When I competed with Riley a few weeks ago it was a very long day for us. My morning trials were early up in the rotations and the afternoon trials were last up in rotations so there was about 3-4 hours in the middle to just hang around. We did have a nice walk and then I put him in the car to relax as he will settle there much better than in his crate.
That left me with lots of time to watch and hopefully learn. I am still quite new to this dog competition thing and especially to formal obedience competition. I observed a variety of obedience levels from novice through utility plus a few rally obedience rounds. The actual exercises were interesting to watch but what really caught my attention was watching how handlers interacted with their dogs.
I was dismayed to see how much of a disconnect so many people had. I am not nieve enough to think that everyone trains purely positive and really can't point fingers considering I used some not great techniques in my not so distant past. This blog post isn't about the training techniques or whether or not I agree with them. Dog trials are pretty stressful environments and I think it is important to not leave my dog coping without my support. I hear so much talk about ring stress or being nervous but those same people complete one exercise and then move to the next without giving any thought to the dog. I know that reward options are limited in the ring but we can still praise or "play" calmly with our dogs as we move to the next exercise. It seems to me that most people just go into robot mode and that leaves their dogs hanging with no feedback. How on earth are our dogs supposed to enjoy competing with us when we do things like that to them?
Watching as teams left the ring was also eye opening. Lots of people walked directly to a crate and put the dog away. Sometimes they gave a cookie but rarely did you see many people seem to take much joy in competing with their partner. If a round hadn't gone well you could see some people reacting to their frustrations with bad body language or perhaps jerking on their leash if their dog was pulling towards friends or its crate. Sure we all have bad days but again I think what are they teaching the dog? The dog isn't going to associate the poor ring performance with it's owner's bad temper or a jerk five minutes later. I think that type of reaction just teaches our dogs that going to dog trials really isn't a very fun thing to do because it just stresses their owners out and makes them unpredictable.
I'm not saying we need to be micro-managing every moment of the day. Crates are wonderful things and are a good way for both handler and dog to chill out. Riley hasn't spent much time in a crate since his puppy years so I chose to put Riley in my car when I had a long time period available because he is very comfortable and relaxed there but doesn't relax quite that way in his crate. When he was out with me I tried to be aware of him. I watched lots of others totally ignoring their dog unless it was to correct it for sniffing or other "wrong" behaviours. I am lucky that Riley is a fairly confident dog but this isn't his regular environment and he wasn't super relaxed. If I am watching something or talking to someone he often leans his head against me if he is mildly stressed. I just gently stroke his ears while watching or talking and that seems to be what he needs. I hope I don't sound like a know-it-all but we need to remember to reward the quiet, good behaviours offered!
I should also note that there were also wonderful teams to watch. Those teams showed great joy in being together. They didn't always have perfect rounds but you can tell that they were enjoying the process. That is what I hope to achieve! Dog sports should be fun or else why the heck would we want to do them? Yes, they can be humbling, disappointing and even embarassing sometimes but we are making the choice to do them for both us and our partner dog. In my opinion we owe it to them to support them through the good parts and the bad.