Monday, April 12, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: The Trial Environment and Reactivity

In my last entry, I discussed how reactivity is often compounded by the personality of the typical performance dog. I also mentioned that we as handlers often fail to give our dogs the information they need in order to be successful in our environments, especially the trial environment. During the weekend, I picked up two main ideas from Suzanne relating to dogs who are reactive in trial environments, and both are absolutely true for Maisy and I.

First, Suzanne said that a huge mistake handlers make is in using management far too often. Although management is often useful and necessary, excessive reliance on it can create problems. For one thing, it’s often exhausting for the handler to micromanage the dog’s every action. I know that I find trials tiring for that exact reason: I spend so much time taking care of Maisy, there’s no time to take care of me. Beyond that, management will always fail at some point. It’s impossible to control everything all the time. Somewhere along the line, we will fail.

At this point, an audience member asked what she should do with her dog. If she doesn’t manage him closely, he’s snarky with the other dogs there, which is clearly not acceptable at a trial. Suzanne’s response really struck me: “Have you taught him how to deal with crowds? He might be missing a skill he needs.”

Maisy certainly has impulse control issues. She finds it hard not to try to go visit other dogs. The problem with a trial is that there are so many other dogs, it seems like she gets over-stimulated, tired, and then reactive. Perhaps gradually exposing her to longer and longer periods of time in chaotic environments would help her learn how to deal with the stress of a trial site. Beyond that? I’m not sure what other skills to teach her. How to walk by (and ignore) other dogs, I suppose, and maybe a relax or settle cue. I’ll need to think more about this (suggestions welcome).

The other big idea I picked up about reactivity in trials had to do with handler nerves. Performance dogs are often very sensitive to their handlers- it’s part of what makes them so good in the ring. The problem with that is that when we get stressed out because we’re nervous about being judged, the dog can’t understand that. We may know that it’s all in fun, and that the outcome ultimately doesn’t matter, but our dogs have no way of understanding that. We must, Suzanne stressed, learn to deal with our issues away from our dogs. After all, if you are at the center of your dog’s world and you fall apart, the dog has nothing to lean on.

This, too, really struck me. When Maisy and I went to our first trial just over a year ago, I had no idea what to expect. I certainly didn’t know enough to be nervous! I thought we’d go for the experience, and hoped that by the end of the year, we’d have just one qualifying run. Instead, we titled that weekend. Maisy did great. The next week, when we started our first reactive dog class, the instructor told me she’d seen us at the trial, and couldn’t understand what a happy dog like Maisy was doing in that class.

We went to a total of five trials last year, and at each one, Maisy became progressively more reactive. At the same time, I became progressively more nervous during each trial. I am quite sure that we were both feeding off the other’s negative emotions, and I'm worried that we’re at the point where I’ve conditioned negative feelings about the environment in general, even if I weren’t nervous. Of course, I am nervous, and not entirely sure how to conquer my ring nerves. Again… suggestions welcome!

A few weeks ago, my trainer asked me if I thought I was going to enter Maisy in the next rally trial. I answered that it depended on whether or not Maisy was ready. Then I stopped, and amended my statement: “It depends on whether I’m ready.”

Although I believe Maisy has some limitations due to her reactivity, I do have to wonder how much I’ve contributed to it. She is an incredibly sensitive dog, and while I’m often glad she trusts me as much as she does, I feel awful that I can’t be a better partner for her… which is probably why Suzanne’s words hit me as hard as they do. I don’t think there is any point in regretting the past- you can’t change it, after all- but it does challenge me to think of ways to improve in the future. And knowing is half the battle.


Lindsay said...

I've found that when I take Heffner to trials, regardless of what sport we're doing, I have to give both he and I some breaks from everything. Generally, I don't have him out of his crate and moving around ring side unless I'm specifically working on something or we're close to going into the ring. That way I limit the amount of time that I feel I have to be "watching" him. We take nice little breaks together and go places that aren't crowded that we can have some one on one time. I also try to avoid venues that I know will be overly crowded or won't have areas that we can get away from the chaos of everything. While he's still more to manage than Bess, I don't feel as drained when I do it this way and we can both be out and about together in places at the trial where I don't feel like I have to be so on alert. It's good for both of us.

Crystal said...

Lindsay, I agree that Maisy needs breaks during trials. The really hard part for me is that when stressed out, she HATES to be apart from me. She's generally very happy about her crate, but when we're at trials, I practically have to DRAG her to the crate. If I car-crate, she'll refuse to go to the car (even though she LOVES the car any other time).