Sunday, February 20, 2011
Trial Stress: Things I Can Do
In a post last week, I identified a number of stressors that are present at trials, and wondered if it was really that strange that Maisy gets upset about them. I was grateful to hear from others that their dogs find some of the same things stressful, too. Of course, what separates Maisy from other dogs is her response- barking, growling, lunging- all things that are problematic in a trial setting. Still, by identifying the stressors, I am half-way to having a training plan to address those reactions. Today, I want to work on the other half of the plan.
The first stressor I identified was a change in routine. There's a number of things that can happen here, and some I will simply avoid: we will not be driving long distances and staying in a hotel. I can pack our trial bag, crate, etc. the night before. But the early morning walk has to happen, so I will prepare for this by taking her on morning walks a few times a week so that it becomes normal. I really ought to start this now, but it's still cold and dark at 6am, so we'll work on it this summer.
Next, Maisy needs to be comfortable in her crate. I need her to be relaxed between runs, whether that's in the car or in the trial building. Not only that, but she needs to be able to do so despite the noise and chaos going on around her. We've been working on this in our reactive dog class. For the last several months, she's stayed in her crate where she can see the other dogs working for the full hour. She's doing well, although she does mouth off at least once during class. Still, she's lying down and mostly looks calm the rest of the time, which is a huge improvement. We will keep working on this.
Another cause of stress is all the noise: barking, whining, handlers talking to their dogs, applause, dogs running and jumping, equipment being moved... there are lots of sounds. I plan on desensitizing her to these noises by using audio recordings of trials... and since I'm too cheap to buy one, I made one when I stewarded yesterday! I love smart phones. I loaded it on my computer, and I've started playing it at low volume while she's eating. We will also visit run-throughs, training centers, and actual trial sites when we can.
Maisy is very sensitive to visual stimuli, especially movement, but also larger, dark-colored dogs. I will work on this through counter-conditioning. I've been taking her to pet stores lately, but I will also make an effort to go to parks, run-throughs, and trials. Yesterday, Maisy waited in the car while I stewarded, and then she came in for awhile. At first, she was worried by a rottie, and did a small lunge and soft wuff in his direction. I ignored that, but the next time the rottie came out of his crate, I stuffed her full of treats, and by the end of our visit, while she was still pretty tense, she was silent while watching him. This is a great step in the right direction.
Next, navigating the crowded spaces often present at trial sites can be stressful. If she were taller, I'd use targeting to move her through the spaces, but, well, she's not. Instead, I will slowly start exposing her to progressively more populated places, heavily reinforcing good behaviors like eye contact, and monitoring her body language for stress so that I can move her away before she has a reactive episode. Some places I will take her include pet stores, run-throughs and actual trials, and pet adoption events.
Then there are the inevitable space invaders: unwanted physical interactions with other dogs or with people. I feel like she's become more social over the last six months. I'm sure part of this is the medication, but I've also been making an effort to call her away from interactions after several seconds (and thus relieve the social pressure) and giving her a treat. She's figured this out, because sometimes she'll rush to a person when cued, and then rush right back to me and nudge my treat hand. I've also been doing this when dogs sniff her unexpectedly. I will also be assertive and stop the people I can, and will try to protect her crate space by blocking access to it. I've been thinking about either buying an ex-pen and setting that up around her crate- or using folding chairs to surround it- as well as crating in the car when the weather allows.
Finally, there's the little matter of handler stress, and for this, I see only one solution: alcohol, and lots of it. Okay, I kid. I will probably always suffer from ring nerves to some degree, but I've been working on visualization exercises that helped at our last trial. Stewarding seems to be helpful too- seeing trials from the other side makes them far less intimidating.
Anyway, those are just some of my ideas. I know you guys are super-smart, so I'm hoping you'll have some excellent thoughts. Do you think these ideas will work? Is there a way that you think I should change them? Or do you have another suggestion entirely? I'd love to hear what you think!