I have been going to more agility trials this year and I still find it both hard to watch the stressed dogs in the ring and fascinating to watch them. I watch what the handler does and how the dog reacts. Some teams I see almost every time I attend a certain organization's trial and it looks like the dog is still stressed and maybe more stressed than last time I saw them. This makes me so sad for them.
Now I am trialing 3 youngish dogs (made younger in experience by the pandemic, so to speak). I have had many dogs with differing ring stress/arousal issues over the 30 years doing dog agility. I try hard to spot ring stress as early as possible. Here are my current three personal case studies in ring stress/arousal. I hope my experience will help others out there.
WiFi, a 4 year old female Australian Shepherd. She is a thinker and she finds agility training more challenging than obedience. She loves disc and herding. She has a lot of prey drive/toy drive. At 3.5 years old the weaves finally clicked. I was patient, tried different methods and gave her breaks in training them ... lots of breaks. Then one day I was walking into my agility ring and she ran over and did 6 weave poles on her own perfectly. She has been weaving ever since. I could not tell you what exactly happened that made the weaves click. So a few months after that I entered her in trials.
I entered her in AKC trials because they were held at a place where we train so it would be familiar to her. I wanted to build her confidence in the sport she found difficult. I had already decided to enter her in Preferred so she could jump 16" which also makes it easier for her. In Novice she was doing very well with the weaves and she breezed through Jumps with Weaves class. In standard she jumped the tire through the upper quadrant of the frame. The first time it was just very odd. The second time she did it she brought the entire aluminum frame down. By some miracle it did not land on her and she proceeded up the dogwalk. I was shocked. I asked the judge if I could do the tire again. He said we could. But she would only go through it in the opposite direction of the crash. So we took a break and trained the tire. She showed no other signs of a tire issue. The next time we trialed the tire and dogwalk were set up in the exact same configuration as when she crashed it. She froze at the start line and could not set up. I knew what it was. I tried to get her to do the tire but no go. I could not believe it but the next day it was the same again. I set up and decided to be on the other side of her and then she could do the the tire and dogwalk. Then I went about setting up as many tire dogwalk configurations as I could. She was able to do the tire and dogwalk on my right side the next time we saw it.
Then she was in Excellent Jumpers with Weaves class and suddenly she was leaving me and running over to the judge. She started doing this on every run. I knew this was ring stress but where was this coming from. I suspected the added stress of the upper level class was bothering her and I also wondered if the difficulty with the weaves in Open was growing on her. So we took a break from AKC. We spent the Spring doing UKI outside at a different place, NADAC at an indoor dirt arena and NADAC at a soccer place. These were all new places to her. I did multiple runs where I either did short sequences with the weaves and reward with a toy (that I had hidden in my pants) right after the weaves or we did short courses with no weaves and just making being in the ring fun. She stopped running over to anyone in the ring, she stayed with me and was focused and she was getting faster and faster. She was starting to bark for joy when running.
This weekend we went back to AKC. I pulled her from her Excellent run and ran her just in FAST and Open Standard. I skipped the weaves in FAST and she was so focused and fast that it was so much fun to see her enjoying the trial. In Open Standard on Friday she ran ahead out of a tunnel and did the weaves the fastest I have ever seen in a trial. I told her she was great and we took the next jump and then she started barking at me and went around the next jump. I realized she was expecting a reward for her performance. So I said take this jump and then we will go. So we left to a party out of the ring. She was absolutely right. She did deserve a party for that. Sunday the weaves were near the end of the course and I told her she just needed to do three obstacles after the weaves and we could party. One of those happened to be the tire. She ran beautifully and we celebrated after the run. I played with her and fed her. She was so proud of herself.
Proxy 4 year old female Australian Shepherd. Proxy is the fast drivey Aussie I have always wanted. She is the fastest Aussie I have ever had. I had a very fast Border Collie awhile back. She is very pushy. She loves agility a lot. She learned to weave almost overnight it seemed. Stopping when doing agility is full of a lot of angst for her. I was going to teach her both a stopped and running dogwalk but it was quickly apparent that the stop was not going to happen. She has a pretty reliable running dogwalk contact. Her start line stay was very good for a couple of years and then it began to fall apart. I spent the over a year and about $1000 working with different trainers to improve her start line stay. Taking her off the course made no difference. I did it at every run for a couple of trials. I began to worry if I would ever be able to run her in agility. Meanwhile her desire to get on and stop on the table was falling apart. The more I tried for a start line the more I could see anxiety building in her. Even in training our runs were really rough when trying to get a start line. She would have less patience and we both made a lot of errors. She would come on the start line very aroused. At first I thought she was aroused to do agility. But after this weekend I now am sure it was arousal from the stress of having to do a start line.
This Spring I decided to run with her. I developed a way to have her go around behind me at the start which helped a lot to get her going over the first obstacle and get me a few inches of lead out. I started doing this at a UKI trial and a couple of NADAC trials. I could see her stress level decreasing and our teamwork was improving a lot with each run.
This weekend was our first AKC trial since she has had extended trial experiences with the. new start line routine. We had much better runs. I was able to restart her in the middle of a course to try to train the handling of the course. This would not have been possible before. This was the most telling sign that her stress level is much less. She is still very fast and now she is more focused.
Brandie 4.5 year old Border Collie. Brandie was very thoughtful when first starting in agility. But as her confidence grew her speed increased. She is very social. We would have some good runs that flowed well and then there would be runs where things felt very disconnected. It was very much a roller coaster ride. She would get very high and excited at agility training if other dogs were doing agility in the next ring. She would have a hard time focusing then. At trials she often did better than in a distracting class. A year ago we went through a time when she was ripping pads and licking herself a lot. I also took her for a rehab evaluation and we needed to do some strengthening of her inner thighs. We figured out some food allergies and some surface issues with her pads. I added some zinc to her diet and her pads have toughened up and her diet change has helped her a lot. I also added Calming Care from Purina and Stress Free Complex daily and I add Composure on trial days plus extra Calmplex. Then I make sure she is warmed up and sound. If she is at all out of alignment she will become very squirrelly and distracted on a run. So we increased her frequency of chiropractic. The last few trials we have started to have some consistency in our teamwork and her speed is increasing which means her confidence is increasing.
For Brandie she becomes stressed when she does not feel 100% well and/or when the environment is overwhelming for her. She may never be able to run in side by side ring environments. I now know when she is stressed I need to explore the underlying cause for it. Physical discomfort creates her stressful behavior.
So these three dogs have three very different triggers for their stress. Agility ring stress can be caused by obstacle difficulty, environment challenges (energy, dogs, people, sounds, smells, stress pheromones etc.), physical discomfort, sequence/course difficulty or length and other things. I very often will leave a run once a mistake happens with a dog who tends to stress. It helps to make a short run rewardable. I don't want my stressy dogs to come to a start line dreading doing 20 obstacles. I want them to look forward to it and have no idea when a reward might happen. I teach my dogs that we leave the ring to treats or toys. I am talking to my dogs and giving them all my attention when we leave the ring. It is intended to be a special time for us. They just worked very hard for me so I want to show them my appreciation.
When I see a dog who is frozen at the start line that dog needs a break and a game plan to just walk in and walk out to a party as the very start. Then gradually build up from there. It is much easier to start with short courses before a dog new to trialing experiences stress. I did runs of just a few obstacles with all three of the above dogs when they were about 2 years old - pre pandemic. I also did a lot of video trials during the pandemic which helped us work on our teamwork, handle repetition and feel a bit of stress of trying to run a course well. Even doing all of this some unexpected things happened along the way that created stress for each of them. But I do think my foundation of being willing to train in the ring right away and focus on building confidence ensured that the stress did not continue for long.
All the organizations now allow training in the ring and this does not just mean bringing a toy in the ring but it means "fix and go" options and it is really ok to leave a run early to a reward. I have left early to rewards for over 20 years. It is so beneficial to the team.
If you try these things and still your dog is stressed in the ring it may mean competing in agility is not for your dog. That is OK. Not all dogs are cut out for agility competition. In fact many are not inclined to do it if given a choice. The best thing you can do for your dog is to respect their preferences in life. They did not sign up for agility training, you did. I have many students who just come to class to learn and have fun without competing. Please take time to reflect on what may be the cause of your dog's stress.