I recently attended an obedience trial and experienced several different very high highs and very low lows….and I wasn’t even showing my dog that weekend!
While it is always fun to watch dog/handler teams work together in harmony and rejoice with each other when a job is well done, joy is not always what is painted on the faces of the dogs in the ring. Too often it is stress, fear and confusion. So why would a person drag their dog into a show ring if the dog hates it? I’ll tell you a secret…it’s because they don’t KNOW their dogs hate it. The vast majority of handlers I see at shows have little to no idea about their dogs emotional state at any given time unless it’s obvious happiness – the dog leaping into the air and smiling with it’s tail going 100 mph. I listened to on-lookers and handlers alike watch teams compete and make comments like “What a little sh*t” or “Stupid dog!” I would look at the person making the statement, look back to the dog in the ring and think to myself, “Are we looking at the same dog??” My confusion and eventual frustration came from the fact that the dogs I was looking at were OBVIOUSLY (to me) stressed out, fearful and/or confused. The dog didn’t understand the cues being given or was afraid of a correction (leash pop, smack on the nose or head, etc.). I watched these same dogs being “warmed up” outside the ring before their turns and get leash pop after leash pop while they were doing exactly what was being asked of them. I kept thinking “WHAT are you correcting?? WHY are you yanking on that dog??” I watched as the dogs watch their owners obediently, enter the ring and perform amazing tasks – the PERFECT performances…you would think. But I would watch the dog and take note of signals the dog was desperately trying to get his handler to notice: tail down, slightly crouched at times, eyes wide, body stiff, mouth tight, licking lips, flinching at hand signals (an indication that those hand signals have been followed by physical blows on occasion), and a dozen other unnoticed nuances that told me the dog was totally miserable.
One dog in particular was performing well until it came time for the stand for exam. Stand for exam is when the handler tells the dog to stand and stay while the judge approaches the dog and touches the dog’s head, back and sides. This little dog, who had performed admirably thus far, shied away from the judge’s hand as it came close to her head. The comments from the onlookers around me shocked me, “Did you see that little…”, “What a little…”, “He needs whipped into shape. I’d be so f*ing mad if my dog did that!” Fortunately the dog’s handler shrugged the failure off and still petted her dog, told him “That’s okay. We tried.” and left the ring smiling. I was glad for the little dog that he had such a kind and understanding owner but was almost fearful for the dogs whose owners had put in their two cents on how they’d react if THEIR dog ever shied from a judge. The thing is, that dog shied away from the judge because it was unsure and nervous. He didn’t do it to frustrate or embarrass his owner.
Correcting a dog for being fearful is ludicrous and abusive, in my opinion, and while you might get slightly different-looking behavior for a while the dog’s emotional state will not be improved at all. What you end up with is a dog who performs beautifully in the ring but hates every moment of it and doesn’t trust it’s owner to keep it safe. Sad…very, very sad.
When I enter the ring with my dog, Andre, my ultimate goal is not to earn a ribbon or a high score. My goal is to keep Andre comfortable and happy. He was so fearful of many things when I adopted him 2 1/2 years ago and we’ve worked very hard to help him overcome those fears. He’s shown some astonishing progress – enough, in fact, that I now compete with him in AKC obedience and rally trials. Our first trial was a success on several levels. Not only did we earn a qualifying score, a fourth place ribbon and the first leg toward a title but we also had a fun day of practice and performance during which Andre stayed calm and comfortable and actually wore a wagging tail! His emotional state was how I judged the level of my success that day – not by ribbons and scores. Each and every time I take Andre into a show ring I watch him for signs of stress and if I see them I do everything I can to help him be more comfortable – even if that means disqualifying in a class or leaving the event early. My relationship with my dog is much more imortant to me than any ribbon or title and if he shows me that he is stressed out and doesn’t want to participate anymore, I won’t force him to. I’m not willing to damage the trust he has in me. Period.
I enjoy educating dog owners and handlers on canine body language and stress/calming signals so that they can better understand their dogs and communicate with them more effectively and humanely. Posts like this one, group classes, dog safety presentations and events are opportunities to educate owners and improve the lives of our dogs. Dr. Sophia Yin has published a wonderful free downloadable poster on stress signals in dogs and what they look like. You can view it here: Dog Fear Posture Poster. I wrote a post on dog body language in September 2011 called What Is Your Dog Telling You? and if you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to. Becoming familiar with what a dog looks like when it is uncomfortable, stressed and fearful benefits everyone. When you see a dog that is stressed, you can make sure that you don’t do anything to increase its stress and do what you can to help the dog become more comfortable. You can also warn others about the dog’s emotional state and educate them on how you can tell the dog is uncomfortable.
I love showing my dog and I hope that the sport of dog obedience continues for many generations to come. I also hope that as these future generations learn to train and communicate with their dogs that their education includes information on canine body language and what it means. By doing our best to understand our dogs and communicate with them in clear, humane ways we can develop even more amazing relationships with man’s (and woman’s) best friend!