glaringly obvious? Have you found something completely different that works for you? I’d love to hear about it! Drop me a comment on your management strategies.