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!


Lindsay said...

I think you've got a great game plan! I do have to say that it's a lot easier to have a taller reactive dog because, as you pointed out, I can lure him through spaces that he would otherwise have a problem with. I'm always on the look out for warming up Heffner in areas where I have a blank wall. That way, if need be, I can put myself between him and the trigger by working him along the wall. It's been incredibly helpful in arena like settings for agility.

I also use an x-pen when the space is available so that he has a buffer space around his crate and also has a safety zone to drink water and what not. It's been really helpful.

The only thing I could think of to add is somethign that I've thought of trying with Heffner. You could put a sign on Maisy's crate stating that she's not fond of dogs saying hello while in there. I've seen people do that and word it in a cutesy way that gets people to sort of laugh, but at the same time keep they're dog(s) away from the crate.

andrea said...

Brody is not particularly reactive but I have always found reducing his trial stress helps him perform better. That includes doing most of my crating from the car (well he doesn't crate in the car at a trial - he naps in the front seat). I set up his crate inside as well - sometimes as a course builder I simply don't have enough time to build, walk and be the first dog on the line giving him the warm up he expects now if he's too far away. In those cases he gets his LARGE crate for while I'm building and walking - it's not at all unusual to hear him singing to himself while he waits in a building. I park with an eye to him being comfortable in the car - I face away from the building door (otherwise he won't sleep he just watches for me). I park on the far side of the parking lots to minimize passerbys. In the spring and fall I use fans and shields to keep the temperature Brody perfect - in the winter I use snuggle safe pads and bottles with hot water to do the same thing (as well as a big fuzzy blanket he loves to dig into.)

I minimize his contact with people and dogs at trials.. lately I suspect he'd like it more but why risk being set back?

I like the desenitising plan you have. Exposure will help, as you well know, when it's handled right. While she may not be the right size to target through the crowds she is the right size to pick up when she is too stressed.

Sounds like a good plan - I look forward to hearing how it works :)

Crystal said...

Great suggestions, guys! Thanks so much. Andrea, you're right that I can pick her up- I've done that before, so I'm not sure why I didn't think of that while writing this.

Urban canines said...

Great post!

I have never considered all of the different stressors that are present in a trial situation. We have been working on socializing our young pup in many different places. This has include some simple obedience and lots of playing to make new places fun and inviting.

But I am defintely going to focus more on these specific elements.

Thank you!
The Urban Canines

Joanna said...

Good job breaking down the complex environment. You're good at taking what seems like an overwhelming project and setting yourself up with a manageable plan. :)

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I think Maisy is doing fantastic! She certainly handled my 3 invading her space quite well. You do a wonderful job of taking care of her needs.

Crystal said...

Laura, your three didn't "invade" her space... at least, not in an unwanted way. She really wanted to say hi to them, and to Adam, too! This is kind of a big deal. :)

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, are dogs not entered in a trial allowed on trial grounds? Or is it only on certain ones? I've been using a lot of pet adoption events to help get my dog ready for a trial environment, but being able to actually get her out to quietly observe a trial would be nice.


Crystal said...

Val, that's a great question. I think it depends on the venue (I've never checked, but I could see it being disallowed by an AKC trial) and the trial host. Luckily, I belong to the club around here that hosts a lot of events. In fact, I work at a lot of those events, too, so I have easy access to trials. :) I haven't dared take Maisy to a trial that isn't being hosted by my club, simply because I'm not sure what the etiquette is.

Peg said...

Good plans--i've so Been There Done That! And i'm still suffering from MY stress, while my reactive Welsh Terrier marches around like he KNOWS that nobody would mess with HIM!

You could add in lots of "Look at That"--or whatever variation you know! Love that game.

When I was desensitising my girl to thunder, I took the soundtrack and put it on 6 or 7 times as a list on my iPod. Then I played it all the time, even while we sat and watched TV, and gradually ramped up the volume. (I wonder what the neighbours thought about our private storm?)

And if you solve your stress problem, patent it and give me a ring!

Peg in Alberta

Crystal said...

Hi, Peg! Maisy and I play a LOT of Look at That- definitely one of my favorite techniques.