Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Just Because You Can, Does That Mean You Should? The Ethics of Trialing a Reactive Dog

Although she was entered for both days of the APDT trial last weekend, I chose to scratch Maisy’s entries on Sunday. The reasons are complicated, and quite honestly, I’m not entirely sure I understand them myself. I just knew somewhere deep inside that it was the right thing to do.

Part of the reason I scratched was due to my disappointment in how Saturday turned out, although I’m aware that that probably sounds pretty silly. After all, she had decent scores, completed a title with honors, and even placed in both trials she was entered in. I know that part of my disappointment lies in my desire for perfection. I want first place and high (if not perfect) scores. But it was more than that: there was a real lack of connection between Maisy and I on Saturday.

The reason I do dog sports is because I love that element of teamwork necessary to do well. It’s wonderful to watch and it’s amazing to experience. When I think about our best runs, I remember not scores and placements, but the sheer beauty of two different species coming together to move as one. The focus and attention we both have for one another is absolutely thrilling, and it was that element lacking that really disappointed me.

I have struggled to figure out why that sense of teamwork was missing, and as best I can figure, it was due to two reasons: stress and poor training. The latter is easy to address: we need to practice more in the face of distractions. Training at home is one thing, but what we really need to do is take our work on the road. We can do that, and we will. No, the hard part is dealing with the stress.

Now, Maisy has made a lot of progress. She’s calm and relaxed around our house, and isn’t anywhere near as edgy as she used to be while on walks. She’s an absolute joy to live and play with. What’s left to work on is helping her learn to manage her fear and stress in the face of the busy, chaotic environment often present at trials.

But is that possible? And if it is, is that fair? Can I call myself a positive trainer and then ask my dog to do something stressful?

I’ve spent most of the week freaking out about this. And, okay, “freaking out” is probably an understatement. I had pretty much decided that we would quit trialing entirely, giving up on my dreams and her potential. Still, this didn’t feel right. In fact, it felt like a cop-out because we didn’t achieve perfection.

So I began talking about this with my trainers. One commented in an email that this is what she goes through with her dog, “wanting to ‘fix’ him, knowing that he’d rather stay home and watch TV.” But… that’s not Maisy, I said. Maisy loves to go places. She is so full of joy when I tell her we’re going somewhere. She rushes to the car, jumps in gleefully, and just about pulls me off my feet when we arrive, whether that’s the training center, the pet store, or even the second day of a trial.

In fact, the only time that she has clearly told me she does not want to do something has been when I’ve tried to crate her at trials. She will slink along, or even plant her feet and refuse to go. It’s as if she’s saying, I’ll be here with you, I’ll do this for you, but you must be with me, too.

I spoke with my other trainer on the phone today. She said that, yes, Maisy looked stressed at the trial on Saturday, but that she’s seen her worse. She also said that she doesn’t think that Maisy will ever be completely comfortable at a trial. Of course, I asked her if she thought it was fair that I ask her to do it anyway, and she responded with a story:

A few weeks ago in class, we had a wobble board out. Maisy was very concerned while another dog was using it, so when he was done, I took Maisy over to see what it was. I just wanted her to smell it, but because we’ve been working on pivot boards so much, she put a paw on it and immediately freaked herself out, running away, tail tucked, to the end of her leash. (She hates when things move underneath her.)

I asked her to come back to the wobble board, with the intention of giving her treats while she was near it. Almost immediately, she put her paw on it again, and again, she was scared. I called her over again, but this time, a bit wiser, though perhaps a bit slow, I put my foot on the board to hold it steady. Again, she almost immediately put not one, but both front feet on the wobble board. I jackpotted her, and then we walked away from the dog-eating wobble board.

“Crystal,” she told me, “you can’t avoid stress. That wobble board was stressful for Maisy, but she did it because you asked, and because she trusts you.”

“But should I have asked?”

“You exposed her to stress, yes, but life is stressful sometimes. The more important part is that you knew when to stop. Let Maisy guide you. If she is willing to try, go ahead and ask.”

“So what you’re saying is I should quit thinking and listen to my heart?”

“I doubt you’ll quit thinking; you live in your head. But you have good instincts when it comes to your dog, so listen to those and you’ll be fine.”

Instinctually, I know that Maisy can do this. After all, I know that Maisy loves to train, and that she loves to go places with me. Just about the worst thing in her world is when I do something or go somewhere without her. I really think that Maisy would rather be with me in a stressful environment than at home, safe, but alone.

And it’s true, you can’t avoid stress, but you can learn to balance it. Trials may be stressful for her, but Maisy is still willing to play the game. In fact, she seems to like the game. As my trainer pointed out, once we got in the ring, Maisy’s stress level went way down. She likes to know what her job is, and she likes to do it.

So, we’ll keep training, and we’ll keep trialing… for now, anyway.


Megan said...

Bailey has had similar stress issues to Maisy. That's a huge part of the reason I usually take her to trials alone, when it's her turn, so I can devote time to just her.

Stress is a part of daily life, and you've done an excellent job of teaching her that she doesn't really have to worry about it so much. I don't think putting your dog in a stressful situation, and helping the dog learn to sort it out, is the mark of a poor trainer, or someone who doesn't care about a dog. Rather, it's teaching the dog about some important things. Trust being number 1.

Bailey was clearly stressed a portion of Sunday. I knew she could work through it, so I supported her and she DID work through it. You know how much Maisy can handle before it's "too much" so yes, listen to your heart, and it'll be right.

Crystal said...

Thanks, Megan. I probably worry too much, and it's always so nice to get supportive comments like yours. :)

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I'm sorry you were disappointed this weekend. I can't say that I have much advice. You know your dog and you know what she loves and what she can handle. The two of you have made such great progress. You're always going to have sucky days where you question everything.

Lance's heeling used to be just awful in the ring as he would stress and need repeated commands to not leave me to heel by myself. We've worked through it and I've learned some ways to make the ring a happier place for him. Since I couldn't treat in the ring in AKC obedience I started doing tricks between exercises. And then I started backchaining and teaching Lance that he would get a huge jackpot out of the ring once he was done. Now Maisy has the opposite issue kind've but I know you will find a way to work on it. You have taught her how to work through little stresses and will continue to show her how to conquer it.

Crystal said...

You know, I've always heard/read people talking about jackpots outside the ring like that, and I never quite understood it. Calling it "backchaining" suddenly makes it all click!! Thank you!

It was really awesome watching you and Lance. I know that a lot of work went into those performances, and that's pretty inspiring.