As a handler, there are few things more frustrating in agility than an unreliable start line stay.
As a dog agility instructor, there are few things more frustrating to me than a handler blaming their dog for a broken start line. Remember that your dog’s behavior is a reflection of your ability to teach and maintain criteria.
Here are three common ways handlers deteriorate their dog’s start line stay behavior. By learning to avoid these mistakes, you’ll keep your dog’s start line strong.
Release With a Flourish
In this scenario, the handler moves her hand (usually) or head at the same time she gives her dog’s release cue.
This deteriorates your dog’s start line because all dogs pay more attention to our body language than our verbal cues, unless they have been explicitly trained to ignore our bodies and only listen. (This is why it’s so difficult to train reliable verbal cues in agility that override our physical cues.)
Recently, I was asked for advice on dogs that shut down on the start line, or shortly before entering the ring, only at agility trials: commonly known as “ring wise” dogs. I think this is a topic worth discussing, so here goes.
Let’s start by assessing your dog’s behavior. You might observe your dog turning his head away from you when asked to do a cue that he “knows.” He might sniff the ground, lick his lips, pant excessively, get the “zoomies,” and/or whine.
Your dog is telling you that he’s not comfortable performing in a trial setting. The sniffing, yawning, sneezing, etc. is a stress response. These behaviors are often called calming signals.
It’s important to note that your dog is not “blowing you off.” Your dog either does not understand what you are asking him to do, or is too overwhelmed by the environment to respond. Blaming stress on the dog absolves the handler of her responsibility to improve the dog’s training level and/or work to make the dog more comfortable in a show environment.
(If there’s one thing I don’t tolerate, it’s blaming the dog for mediocre training. Around these parts, it’s “Train, don’t blame!“)
Now that we’ve taken a good guess at our dog’s internal state, let’s backtrack and try to figure out why he feels that way.
Considerations at the Trial
First, how is your dog outside of the ring at agility trials? If he will eagerly perform cues that he knows well, with few to no calming signals, right until you enter the ring, then your dog has made some sort of association with being “in the ring.”
From the dog’s perspective, “in the ring” might mean one of many things:
the physical act of entering the ring (generally marked with obedience ring gates or snow fencing)
lack of visible, available rewards from his handler
his handler acting strangely (generally because the handler is experiencing some ring stress herself)
leash/collar off, when he is generally not “naked in public”
If your dog has discovered there are no rewards in the ring, you have a couple of options. If your dog will tug, you’re in business – teach your dog to tug on his leash, and use that in the ring. If your dog is only motivated by food, clever use of matches, run-thrus, and drop-in classes can change your dog’s feelings about entering the ring.
I encourage all of my agility students to volunteer when they go watch an agility trial. For one thing, you can’t beat the view of the action! But I also feel that working a class or two at an agility trial really helps to calm many of the nerves they might have about competing in the future. Seeing experienced competitors in the Masters or Excellent ring make mistakes is comforting to them. Watching young dogs start their agility careers in the Novice or Starters ring gives them a realistic idea of what to expect from their own dogs when they enter their first trial in the future.
There are certain jobs at agility trials that are easier than others. My goal is for my students to have a low-stress, fun introduction to agility trials, so expecting them to act as a scribe or a timer at their first or second trial is a bit much.
How to Volunteer: A Primer
To sign up to work a class, go to the exhibitor check-in area. That’s usually where the volunteer information is – if not, someone there will direct you to it. At an outdoor trial, this is usually a BIG tent where exhibitors pick up their armbands and check in for their classes. At an indoor trial, it’s usually not far from the main entrance door.
AKC Agility Nationals is a one month away, and the information about the event has been coming in “fast and furious” – run orders, souvenir order forms, crating and stall requests, parking fees. Last year was my first NAC and I quickly started to feel overwhelmed by all of this information. (I’m just glad that I don’t have to fly there this year!)
There’s just so much to think about. What to pack, what to wear, what music to put on my iPod… Add to this my year-round paranoia that I’ll miss a walk-through, and I’m already, literally, having nightmares about the event, even though I’m very much looking forward to it!
(Last year I had a nightmare that I made the finals, but the course was over 35 obstacles long, and I kept getting lost during the walk-through. Everyone else thought the course was a piece of cake and finished walking long before I did, and I was freaking out. I woke up in a cold sweat, no joke!)
I’d like to continue the theme of my last post and share my dog agility playlist that I listen to on the way to the barn and during walk-throughs. Considering that three of my dogs are named for bands, this is a topic near and dear to my heart!
My taste in music is pretty eclectic. At my core, I’m a rock fan – the closer to punk/ska, the better. I also like to keep tabs on what’s on the radio, so you’ll find some top 40 mixed in for good measure, much to Dan’s chagrin. (He likes his rock music as obscure as it gets…)
Many of my fellow dog agility competitors have mentioned on social media that are inspired by watching the Olympics. It motivates them to get out there and train their dogs, to go for the gold – or qualifying score, as the case may be.
I totally get it! I, too, am inspired by watching the Olympics. I also enjoy behind-the-scenes sports shows, like HBO’s “24/7″ hockey series leading up to the Winter Classic and more recently, “Behind the B” documenting the day-to-day trials and tribulations of running a professional hockey team (in this case, my beloved Boston Bruins).
In addition to sports-related inspiration, I’ve also stumbled across a few things over the years that have motivated me to put my backside in gear, and I’d like to share them with you.
There are a variety of reasons for participating with your dog in agility. Here are some that come to mind:
To spend time with your dog engaged in a mutually enjoyable activity
To improve your dog’s physical and/or emotional fitness
To spend time with friends and likeminded individuals
To improve your dog training skills
At trials, to see how your dog’s performance compares to the other dogs’ performances on that day
At trials, to test your dog’s skills at a particular level or on a particular type of course (Gamblers, Snooker, etc.)
At trials, to qualify for a major event (regionals, nationals, international team selection)
At trials, to earn qualifying scores toward a title
At trials, to win
None of these motives are “right” or “wrong,” just different. What motivates me to get up at the crack of dawn, travel for hours, and spend a chunk of change on entry fees for less than sixty seconds in the ring is not necessarily what motivates you, and that’s a-okay!
I’m not going to analyze each of these reasons here, because I don’t want to inadvertently imply that some are better than others. No one goal is more wholesome than another. I encourage my students – all of my students, even those brand-new to the sport – to have goals and to clearly identify what they are so they have something to work toward and stay on the right track.