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Why Dogs Fall Apart in Trials? Part 2: Focus, Proofing, and Arousal Levels

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

In the last blog post we looked at one (huge) reason why a dog can look brilliant outside the ring but everything seems to go south once they walk through the ring gates.

For most dogs, the difference between trials and practice is pretty obvious. This can lead to stress issues with some dogs stressing down and disconnecting and other dogs stressing up and getting over aroused!

I suggested 6 areas to focus on to help the dog feel more confident in a trial setting and get used to the picture they would see. Things like conditioning the ring to equal fun to adding some formality in practice, and work on rewards being off their body.

But there are other reasons why a dog can have issues in a trial setting that aren't just do to stress. Three more reasons (and there's still more!) a dog can fall apart in a trial are:

  1. General focus issues

  2. An incompletely trained behavior

  3. *Arousal Levels

Of course, the dog is likely going to feel stressed in a trial if they are struggling with the above areas, but in this case it's not the stress that is causing the problem.

General Focus Issues

In this case, the dog is simply so focused on the environment that he simply isn't ready to work. Maybe the dog looks away and focuses on a person opening a bag of chips as you are trying to give your down signal. Or perhaps the dog sees the chalk mark on the floor where the judge marked the figure 8 spot and your dog runs over thinking it's a cookie! Or maybe your dog takes the agility jump towards the audience and instead of reading your turning cue he runs straight towards the fun of a dog playing tug.

All of these examples could certainly be stress related and the dog showing either worry about the activity around him, or just needing to take a much needed break to relieve some of the built up pressure.

But it could also be plain old distractions pulling your dog off their happy focus!

One answer to this is simple proofing. Mariah Hinds at FDSA is running a class on proofing this April session working on adding distractions in a positive way so that it can actually increase your dog's confidence!

Teach your dog to choose to focus on you, WITHOUT any type of leave it cue or watch me cue!

I work hard with the service dogs and my sports dogs on the idea of an uncued, automatic leave it. If the dog has something catch their eye we really want them to focus harder on their task and not think it's a free for all unless given another cue!

I think we have all worked with dogs who think the goal is to quickly lunge for something before their person can tell them otherwise!

So many dogs are great with a second chance! They optimistically run towards the distraction the first opportunity and then quickly learn that it was a just a proof! The next attempt they nail it. Sadly there are no second chances in a trial!

Here Vito works on the idea of ignoring my distraction hand and offering me eye contact on the first rep. I move with him between reps so it's a slightly different picture each time:

An Incompletely Trained Behavior

Some behaviors are really hard to do when stressed. You may find that your dog does great in agility but can't do their weave poles. Or your obedience dog struggles with the down signal.

But sometimes the dog is focused, confident in the ring, and a skill still breaks down in trials!

One of the first things to look at is how well does that dog really know the behavior. Have you shown the dog how to perform when doing even harder versions of the behavior?

For example, I want my dog able to do the retrieve over high even when I purposefully throw the dumbbell at almost 3:00 and 9:00 angles! I want my dog able to do his teeter even if I'm at a distance or far behind him!

And occasionally we accidentally create issues by training our behaviors to a high degree of performance but yet forgetting to add in some weird handler proofing of how we might act under stress. Can your dog do your weave poles when you are purposefully slowing down and crowding him like so many novice handlers do when stressed in a trial?! Can your dog the down signal when you're looking like a deer in the headlights and flashing it super fast?!

Can they do their sit from a stand at a distance instead of lying down? Can you cue a find heel instead of a front on a recall? Test not just their understanding of the behavior but their ability to think in that moment and do a different behavior!

Arousal Levels

Finally another idea to play with is the dog's arousal level. I think this is a huge area that's often over looked! Our dog may be great in practice when they are in that perfect state of mind but in a trial with the increased excitement (or lower motivation for some!) they may not be capable of doing it!

It's much harder for a dog running faster in trials to be able to actually collect and wrap tight! Or your obedience dog can't do articles because his ability to slow down and actually scent isn't there!

This is a stress response, but it's such a huge area that I included it in this blog post anyway!

With arousal levels, it's a fine line of teaching your dog how to work and think when excited to adding arousal levels to the behavior itself. I don't want that arousal level baked into the behavior, I want the dog able to dial itself back a notch.

The way that I've approached this has changed over the years and I'm still learning! With Zumi I've worked on her ability to go from excited to doing a behavior that require stillness, like her sticky target hand touch, and then being sent to do the behavior. This middle step tells me if she is capable of performing with the level of thinking that I want!

Here is a video of Zumi last year learning how to do her scent articles with a bit of excitement. I ask her to do her sticky target before sending her to the pile to make sure that she will still have a nice search and isn't rehearsing franticness. One of her big struggles with articles is learning to keep searching even when she can't find the article right away instead of randomly alerting. The more excited she is, the more prone she is to false alerting so I was careful to add in excitement very slowly!

Sarah Stremming is teaching a new class this April session called Arousal Layering Games and I can't wait to see what ideas she has!

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