We take a lot of photos of my dogs when I’m competing. Partly for the same reason one takes photos of anything–keepsakes, bragging rights, and (these days) Facebook shares.
But in large part, it’s a great way to figure out exactly what happened in the ring—things that seem inexplicable in the moment, but become all too clear with a series of photos or a bit of digital recording.
The thing is, it’s easy to blame a dog for what happens in the ring. And it’s true, sometimes Dart simply “gives me the paw.” But more often it’s worth digging down for deeper understanding, because more often it’s about subtle things that humans don’t take into account because it doesn’t bother them.
The weekend before last, we went to our area’s biggest yearly AKC obedience and rally trial. It’s a regional qualifier with a huge draw, and it’s held inside (unusual for this area). The building is a thing of unceasing chaotic din even when humans and dogs alike are using their indoor voices.
To the dogs, all this matters. To the dogs, everything matters. The footing, adjacent rings, the delays between classes… It adds up to what’s called Bite Threshold Model, which is what a human might call the Last Straw Model and while it does indeed apply distinctly to biting, it also covers a plethora of other situations. The dogs can deal with this and this and that, but when it becomes this and this and that and THAT, they start with the coping behaviors.
A seasoned Utility dog has seen enough to take such indoor venues in stride, but not very many dogs are seasoned Utility dogs.
Mine are definitely not.
So off we went to this trial. I mentioned in a recent blog that the boys would be in Grad Novice Obedience (a sort of in-between class), and that Rena would be in Rally Advanced.
On Day One, Connery was taken by surprise by the indoor venue—he nearly qualified but stumbled over the unfamiliar footing in the broad jump. On the second day, his confidence grew and he did some very, very nice work, and he qualified with a second place–but still stumbled over the jumps. My MACH3 agility dog–!
On Day One, Rena qualified strongly in Rally Advanced and finished her title, but she, too, was a little concerned about the chaos, and had a weird glitch wherein she threw herself into an old and long-conquered behavior. On Day Two, she moved up to the Excellent class, where she earned her first Excellent leg with a first place but did indeed repeat the strange old behavior.
On Day One, Dart was sparkling, and earned a near-perfect score. He tied for first and was in a run-off, which he won. On Day Two, Dart was sparkling. He took first place again and finished his title after many humbling previous attempts, a moment of great joy for us.
On Day Three… the other of us took photos, and boy am I glad he did.
Dart was distracted and imprecise. He made it through the exercises, but he wasn’t the same dog.
Connery was distracted and imprecise to an even higher degree, even when he took the jumps in perfect form.
And I was clueless.
Fortunately, the photos tell the tale.
When I’m in the ring, I focus on my footwork and the dogs. I look to the judge strictly for direction, but even then my attention is on what the dog and I are doing. Unless the judge is a total scowler (and this one was not!), s/he is part of a pattern, not a primary interaction. And getting the dogs used to judges is a part of the process—we practice and proof for it.
However, the camera sees everything. It saw the precision and intensity of this exacting judge—how closely he followed us in the heel, how he placed himself to assess every subtle angle of the dogs’ positions, and how he moved in us in the process.
More than that, it saw the dogs’ reactions to him.
For them, he was just a little too close. A little too intent. A little too direct in his gaze.
Blame, in such cases, might be the easy thing to do. But it’s just purely insufficient.
In fact, blame in just about any case is purely insufficient. Sometimes we can’t figure out what’s going on, but you can bet that from the dog’s point of view, there’s a reason.
Doesn’t mean there’s not frustration. And disappointment. But when you let go of the blame, then those other things pass, and pretty soon you’re looking for new ways to help support the dog so things are easier the next time.
On Day Three, as it happens, the dogs qualified solidly in spite of it all. For the second day in a row, Dart took first and Connery took second. (They weren’t, by far, the only dogs to respond with hesitation to the circumstances.) And as proud as I was of them then, I’m even prouder now–because I know they did it in spite of.
The long and winding point here is that because trialing puts dogs and handlers under a microscope where the small things matter, last weekend my kids illustrated clearly what every dog owner sees on a daily basis—sometimes subtly, and sometimes broadly, and sometimes most tragically. And by paying attention, by looking past the layers, it’s possible to be more proactive and more supportive and make life just a little bit easier for everyone.
Because at the bottom of all this, for every dog owner out there in the real world who says in shock, “He’s never bitten anyone before!” or “He never gave me any warning!” that moment after it’s too late, there’s been a dog desperately trying to communicate its discomfort and intent to the humans around it.
Besides that, when people are used to thinking in terms of blame—“He knows better than that!”—then they forget to think in terms of solutions and support. They’re not looking for the quiet messages, because they think they already have the answers. And so they don’t see what’s coming.
And that’s not the dog’s fault at all.
Bonus Piccies from the trial…
they are off the charts adorable. Especially since they are soooo earnest at their jobs.
I never look Connery directly in the eye while we’re in the ring–he would assign it too much significance–so his terribly earnest little expression took me by surprised when I saw the photos. Made me want to give him a big hug! (Which, you know, I did!)
Excellent article! They were very good in such an noisy environment.
They really were! I’m so pleased with how our work to proof Dart has
helped him to deal with such situations. Of course, there was some
certain method behind my madness of entering Connery in the same class
to do the sits and downs together. In spite of his lack of recent ring experience, he’s always been much more solid on stay exercises. Heh heh heh.
This is us getting ready in the line-up–he’s such an honest boy, he did just as his guest handler asked, even though they’d only met on Friday.
Edit: Good grief. I SWEAR I only attached that picture once! I am so embarrassed!
It’s fascinating to read this. And to SEE what you are talking about. Connery’s “If you can’t SEE me, I’m not HERE” pose is worth a million comments.
I think I am going to have to start taking pictures at our Dog Class. Poor Babette hasn’t been in awhile because her dog godfather, John, who was working with her hurt himself, so Harper’s been getting more attention because he’s doing the Conformation shows. Having the pictures would help with “What do we need to work on?” Even though I often don’t think we’re doing enough with them, that there IS an effect. Harper is a silly goof at home. The minute he hits the ring, he’s all business, and so far, hasn’t let indoor/outdoor or noise bother him. There are other dogs at the shows who are similar. In Connery’s words, “It’s all about ME.” Then I see the dogs who are trembling in their fur. For them it’s “What might they do to me?” I remember one pretty little LHD bitch who was so tense she looked hunch backed.
I wonder if pictures would help us figure out why Babette absolutely will NOT do a simple Down? There has to be something we are missing…
Not going down is usually stress. I would consider changing the circumstances during which she’s being asked, changing how she’s being asked, teaching her to do it on a bed or other place that doesn’t make her feel too vulnerable (on the floor, with people looming over her) or seeing if you can find ways to make a game of it or reward her for increments (clicker shaping)? With downs, I find that moving on is a lot more productive than working at the same thing over and over and setting up a resistance loop.
(I taught Dart a down at the end of his agility contacts, but early on he showed signs of stress over it in the ring–I kept doing them at home and still do, but quit asking for it in the ring…now, quite some time later, I can sometimes ask for it in the ring and he’s fine. But he wasn’t ready for it then.)
Connery was an “It” dog in the show ring. He really loved being the center of attention! (Fortunately, he finished his CH before the final attack that ruined that lovely, carefree confidence–as much as he’s doing marvelously these 7 years later.) It’s so fun to show a dog with that attitude!
You may be right about the stress — our dog class location is in a parking lot for a medical complex on a busy street. Last class, Babette was the smallest dog in the class. She loves sitting on my lap and being petted, and I have been asking her for a “Beagle Down” by slowly lowering a piece of dried beef heart below the level of my lap. If she goes down, I continue to pet her and give her the treat and praise her. (Dried beef heart is one of her favorites… I get the hearts at a local ethnic store, cut them into very small bits, and dehydrate them in my Excalibur dehydrator.)
I’ve considered clicker, and understand the principle of it, but since I walk with a cane, trying to handle a leash, the treats, the cane, and the clicker requires that I be a Barsoomian Thark!
Yeah, good luck with THAT! They do fit nicely on those little wristie coils, though… *evil grin*
Uh-huh. I know those evil grins. Actually, since I use a quad cane, I’m thinking about seeing if a cup holder will fit on it to hold a bag of treats so I can stop, have leash in one hand, clicker in the other, and treats at hand. I’ve also considered gluing a clicker just in front of the handle. BTW, I tried an experiment today. Instead of Babette going to play with the other dogs (using up a little of that Beagle energy), I kept her in the therapy room while Shadow was doing his water walking. She knows and likes all of the Bella Doggie folks. We took turns doing “Beagle Downs” with her… and eventually, she unwound enough to actually do a Down without TOO much coaxing. First time, anywhere other than home. Mind you, the fact there there were plenty of treats and Babette IS a Beagle when it comes to food didn’t hurt… So now we need to get her comfortable doing it consistently in both locations, and then try it in different locations.
I love the bit about the “posts”…I still remember when my Raven, still a little shy although coming out of complete spookiness, felt that her comfort level was boosted just enough to handle the situation if she just held the hem of my skirt in her teeth while heeling!!
Oh my gosh, that’s adorable!
We’re learning this very thing with Kiddlywink. It’s amazing how often, in hindsight, that a tantrum or out of character behaviour is so often cause by the fact that she’s feeling unheard, unvalidated, or the myriad other reasons that she’s burning through straws until that last one breaks. And how in the midst of a tantrum, or just before one, if we validate what she’s saying, she returns far quicker to being a person rather than an emotional supernova.
Looking back the signals, like with the dogs, are loud and clear in spite of their non-verbalness.
That’s a cool insight!
Pingback: Don’t Want that Bad Good-bye | Book View Cafe Blog