Welcome to the Funhouse

Dog Trial venue
The distracting, sometimes scary environment of a dog trial

Over the weekend, Summer and I competed in AKC Rally. She is such an incredibly good sport.

Sable mixed breed dog walks briskly in heel position next to small woman wearing jeans and red sweatshirt
Summer and I chugging along

After the match I was describing to a friend the ways in which performance events and venues are difficult for Summer. A dog show is never going to be the favorite environment of a dog who is indifferent to most people, bothered by certain types of dogs, and fairly easily startled. Every time you turn a corner, or even when you are in your own little area minding your own business, somebody new is popping into your field of vision or right in your space.

My friend said, “like a funhouse!” For those outside the U.S., or perhaps a bit younger than my generation, a funhouse is an interactive carnival attraction that people walk through. From the Wikipedia definition:

…funhouses are participatory attractions, where visitors enter and move around under their own power. Incorporating aspects of a playful obstacle course, funhouses seek to distort conventional perceptions and startle people with unstable and unpredictable physical circumstances…

Public domain image of a what some people probably look like to Summer

I think obedience events for Summer can be a bit like going to the funhouse, or even a haunted house (a walk-through Halloween attraction for children that can be even scarier, with monsters popping out around every corner, things dropping from the ceiling, corpses moving in coffins, etc.).

The big difference, of course, is that humans generally enter such attractions voluntarily and consensually. For some reason, some of us actually seek out being startled or even scared. I don’t think dogs do. Summer goes (rarely) to obedience events because I take her. I do my very best to make it easy and pleasurable for her, but I know it’s hard.

As I have written in this blog, I got Summer at about 10 months old from a local shelter. She was clearly under socialized, and was fearful of children and most men. In addition to being indifferent or even fearful of some people, and actively disliking many small dogs, she has also become somewhat sound sensitive over the years. In addition to these traits, she is naturally a “doggie dog,” by which I mean she doesn’t have a huge drive to do stuff with people. Though an extremely mixed breed, her temperament is close to that of a northern breed. She generally wants to do her doggie things like chase varmints and likes her comfort. Finally, she is hypothyroid, on medication, and tires easily.

Perfect performance dog, right?

But on the good side, Summer and I are very very close. We’ve been working together for six years and she reads me better than any of the other dogs. She loves to go places and have me to herself. I have reinforced the heck out of performing rally and obedience behaviors, and she has really come to enjoy them. And best of all, all around the event building there are wonderful smells where other dogs have been (but aren’t there now).

Sable dog sitting in heel position gazing upward at woman (mostly out of picture)
Summer in the ring maintaining nice contact

Accordingly, I do the following to try to maximize the good for her:

  1. We minimize the time we are at the event (about 2 1/2 hours this time, but we were outside for plenty of that).
  2. I leave her by herself as little as possible since it worries her.
  3. I let her visit with the couple of people who are usually there whom she adores.
  4. I take her outside as much as possible. I try to keep in mind that that is probably the most fun part for her.
  5. If there is an opportunity to work in the ring beforehand, we do so, and I concentrate on letting her get comfortable in the space while still staying connected with me.
  6. I set up our crate in a less trafficked area if possible.
  7. I am hypervigilant (since she is). I try to see every possible startling thing before she does, to protect her or give her a heads up. (Also to protect other dogs from a possible snark.)
  8. I take the best treats ever.
  9. I try to be responsive to her energy level and generally don’t take her more than two days in a row.

I’m certainly not the only person who makes these efforts. Our name is legion, if the Control Unleashed and other such Yahoo groups give any indication. Many bloggers, notably Reactive Champion, blog about competing, and sometimes choosing not to compete, with dogs who have difficulties in public situations.

Why do we do it? I have several motivations, myself. One is that competing gives me specific goals and helps me keep focused in my training. It gives me and Summer something to do together with just the two of us. Another is that I like to get out and let people see what a dog trained with positive reinforcement looks like in the ring. Even with Summer’s challenges, she looks much happier than 90% of the dogs out there. Also I want people to see a mixed breed dog competing and doing well. (We are not alone anymore! The first place dogs in both Advanced A and Advanced B were both mixed breeds as well.) And hey, I admit, I’m competitive.

The responsibility I have as a balance to these motivations is that I must temper my ego and preferences so I don’t push my dog too hard.

Sable dog trotting toward camera with her mouth open and tail up (looking happy)
Summer heading for the gate

In Rally Advanced (the second level in AKC) there are 12 – 17 signs in the ring, each representing a defined behavior to perform offleash with your dog. We had to redo one sign during the course, and it was because of a problem I had never anticipated. It was a spiral, where you take the dog in a certain pattern around some pylons. But the pylons were set up parallel to the ring boundary and very close to it. We were actually not able to walk comfortably in the space between the boundary fencing (called the ring gates) and the pylons. I don’t know how the people with bigger dogs did it. Summer is trained to walk in a certain proximity to me and to respond to my changes in direction, and she repeatedly tried to move over, and it sent her to the wrong side of the pylons. She was doing what I had trained her to do.

I kept getting her back but she finally made a move that would have made us fail the sign completely. So we took the option of a do over, which lost us only 3 points instead of the 10 we would have lost if we had failed to perform the sign correctly. I walked a little more slowly the second time and clung to the boundary, and kept cuing her to stay extra close to me. Even with the do over, we got a 96 (out of 100) and second place.

There were some other rocky moments where she was visually or auditorially distracted, and I don’t blame her. There was cheering going on in the other rings, and a bunch of dogs and people gathered around ours. I am massively proud that she stuck with me in this most difficult environment.

I have never posted a video of a rally run before, because we are decent but not all that great. We are true amateurs, competing in obedience less than once a year on average. But I have to say I was pleased when I saw the film. (Thank you, Susan M., for recording for me!) The only times she looks unhappy was a couple of times she had to stay (but not every time!). When we are moving, her tail is up and she is giving me all the attention she possibly can. I even like the parts where she gets distracted and is looking out of the ring, because she responds when I ask her to.

I edited out the first try at the spiral, for brevity’s sake. I’m not embarrassed by the mistake. I would have left it in if you could actually see what was going on, but we were at the back of the ring and it’s pretty hard hard to tell. If you want to see the unedited version, there’s a link at the bottom of the post.

Summer’s official name is now: UCD Summer RA NA NAJ TBAD TG2. Not bad for a varmint dog from the sticks.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for:

Unedited version of rally run.

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

4 thoughts on “Welcome to the Funhouse

  1. Yea ! for you and Summer ! That is so hard for a sensitive dog and Summer looked great, tail up and waving the whole time. You’ve done a great job. So if the 1st place dogs were mixed breeds and you and Summer got second place the top 3 dogs were all mixed breeds? I’m sorry to ask but would you have time to write out what the letters stand for- UCD? I think RA,NA and NAJ are agility, TBAD,TG2 are totally new to me.

    1. Oh how wonderful that you asked about the titles. UCD is UKC novice obedience title (Companion Dog). Extremely similar to AKC’s CD. RA is Rally Advanced, the one we just got. NA and NAJ are AKC agility: Novice Agility and Novice Agility Jumpers. TBAD and TG2 are Teacup Agility, which Summer barely qualified for, size wise. I haven’t returned to that venue, although it’s fun. Summer has gotten fast, and while a great handler could keep her motivated and running well on those small courses, I was afraid I would demotivate her. TBAD is Teacup Beginner Agility Dog and TG2 is Teacup Games 2. Thanks for asking!

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