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…