CALL US :+ 1-800-445-2620
Mar 222012
Stevie Ray Perfect Flight

One of the most common problems I see with all dogs in general and certainly many who compete in dog sports is the lack of skills to deal with stress and the lack of ability in people to recognize and understand their dog’s reaction to stress. I am not sure if they have ever thought about what it is like for their dogs going from a practice with familiar dogs and familiar faces and zero traffic to a dog agility trial. I am sure new handlers think about their own stress level, as I see it in them and talk to them about it on a regular basis. Most are nervous and since many don’t have a lot of experience competing in sports, they admit to their nervousness and anxiety.

Most often when it comes to stress in their dogs though, I see people get frustrated in Dog Agility when their dogs run away, or go sniffing, maybe start to do a little nipping, or some aggressive behavior towards a judge, or maybe run to the dog running a neighboring ring. All are signs the dog is experiencing stress. And this should not be surprising when most have never even seen the trial environment or ring prior to being entered in their first agility trial. And of course, let’s not forget, dogs are very perceptive and if a handler is nervous about competing, this is going to amplify the high level of stress felt by their dog.

When I talk to people about it, they always say, “but my dog does so well in practice and knows how to do this” and they are frustrated they cannot do it on course at a trial. Often this is seen as being stubborn or bad and really it is not. It is just a normal reaction to stress. Stress they do not at all feel when practicing in most cases. Most practices are simplified and the environment often becomes protected from distraction to get the performance from your dog that you want to see. And this is the reason they get stressed and cannot run in the trial environment. As in everything I do with my dogs, I accept 100% of the responsibility for their performance and preparation for the cognitive aspect of running in these exciting and varied environments and running under pressure with a goal to achieve the best run possible by us is my responsibility.

It is unfair to my dogs to expose them to pressure of this nature and expect them to succeed on their own without being given the skills they need, only to blame them for failing when they don’t succeed. This is our failure and not theirs! Obstacle performance and handling skills are required, but not sufficient and certainly if your goal is to perform at the top of your game, then these cognitive skills are required to be honed to a level where you can succeed with the pressure of an entire Country riding on your performance. Training with stress and building a system to reduce and eliminate the impact of stress while running in the ring; that is what Bullseye Performance is about.

So it is certainly okay to simplify and remove excitement in a practice environment in order to enable the basic shaping of the behavior that you want to see for obstacle and handling performance, but you must add stress and excitement of all kinds back into their development and practice under the same conditions you will trial under. Sure when I begin shaping behavior, I make my environment very simple and as unexciting as possible. But this is the start of shaping the behavior. And at all times, I try to work with my dogs at the peak excitement they can handle and still think clearly and learn. In fact in my training I try, just like in shaping any behavior, to increase this level of excitement they are capable of thinking clearly since this is the upper limit they will hit and need to perform at while running at agility trials.

When I get into a trial environment, I need a lot more than knowledge of obstacles and handling maneuvers. If you do not know how to manage stress and neither does your dog and you have never practiced under stressful conditions like occur at agility trials; then you and your dog are doomed to fail. And it is not in any way their fault. There is no reason to be mad, except maybe at oneself for failing to train the cognitive skills necessary for them to perform in the trial environment, regardless if you are running for clean runs/”Q”s, or to win. Either way, this is pressure on you and pressure on your dog.

By the time I leave my yard and start training my dogs at a practice facility, I have been working on stress management and desensitization and training cognitive skills for them to use to manage stress in a positive way, for some time. They have worked on excitement and maintaining focus, paying attention while excited and they know I will help them and reassure them and never chastise them no matter how they are doing. They are ready to work with distractions and I try to control those distractions until they are able to retain their self-control and focus, but again, the purpose is to introduce distraction and practice under pressure for every run, not avoid it.

Solving the problem of stress is mostly about creating a great relationship, creating confidence and training under a variety of conditions that specifically includes stressful conditions. I want to introduce distractions like people and other dogs and even birds, toys, cars, rivers, trains, parades, etc. The gradual introduction of stress is best, rather than overwhelming them with it. This is not done by going directly from a protected practice environment to a trial environment.

The fact that I use desensitization early on with my dogs and I train away sensitivities and train familiarization for all kinds of things and circumstances in actuality is also preparing them for dog agility trials. Not only am I constantly making them more resilient to distraction; I am also giving them the skills they need to manage stress. As I teach swimming, noise desensitization, etc., I am always exposing them to some manageable level of stress and I control how much exposure by knowing and watching for my dogs early signs of anxiety as a result of the stressful stimulus. I do not want the exposure to become traumatic in any way. Fear flooding often uses this excess exposure to stress; however, it is not a very good method if you want a dog that really enjoys doing dog agility with you.

In addition to controlling the conditions in the environment that produce stress, I also influence and shape the consequences; shaping them into a positive learning experience and teaching them a skill to manage their stress level. By allowing a dog to move away from the source of stress sufficiently to calm themselves a little, I allow them to lower the stress level directly. Self-control is important in this process; it cannot be forced or hurried. I also move away from the source of the stress too and help them calm if I can; this is important. I have worked on being able to help calm my dogs with my behavior, a calm voice and calm actions; I am calm and reassuring when they do come, but just enough to get them to think clearly about the task at hand and regain their focus.

Once calm enough, they can then investigate the source of their fear, getting closer to it on their own and at their own pace. Again this gives them control, which is so valuable in managing one’s own stress. This gives them the skill and allows us to help them with it. Jimmi is now very experienced with this allowing us to get back on track really quickly after she is stressed in the ring at a trial. When she runs past an obstacle due to excitement, I move away from the obstacle and call her to me. She comes pretty quickly in most cases and I calm her down for a few seconds, then away we go, full speed into the obstacle and back on track. No pain, no punishment, no expectation, no frustration, just one happy dog and one happy handler!

Think of running away in the ring as though your dog was on a trail hiking with you and was suddenly scared by something  ahead and suddenly flees in fear.  This is a natural response to stress; fight or flight.  After an hour, or so, or a day maybe; you find your dog as they return not to where they lost you, but somewhere earlier maybe, like the beginning of the trail. How are you going to feel? How are you going to respond? I suspect you will be relieved and grateful and very loving and reassuring, even if there is a little frustration for the fact that they left you. Running away on course is no different!

I assist my dogs by understanding their situation, giving them the ability to have some control over the stressful situation and providing reassurance and support always. Frustration and expectations make things worse and provide nothing they can use to get better, or become functional again. Jimmi has shown amazing growth in this regard. She still gets excited and afraid, but how she deals with it is very systematic. She will investigate the most unnatural and strange things now and gains confidence quickly, but she is still a fearful dog in many ways, just now she has a way of dealing with it, reducing it and getting over it.

As we continue to manage this excitement she will gradually gain control of herself and her excitement and her need to reduce stress by running away will diminish. By reassuring her when she returns and allowing her to manage her stress and reduce it, she never hesitates to come to me and she gets over it quickly. Because of this she will always function at a high level of excitement without being bothered by strange cities, new equipment, or new venues. The alternative, getting frustrated, if you haven’t noticed, leads to a dog that is not having fun in most cases. Yes they may do agility with you, but only because you ask, or insist, however. To me and for my dogs that is not acceptable. Both the handler AND the dog MUST have fun!

Richard Ford, M.Sc.
Bullseye Performance



[suffusion-the-author display='description']

  14 Responses to “Dealing with Ring Stress in Dog Agility for Bullseye Performance”

  1. Great assessment of stress in dog and people. I have a dog who spins in the ring at a show. At practice only a few issues. Thinking of doing run throughs to simulate agility ring at a show. Any thoughts?


    • Hi Jerry,

      Yes I think you are on the right track. In training new obstacle performance behavior, people often refer to going to fast as “lumping” and basically going from a practice to a trial and assuming you will get the same behavior is lumping when it comes to stress, excitement and anxiety and fear. Learning and performance are best done when you still have excitement AND cognitive control. Practice at their threshold of capability extends that capability. Practice over it can destroy their confidence. Practice below it does not teach them how to deal with it.

      There are two main issues that cause spinning. The easiest to work on is late queues and poor timing. That is, not being able to stay ahead of your dog, especially when excitement is higher, which you want if you are running to go as fast as you can. So as excitement increases beyond that of practice, they get a burst of speed and you are late because you don’t normally practice at full speed. They revert to spinning as a way to release excitement while they wait for you. Yes absolutely do run throughs/fun matches to practice at full speed…

      Also it can be that they are just too stressed to think and have to release excitement and revert to a stress behavior. Depending on your behavior, you may make this a lot worse for them rather than be in a position where they think you are helping them. This is where the balance of keeping them calm, supporting them as they experience stress, and putting them back on their feet again to successfully try again, or try again successfully is so important, whichever it might be. Moving away from the source of the stress where possible (just a little is often all that is required, but the uniqueness of the dog and situation ultimately determine what needs to be done), calming them in between attempts, but not coddling them; and asking them to try again, helping them to succeed. This is what helps improve their performance.

      Again you need to replicate the circumstances where you have more control over what you can do to setup and reward success and work them at that positive threshold of their capability. Run throughs/fun matches can be so useful. You can add that game that adds desire, whether it is food, tug, or chase. You have the opportunity to better set them up for success, increase their desire to help them get over stress and reward positive experience and generally guide successful experience and cognitive capabilities. Neuroplasticity is a beautiful thing when it is guided through positive experience that pushes them to their limit.

      • And of course this positive practice will improve your confidence, but in the end, you still need to think about the “here and now” during those trial runs. Not thinking about Q’s and placement when you are running. Thinking about exactly what you need to be doing now and in the immediate future to be successful.

  2. I enjoyed your article because I have a dog who gets stressed at agility trials. He appears fine while sitting in his crate, but once we gets to the start line, he begins to itch, sometimes from up to 15 or 20 seconds. I have been waiting for him to finish before starting the run. I’ve been told to just start the course without sitting him, but when I do that, he is totally unfocused. I try to massage him before we go into the ring, doing tricks with him while waiting, and speaking positively to him. Works rarely because the itching still occurs. Would it be better for me to crate him in the car because the crate is really his safety area, plus it would eliminate the trial noise. Any suggestions, I’d appreciate. Thank you.

    • Hi Sharon, certainly the itching is a sign of stress. Unfortunately, without knowing a lot more, there is not a whole lot I can say for sure, but I can make some suggestions. What I usually start with is that you have to find a way to bridge the experience between comfortable practice, where there are usually limited numbers of dogs and people and most if not all are well known, usually very little is happening at practice when in is your turn and what happens at trials. I prefer to allow people to come and go, the next class comes in while people are working, popping kennels up and warming up dogs, depending on the nature and maturity of the dogs. Amping up practice. Maybe a fun match or organized competition style runs at practice, maybe going to a different night, fun matches that are smaller and where you can add training tools like food or toys, open with few or no surprises, again depending quite a bit on what your dog likes normally, some like inside, some like outside, for example. Often the stress the handler feels is what the dogs feel. Unfortunately at trials you are rather restricted some pressure you to go and that is not going to help and you likely show some of that pressure. Trying to be supportive where you can. Move away from the first obstacle as far as possible and then try do a few tricks and I agree don’t sit them. Running like a nit is also a sign of stress, I would let them and then as he/she calms a little, get their attention and go. Again though I would try to be further from the first obstacle and move away with them or for them so they will feel less stress to approach you. I would not want to calm them completely, just get enough focus and attention to do a few obstacles successfully. If they run off again, no big deal, move away again from the obstacle, collect them, be nice to them and when you have a little focus go again if you can. It would probably be best if you sacrificed a run or more to go and treat as soon as you have done whatever you can successfully. Make trials more like practice and practice more like trials. Going for complete Q runs now will likely only slow the progress. Expectations that we have they don’t know. Also, it may be something other than obstacles they are stressed by. What breed and their history with other dogs and people can make a difference and I don’t know any of this.

      Moving the kennel to the car might help. Some dogs do not relax well at trials and the car or other quiet, more isolated place can help. Do you crate at all at practice? If not, I would and I would again also want to be able to work in a more busy place. Maybe get the crate and go to some busy places, summer community festivals and treat going in and out of the crate and working outside the crate in busy places. Take a single jump and work with the jump and crate nin busy places. Anyways, I don’t know what I would recommend if I knew you and your dog better, but pay attention to all signs of stress and learn every detail and believe what you see and like shaping obstacles, shape comfort.

      I don’t expect my Jimmi will ever be like her mom Stevie Ray (nothing phases her) or even her brother Joey, but I think she will learn to focus enough to get through tough runs and not lose focus. She runs away to check out things as her love of everything else gets the best of her, but I enjoy teaching her to be calm and get control of herself. She is a little stinker, sometimes, but she can’t help it. But she is always getting better. And she is great when she is thinking and focused. My goal is not Q’s for her, rather it is getting better at it. Q’s come when they are ready and like shaping obstacle performance gradually, shape trial performance as well.

      Oh, again I don’t know you well, but I suggest you treat a lot. At practice and everywhere possible. I treat a lot for jumping, which many people don’t, I treat in between obstacles and I treat after all types of obstacles, especially jumps and I teach people to treat more. With more experienced dogs, I Randomze a little, so they never know exactly when, but they are never waiting long and I always treat what we are actually working on as well. I cannot keep my dogs off of obstacles at practice, no running around them and because of it, I need a great stay. It helps to drive their focus at trials because doing obstacles is very rewarding to them and helps them get over stress rather than contributing to it. Slowing to do weaves is Jimmi’s biggest issue. But she is good at them and if I can get her in and focused, it helps the rest of the run.

      • Like your articles. My 21 month old Aussie and I have been training for a little over a year now and we have enter 1 trial with no success. Zoomies and distraction. Stress is a big factor. I do treat her during practice but now she will ony do weaves if I treat her first! How do you get rid of that bad habit when you recommend always treating? Thank you for your insight.

        • IT is still always about earning. I don’t treat randomly. I treat for earned reward. I help them through zoomies and treat when they get back in. If I was at a trial, I probably leave the ring immediately if they do weave and reward them. Thinking and working is rewarded. Before I start running at trials I make sure i at least have some control on practice jumps. IF I move away and I am always supporting and rewarding, they will get their brain and come back to me. I encourage calm, then try to move on and get them to do what stressed them. IF it is a b ig deal, leave and reward, but don’t repeat this too often or they will expect it. just get through it and reward and next time look for more after that challenge.

  3. Like your comments – I was searching for something like this to point our students to ->
    I teach at an agility club (and am constantly trying to get students and new handlers to think about how their reactions affect their dogs.
    I plan on using you as a reference.
    Thanks Again

  4. Great article and very helpful. My dog is so excited at practice I can barely settle him enough to run, and he is brilliant, fast and so focused. At trials he is slow and hesitant on the entire run. I could drag him faster. I too feel stress before a run, but try to be happy and excited before runs, but he is very mopey. Suggestions?

  5. Great article! I have my first agility dog: a 2 year old boxer girl. She is super sweet and compliant, very self assured in familiar environments. But take her somewhere new and she becomes skittish and uncertain. We have trained agility for 1.5 years. She gets obstacles and almost has 6 weaves (has done straight multiple times but not always). Her issue is stress. In the trial ring, she will do an obstacle or two and then loses complete focus. She runs to each corner, acts concerned and uncertain and completely ignores me. She doesn’t know her name, doesn’t know me and looks for a familiar face in the crowd to run to.

    I am a life long athlete and have competed my entire life. I am used to stress and adrenaline. Even though I am nervous, I can manage. I think Chloe senses my stress and smells adrenaline and that cues her uncertainty.

    Our first trial was 6 months ago. We started with tunnelers and she Q’ed. (I only mention this because it makes the rest seem inexplicable to me how she could so well her first trial run ever and then not be able to even complete another.) From then on, she never completed a run and I ended up pulling her from the rest of the runs. We have practiced at different venues, at my trainers facility weekly and in our backyard regularly. She loves practice and seems to enjoy agility. It’s just the melt downs at trial. We have done 2 virtual trials at my trainer’s facility and she left me each run (4). However, she did great on both practice runs and stayed with me before we started the second virtual trial. I see great improvement in us as a team but am clueless how to train to handle stress.

    I love my dog and this is for fun. I didn’t start this to compete and even said I wouldn’t be competing. However, I do want to be able to be successful which includes being able to complete a run in a trial.

    I recognize the problem but don’t know how to fix it. Maybe I just have a dog whose personality isn’t cut out for agility? If I can train through this, I would love to. I just don’t know how to do it. Any and all advice is appreciated!

    • My opinion is that you are just going too fast and expecting her to learn as you do. You need to look at her and train her and expose her to a new world at a rate she can handle. Everything you said was about you and your expectations, and this is not anything against you, but normal for us humans. Think of your dog as different and needing their own rateof exposure. They do not learn and generalize as fast as you might, especially being an experienced athlete. They are a newby! they need you to judge based on what they do and not what you expect. Baby steps! Their steps!

      • For a moment, you can relax and know your dog is typical. Sot starting is because they are more worried about everything new. Crowds, although with the best intentions, are just amplifying the problem. Wholly cow, I am not alone! Not wanting to go and wanting to leave are pretty obvious signs. So they need something to overcome their fear in the ring. Higher level of reward for doing obstacles is one thing and this means a lot higher reward rate when practicing. More patience at trials. Wait for them to get a grip, go until they lose it, move away and patiently wait, once they are thinking again, try go forward. Don’t push and don’t let expectations decide to push them. Things just get worse if you do. Smaller venues and fun matches are great for getting through these things and making smaller steps of stress.

  6. I ran across your page today. I’ve been trialing with my Westie for almost a year (8 trials). Sometimes he runs great, but quite often he either doesn’t want to start (sits at the start line) or stalls out in front of a jump or two mid-run. When we’re finishing a course and he sees the exit, he runs like crazy over the last jumps. I try to get him excited before the run with tricks, etc. but it seems like the built-up excitement fizzles as soon as we walk in the ring. The crowd actually tried cheering him on which helped during a couple of runs, but of course at a larger trial the judge may not approve of that. He’s fine at Fun Runs. Should I not give him any treats before going into the ring during our pre-run warm up? He’s very food motivated and I’m wondering if he knows I don’t have treats in the ring. Any suggestions? Thanks so much!

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>