Thursday, January 27, 2011

What the Steward Saw: Thoughts on Trial Stress

You can tell Maisy is stressed in this picture because
she's licking her lips and doing a "look-away."

Last Sunday, I got to steward for a local obedience trial, something I enjoy doing. Not only do I love watching highly-trained dogs working in harmony with their handlers, but I also appreciate the behind-the-scenes insight you can only get from working closely with judges. Unfortunately, a lot of what I saw made me sad. There were many stressed dogs with equally stressed handlers, which led to a vicious cycle of each stressing the other out even more. Worse, it seemed like many people were oblivious to their dog’s stress levels. How, I wondered, could they not notice?

I’ve been pondering this all week. Initially, I wanted to dismiss the question with a judgment about their priorities or training methods, but that seemed hypocritical (after all, Maisy and I are no strangers to trial stress). It’s also unfair, because let’s be honest, we handlers have a lot on our minds at trials, which makes it difficult to see the often subtle signs of stress in our dogs. Even so, it was hard for me to watch, and I wish I could have said something to those competitors with stressed dogs. I didn’t, mostly because I’m no expert on the matter, but being a steward offers a unique perspective. Today, I’m going to share what I saw.

First and foremost, I don’t think that any of the dogs I saw were purposely misbehaving. Yes, some of the dogs were blowing off their handlers, but I really believe that it was due to stress, not naughtiness. As a result, it seems to me that each competitor needs to learn how their particular dog acts when stressed. Each person should know if their dog tends to stress up or stress down, as well as the specific body language displayed.

I know that Maisy stresses up, and about the only good thing about it is that dogs that stress up are pretty obvious. Maisy barks and lunges, but other dogs might run around like crazy or bark excessively. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the dogs I saw this weekend were the kind that stressed down. Instead of getting excited and out of control, they responded slower, wandered away from their handlers, and just generally checked out. Their accompanying signals of yawning, panting, and lip licking were pretty subtle, which may be why their handlers didn’t notice. Other signals- like avoiding eye contact, sniffing excessively, and scratching themselves- could have been overlooked as distraction.

That’s the tricky part with stress- context matters. For example, Maisy gets the zoomies when she’s having fun, and sometimes stuff smells good, and yes, there are times when dogs just aren’t interested in working with us. However, a lot of the dogs that I saw this weekend demonstrated multiple stress signals in quick succession, which is why I believed that the issue was stress instead of misbehavior.

A dog that is too excited is clearly not going to be able to focus in the ring, but neither can a dog who’s taking a mental vacation, so once we’ve learned to identify stress signals, it becomes our job to help the dog work through them. I saw someone at the trial who did a great job of managing her dog’s arousal level. Before she went in the ring, they played a low-key tug game which really seemed to get her dog in the zone. Then, between exercises, she used simple things like encouraging her dog to jump up on her as a reward, as a method of stress relief, and as a way of connecting with her dog. Her dog looked happy the entire time, and they turned in some darn nice scores, too.

I also think that it’s important that we avoid contributing to our dog’s stress. Part of this is getting a grip on our own ring nerves- another topic in itself- and another is working hard to act the same way at trials as we do in training. Excessive cheerleading or increased focus on our dogs might seem helpful, but if this isn’t how you normally act, your dog is likely to perceive your actions as weird and worrisome. If you can’t control the way you act at trials, then my advice is make it normal by acting weird in training, too.

Similarly, we need to learn how to manage our reactions when our dogs screw up. I know that it’s frustrating when our dogs make a mistake, and especially when we can’t figure out why. We work hard to get ready and then spend a lot of money to enter a trial. I won’t lie- I’ve been deeply disappointed at trials before, and it’s hard to keep your dog from picking up on that. Unfortunately, I think that Sunday was one of those disappointing days for a lot of people; every dog entered in utility NQ’d.

But what I noticed is that each dog’s stress level- and success later in the day- was greatly affected by the way their handler reacted when things went wrong. Some people got louder, used a firm or scolding tone of voice, had angry looks on their faces, or got stiffer in their movements. I’m not sure if they were just struggling to control their emotions or if they were trying to get their dogs to shape up and act right. Either way, usually the dog just got worse.

Others spoke encouragingly to their dogs, kept an upbeat attitude, or even smiled and laughed at their dog’s error! Is it possible that by doing so, they reinforced their dog’s mistake? Sure, but those dogs also learned that being in the ring is fun, happy, safe place, and this enabled them to return for a later class and ace it. To be honest, I’m not sure why some people reacted differently than others, but I suspect that this, too, is something we need to practice.

And finally, I think we all need to remember that this is just another game we play with our dogs. Every team has a bad day, and if there’s anything I’ve learned from stewarding, it’s that the judges know this. They can see past the mistakes and appreciate the beautiful moments, and they don’t like to give out NQ’s or bad scores any more than we like to get them. So relax. Take a deep breath. Have fun and enjoy the moment with your dog.

Anyway, that’s just how I saw things, sitting ringside as a steward. I know that stress at trials is a big issue, and there's no way I can cover everything in one post. I’d love to hear what other people have learned, especially the seasoned competitors.

11 comments:

doberkim said...

lots of stuff to think about.

while some dogs can be feeling stressed, its absolutely possible to keep working through this stress, and i wouldnt say that some people were oblivious, but that some may not have known what to do, or some may be trying to deal with it and working through it piece by piece.


and as an aside, while i never WANT to nq in utility, the one thing it lets me do is at least train the rest of the class :) it took a few months for me to be able to keep working a good class because i would definitely change my handling - but now rah can qualify everything but one exercise and still work happy. but he's a major stress-upper.

berlin gets stressed when she feels conflict - and some of the conflict is what she wants to do v. what i expect and want - and her desire and wants to go explore/bark/react at people. we work through it all and for me, ive found some degree of attention mitigates this because her job isn't to patrol when we're showing. ive got it, she can let me handle it.

ill also say that how you transition a dog in between exercises is something that should be trained - rah can never be broken out, too much release from berlin and she thinks she's on her own time and she can decide what to do (and if she wants to leave me). we work transitions all the time!

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

It's hard to know what to do when your dog is stressed in the ring. When I first started with Lance every trial was worse then the one before and I didn't know how to fix it in the ring. What helped us was doing rally- being able to talk to him and the constant changing of direction made him pay more attention. And then doing tricks in the ring in between exercises. But now that we are in a new class I am more stressed again while figuring out the order of everything, where to stand, etc so I'm not even doing a good job of focusing on his tricks. I've only done grad open twice and thankfully he seemed to be doing well even with me more stressed then ususal.

With Vito I'm still figuring out what is going to work with him.

Crystal said...

I've come to the conclusion that teaching the exercises is the easy part- it's learning how to work through stress (yours or your dog's) that's the hard part. That's definitely the case with Maisy and I, and I'm getting that impression from you guys, too! Correct me if I'm wrong, of course.

Thanks for your comments, guys. You both have much more ring experience than I do, so your perspective is much appreciated. If Maisy and I ever get to obedience, I'll remember to work on the transitions between exercises. Based on what I saw, I definitely agree that it's an important aspect, and it would be easy to overlook. I definitely saw equally good teams doing very different things, so it will be interesting to learn what works for Maisy.

Dawn said...

Every dog is different. With Magic a big rev up with tug just before we go in, then quiet reassurance between exercises. Not sure yet with Grace. She is a much tougher dog and this was the first time I have ever seen her stress. At least I am assuming it was stress. She may just have been mad that it was late and she had waited so long while I did stuff with Magic. This is the dog that wont talk to me for 2 days after I take another dog to a show, so who knows.

Crystal said...

Grace is very interesting, Dawn. I'm not really sure what was going on with her, either. I assume it was stress, but if it was, it wasn't as obvious as it was with other dogs. Your mad comment makes me wonder if she needs more connection time before entering the ring. Not necessarily revving her up, just paying attention to her, talking to her, whatever.

Kristine said...

I am a very anxious, tense person most of the time. I know very well this affects my dog and so I work very hard to calm myself down. When we finally make it to a real agility trial, I know I am going to be full of raw nerves. I know this is going to stress my dog. So I am already trying to combat this, plan ways to work around the anxiety, and keep focussed on the goal of having fun with my dog. Because that is what it is all about. If I go out there intending to do my best and have a good time, then hopefully my dog will too.

Stress is an important thing we all should be thinking about. Thanks for writing this and sharing your thoughts.

Raegan said...

I *love* to steward! For all the same reasons, and it's just a blast. I find it easier to talk to people too, because I always really want to but "stress down" and clam up ;P

I know you didn't want to make this into a training method debate, but I do think that in general R+ trainers are more specifically on the look out for stress signals. Even more so if they have a history of working with dogs that have a narrow yellow zone, to borrow some Susan Garret terminology, a narrow level of arousal where they're eager too work without being over the top or undermotivated.

Crystal said...

Raegan, you're right- I don't want to make this a training method debate, mostly because those generalizations aren't always true. (I know you're not saying that, either.) However, your comment is intriguing because I often hear about people switching to positive methods because of a dog with issues. Of course, that might also be because of the circles I run in... ;)

Kristine- what are you doing to help with your own ring nerves? I've done a lot of visualizing and deep breathing techniques, got hypnotized (helped a lot, actually), and use Rescue Remedy, but I'm always looking for something else to try. I do think stewarding has made the process less intimidating though.

Anonymous said...

The book by Larry Basham (spelling?) is a good read about "mental management"; his info applies to performance in all sports. I believe he has some audio tapes, too.

Susan Garret recently teamed up with John Cullen, a mental management coach, and they presented an on-line seminar. At the time, I didn't have the extra monies to sign up. I heard from others that is was really great. She might do another seminar in the future. She'd probably announce it through her newsletter.

I've read some that -- establishing a regular, pre-run routine for you and your dog really helps with stress issues. I'm a very nervous type person and I know that it affects my dog (who happens to be noise and sound sensitive).

Joanna said...

SO guilty of excessive cheerleading with Ira. Took me a while to realize that I was doing it, too, even though I have videos of most of our runs. I'm a long way away from dealing with that again (since Ira's retired and Dragon's still getting "sit" on cue), but in the meantime I think I will try to get some stewarding experience.

Crystal said...

Do it! Stewarding can be really fun- and clubs are usually desperate for stewards, and are grateful for your help. My club gives out vouchers for free entries, so if/when Maisy and I show again, I won't have to pay for a LOOOOOOOONG time. :)