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.