Note: This blog was originally written for and published on FDSA's blog!
I do a lot of trial prep classes and classes designed to help dogs overcome their trial stress. One plan I hear over and over again from students is how they are going to enter a show for "ring experience." The dog is a bit unsure, and the only plan they know to try is getting the dog into the ring so they can get used to the environment and see that it's ok!!
Unfortunately, going to a trial for the pure sake of getting experience is a plan that usually leads to problems.
In a trial you can't support the dog if they are struggling. Even if they are generally a pretty confident dog, trials are always going to be a deduction from your reinforcement bank account. You can't reward the great moments, you can't reset the not so great moments, and whatever happens, happens.
Our well intentioned plan is to help the dog through exposure.
But not all exposure is therapy.
My oldest child, Netta, is autistic and had selective mutism. Selective mutism is an extreme anxiety disorder that should more accurately be called situational mutism. In Netta's case, she would be unable to talk to or look at other people. She would even completely freeze up and be physically unable to move.
From a very young age, well intentioned teachers and other parents suggested that she just needed more exposure. She needed to get out around people a whole lot more and see that everything was ok.
And to a small extent this is true. The more Netta knew what to expect in a situation, the more comfortable she was there. She happily helped me walk the courses in agility class, taught herself how to weave, and even became quite chatty to me there, if she knew no one was trying to interact with her.
In organized playgroups, Netta became comfortable enough to play with toys in the corner and gradually grew her bubble to be able to resume playing after a few minutes if another kid came close by. This was hard, but we had some success. A big reason for that success was being able to focus on these quieter environments — places where she could observe without pressure.
But we were still stuck.
She was doing so well with being comfortable in public, but had made zero progress at all in not being completely frozen the moment a person attempted to interact with her. It was not an issue of motivation or using rewards; it was an issue of anxiety. She was physically unable to do so.
I attempted to break things down, to try to shape communication. I laminated a sheet that had a few common phrases on it that she could point to and we practiced at home. But it wasn't low enough on the ladder. She couldn't point even if I was the one asking the question if another person was there near us.
We got off the waitlist for a specialist and instantly started having more success. She suggested a wave to a person at a store, and while I knew that wouldn't work, my brain was whirring. I had a new starting point. We could hang out in the back of a parking lot and practice pinky waving to people with their back to us. Zero pressure of interaction. And again, the focus is on comfort and building her confidence, not on the end goal of talking!
We did this in tons of different environments and progressed from pinky waves to elbow waves to full windshield wiper waves. All with their backs turned to us. And then even when people were looking at us, but far enough away they had no idea what was happening.
This was our launching point. Flying off to being able to create large poster boards that asked people which bird was their favorite, and being able to point to her answer. And eventually being able to verbally finish the question I would start for her.
Now at the age of 6 years she still gets anxious and has moments of freezing up. But she knows strategies to help herself. And she can easily greet you if you meet her at a trial and is happy to talk about her favorite subject, space.
Baby steps add up.
This is exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy is not throwing your dog into the environment and seeing if they will sink or swim. Exposure therapy is setting up these baby steps so that your dog is doing tiny pieces towards your final goal. It's not just about being there on the sidelines, either. Although that can be a great starting point if your dog is comfortable with that!
We need to write our dog a social script. In this house, everybody loves social scripts! These stories not only show us what to expect in a new situation, but what exactly we are to DO.
I want to introduce my dog to whatever aspects of the trial experience that I can mimic before a trial. Where will we set down the rewards and how will we transition to waiting outside the ring? Exactly how will we wait outside the ring? When and how will we remove the leash? What should we both be doing when the judge is talking to us? How will we move to the startline or in between exercises?
The more we are prepared for what will happen, the more we can let those little routines help both of our nerves. Knowing what to expect decreases anxiety. Knowing what to do builds confidence.
If you are new to trials you may not know all the little pieces to prepare for and the unwritten rules of trial etiquette. Or perhaps you've had success with past dogs, but what you've been doing just isn't working for your new dog. You need a new starting point. Breaking down your dog's version of that first pinky wave in a parking lot.
If you need help writing your dog's social script for a trial, my Ring Confidence class is full of ideas! It is my absolute favorite class to teach! I love seeing dogs gain focus and confidence away from the trial environment and gradually take these new skills on the road to different locations. But baby steps. We can start with those pinky waves!