Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Anatomy of an NQ

Despite our success at the CDSP trial last weekend, our first run was an NQ. I was totally bummed out about this. It wasn't the NQ itself that bothered me (they happen), it was how it happened. See for yourself (the non-qualifying moment happens about about 3:20):

I knew we were in trouble as soon as I walked in to the trial site that morning. Maisy was wild with excitement. Last week was difficult for two reasons. Although I don't think it really impacted her much, in the days leading up to the trial, the city was tearing up a street near our house. It made some weird noise, but Maisy seemed okay.

What probably made the bigger difference was me. I've been doing some physical therapy for a shoulder injury, and while I'm seeing improvements, it's a painful process. This has meant that Maisy has not gotten much (okay, any) attention in the last few weeks. Her life has been very boring, so when we got to a trial! With friends! And people who might be friends! Maisy was pretty “up.”

Here's the thing: although it was good stress, it was still stress. A lot of the same neurotransmitters and hormones are at play whether it's eustress or distress, so the end result was basically the same. Maisy was highly aroused.

The honor was also located in a very difficult location. You can see that we are standing directly next to the ring gates, and on the other side was the general crating/warm-up area. What's more, our backs were directly to the main door in and out of the trial site. So there were a lot of distractions in all directions.

As you can see in the video, despite all this, Maisy performed very well during the rest of the exercises. She was remarkably focused and responsive to cues, a fact that I attribute to her knowing what's expected of her. We have worked on those other exercises often. I train using her tennis ball so that she can learn to think through arousal, and we work in high distraction environments. She understands heeling very well.

But if I'm honest... I haven't put even a tenth of the effort into stays. I find them boring, so I haven't spent the time I should have proofing them. While I've taught her to stay put, and I've made a half-hearted attempt to introduce distractions, I really haven't spent the time needed to create a stay worthy of a trial. Bad trainer.

So all of this came together- a difficult week, an aroused dog, a tricky honor location, and a complete lack of training- to form an NQ.

I'm not upset with Maisy at all for her performance, although I am sad that she broke her honor in order to bark at the other dog in the ring. (Incidentally, when I apologized to both the judge and the other handler, neither of them had realized what Maisy had done! What's more, the judge told me not to worry about it- dogs bark at trials, and there's really no difference between doing it in the ring or two feet further away outside the ring. Since both dogs are on leash, nothing bad can happen.)

In fact, the NQ brought about one of the moments that I am most proud of: the way Maisy checked in with me before barking at the other dog. If you go back and watch the video, you'll notice that she stands, tenses, and then looks at me for direction. I asked her to lie down... and she did! If I had been thinking quick enough and rewarded that, I might have been able to prevent the subsequent rush towards the working dog. So even though the end result was the same, I am beyond thrilled; it's a long cry from the days when she didn't even consider where I was or what I was doing when she was at her threshold.

I didn't plan to take her back into the ring for the second trial, but she had relaxed in her car crate, taken a nice long awareness walk in the field behind the trial site, and then insistently pulled me back into the building. When we got inside, she laid down, rolled on to one hip, and just chilled. She was still mildly stressed (video here), but nothing that I was overly concerned about. So I entered the second run, and came back with a 197 and 4th place.

I'll admit it: after the trial, I was freaking out. My philosophy has always been that obedience should be fun for both of us, and that if Maisy is overly stressed, I won't make her do it. The trick, of course, is figuring out how much is too much stress. So, I emailed Maisy's veterinary behaviorist. She said that while Maisy had “a bad moment” during the honor stay, she didn't think we needed to quit entirely. Because Maisy looked really good in the ring, because she was able to recover and do so well during the second trial, and because her stress behavior outside the ring was so mild, she thought that if I did a better job training the stay so that Maisy would know what to expect, it would be just fine to continue competing with her.

So that's where we are. I'll spend the next couple of months working on stays with Maisy. Hopefully, when the next trial rolls around in July, we'll completely rock it and get her title. And if not, well... we'll have fun trying! And that's the most important thing anyway.


andrea said...

I'm totally with your vet!!

Good work and great success :)

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

That's right, Maisy is awesome!
P.S. Come to class :)

Crystal Thompson said...

Andrea- perspective is hard for me. This is why I need others to help me :)

Laura- when is class? We probably need it!

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I teach wed 7pm, I go thurs 5:50pm!

Ninso said...

I thought she looked a little over-aroused through that run, though as you said not necessarily in a bad way, but for dogs like ours high levels of arousal of any type can be hard to handle.

That's awesome that she is looking to you for guidance before taking matters into her own hands! I have been noticing the same thing with Elo. Often lately he will bark once and then come back and check in with me and if I can do a good enough job of either giving him structure or getting him out of the situation, we can avoid a full-blown reaction and he recovers pretty well!

Crystal Thompson said...

Ninso- YES. You completely understood. She was definitely aroused, and for Maisy, that tips quite easily into reactivity. It's such a fine line.

I'm glad Elo's checking in with you, too! It's such a turning point in training.

lorac said...

As a long time competitor in agility, I've found that NQs happen for many different reasons. Some of which are out of our control. My dog jumped off a dogwalk next to a stand of people because something happening in the stand distracted her and she lost her balance. In fact, she had run the DW many times in the same location without incident.

Over time, I learned that as long as we got off the start line, there was something good about our run. My disappointments at NQs are confined to my own idiotic handling, and I strive to never, ever let my dog know of my disappointment.

When I read your opening paragraph, I thought that it's possible some of Maisy's stress in the ring is due to your stress over a Q/ NQ. The more that you can put aside a Q and disappointment at a NQ, I think that you will find improvement in performance. It is a subtle shift in attitude, becuase from my reading your blog, intellectually you don't really care about the Q, but you seem to care about it at an emotional level.

My own dog shut down in competition because I cared too much about doing well. Her performance improved when I shifted to having her happiness at the end of a run be #1 and if she was happy, it was a Q in my book. I also let go a criteria that I had never trained properly, and that hugely reduced our stress levels. (I still reward it in practice, but don't insist on it in the ring.) I relaxed more, smiled at her while we were out on the course, and always found something in our performance to be happy about (yay, did you see how well we layered that obstacle? my dawg, you ran briskly on the DW. we were so smooth on that tricky sequence, weren't we?).

Please take this as friendly encouragement from someone who wishes I had been told all this early in my agility career. I know that you hold Maisy dear in your heart. You can both be happier in competition - in my opinion as a mere observer.

Good luck and have fun.

Crystal Thompson said...

lorac, you are very perceptive. I have struggled with some pretty significant ring stress issues myself. This ABSOLUTELY affects Maisy's emotional state/performance, so I've spent quite a bit of time working on my own issues. :) They are MUCH better than they used to be, although there is still some nervousness that she probably picks up on.

With all that said, the part of the NQ that bummed me out most was not the NQ itself (like I said, it happens), but the fact that it happened because of stress (mine and Maisy's both). My goal is definitely having fun and remaining connected, so I was way bummed out that she felt the need to bark at the other dog.

But like I said- you are perceptive. I was more upset about it than I should have been. It's one of those things I need to keep working on. Maisy and I are definitely on this journey together. :)