Sunday, September 22, 2013

Denise Fenzi Seminar: Stress and Your Competition Dog

Be a safe person. (It helps to have more than one safe person!)
Last December, Denise Fenzi came to town. Ya’ll know I love this woman’s training style, right? And that she’s a pretty cool person on top of that? Yeah. You should definitely go to a Fenzi seminar if you get the chance. This was actually my second time seeing Denise, and even though the topics were the same, I still got a ton out of it.

My favorite bits were when she talked about stress in competition dogs. Of course, this is a topic near and dear to my heart because Maisy is a nervy little thing in competition venues. I have accepted the fact that I will probably never achieve the same level of success in the ring as Denise; I am simply not interested enough to train to those standards. Still, I enjoy a few weekends in the ring every year, so I definitely appreciated Denise’s wisdom. Today I’m going to share it with you.

First and foremost, from the moment you bring your dog home, you need to be a safe and trustworthy person. I think we all want to be this person for our dogs, but we don’t think through how our actions might undermine our goal. If we want our dogs to know that we will protect them, we need to actually, you know, protect them. They need to learn that we won’t abandon them.

This starts when we are socializing a new puppy. Denise explained that socialization is about exposure and desensitization to new things. It does not necessarily mean interaction. In fact, forcing a puppy to interact with something he’s wary of is not only likely to make him more nervous around that thing, it’s also going to teach him that you can’t be trusted to keep him safe. In fact, Denise prefers her performance dogs to treat strangers more like statues: they are boring objects that aren’t worth interacting with.

As much as possible, you should be very clear in your expectations. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you didn’t know what was expected of you, you’ll understand why. It’s stressful to have to guess about how you should be acting. It’s even worse when the rules seem to be inconsistent or constantly changing. I once left a job because my boss was so unclear! But our dogs don’t have that option.

If your dog starts throwing behaviors at you (outside a shaping session where he’s supposed to!) consider if you’re being unclear. Denise finds that dogs who do this are often frustrated and don’t know what you want, so they just start cycling through things they know, hoping to find some clarity.

Keep in mind that softer dogs are more sensitive to pressure, both physical and social. While some dogs enjoy rough-and-tumble interaction, others prefer that you interact with them in a quieter manner. This will change the way you reward your dog both in and out of the ring, as well as how train him. For example, during heeling, turning to the left (towards your dog) will be more demotivating for a softer dog as it puts pressure on him. Likewise, be careful about how and when you lean over him or otherwise get in his space.

Clear expectations are important for training, but also for trialing. Even more important than teaching your dog the behaviors needed for competition, you need to teach him what to expect at a show site. Dogs that can take your word for it if you say it’s safe will be able to focus on you, not the environment. Make sure that you prevent other dogs or people from visiting him unnecessarily at a trail. Teach him how to enter the ring, what to expect from the stewards and judge, and so on.

Denise actually had a ton more to say about trial preparation, and we’ll talk more about that in my next recap of her seminar. For now, though, I’d love to hear what you do for your stressy competition dog.

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