This is a rewrite, with significant changes, of a post originally published in March 2013.
In March of 2013, Summer and I competed in her last AKC Rally Obedience trial. Yes, I was one of the many people who took a moderately reactive dog to trials to compete. She was such a good sport. She was a wonderful partner (she passed away in 2017) and did a great job, but I decided afterward that I was asking too much of her.
What It’s Like for a Reactive Dog at an Obedience Trial
Summer encountered many challenges at performance events and venues. A dog trial will never be the favorite environment of a dog who is indifferent to most people, primed to be afraid of men, bothered by certain types of dogs, and easily startled. Every time you turn a corner, or even while you sit in your own little area minding your own business, somebody new pops into your field of vision or right in your space. And the noise!
Once I described the trial environment and what it was like for a dog like Summer to a friend, and she said, “Like a funhouse!” She nailed it. For those 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…
Funhouses have mirrors that distort your appearance or confuse the pathway or aren’t mirrors at all. Some floors give way and move when you step on them. Weird characters may pop into view. They often have a confusing maze. In other words, a funhouse is an out-of-control environment that is hard to escape.
The big difference, of course, is that humans generally enter such attractions voluntarily, knowing roughly what to expect. For some reason, some of us actually seek out experiences that startle or scare us or bewilder our senses. I don’t think dogs do. Summer went (rarely) to obedience events because I took her. I did my very best to make them easy and pleasurable for her, but this was a challenge.
Summer’s History in Competition
I got Summer at about 10 months old from a local shelter. She was under-socialized and feared children and most men. She was anxious, she hated most small terriers and other feisty dogs, and she became somewhat sound-sensitive over the years. Besides these traits, she didn’t have a huge drive to do stuff with people. She was an extremely mixed breed, close to the phenotype of the village dog except for her longer coat. She generally wanted to do her doggie things like chase varmints and she liked her comfort. Finally, she was hypothyroid, on medication, and tired easily.
Perfect performance dog, right? Actually, for me, she was.
Summer and I were very close. We worked together for all of her life with me and she always read me better than any of the other dogs. She was my crossover dog and we grew up together in the dog training world. She loved to go places and have me to herself. I reinforced the hell out of rally and obedience behaviors, and she came to enjoy them almost as much as agility. Plus there were always those wonderful smells at dog trials!
How I Helped My Dog at Rally and Obedience Trials
Here are some of the things I did at trials to maximize the good for Summer:
- She got tired easily, so we minimized the time at any event (We stayed for about 2 1/2 hours at this event but we were outdoors for plenty of that).
- I left her by herself as little as possible since it worried her. Even if I had to go to the bathroom, I would get someone she knew to sit next to her crate.
- I set up our crate in a less-trafficked area and set up visual barriers in our little zone to cut down on some of the stimuli.
- I sought out and let her visit with a couple of people whom she adored (and who adored her).
- I took her outside as much as possible. She loved to explore outdoors.
- If there was an opportunity to work in the ring beforehand, we always did. I used the time to get her comfortable in the space while still staying connected with me.
- I stayed hypervigilant (since she was). I tried to see every possible startling thing before she did, to protect her or give her a heads up. (Also to protect other dogs from a possible snark.)
- I took the best treats ever, both for after her competition run but also for sitting around in such a difficult environment.
- I was responsive to her energy level and generally didn’t take her more than two days in a row.
I am not the only person who has made these efforts. Our name is legion, and since the original date of this post, the group has grown. There are now entire courses on helping dogs adapt to trial environments. Many bloggers write about competing, and sometimes choosing not to compete, with dogs who have difficulties in public situations. Thankfully, the pressure to compete at all costs seems to have given way to more consideration for the dog’s wants and needs. There are also many more opportunities for competition that accommodate the needs of fearful or reactive dogs, including all-virtual titles where you submit videos online.
I would not compete in public with a dog like Summer now. Why did I do it then? I had several motivations. Competing gave me specific goals and helped me keep focused on my training. It gave Summer and me something to do together with just the two of us. Also, I liked to get out and show people what a dog trained with positive reinforcement could look like in the ring. Even with Summer’s challenges, she always looked happier than 90% of the dogs who competed. And I wanted people to see a mixed breed dog competing and doing well. (This was still a rarity at the time.) And hey, I admit, I’m competitive.
With all these motivations, I had to temper my ego and preferences and avoid pushing my dog too hard.
Our Title Run in Rally Advanced
The sport of rally obedience involves lots of heeling in patterns and some other combinations of moves such as sits, downs, stays, and jumps. There are signs placed in order around the ring, each representing a defined behavior to perform.
Summer was one of the two first mixed breed dogs in my state to get an AKC Rally Novice title, a goal I set out to achieve as soon as I found out that she would soon be eligible. She got two first-place runs and a third place. The other mutt did well, too. I think the other owner was a motivated as I was to show that mixed breeds could perform well.
At the Novice level in rally, dogs compete on leash and there are 10–15 signs in the ring (out of a pool of 40 or so that you learn). In Rally Advanced (the second level in AKC) they are off leash and there are 12–17 signs, including more difficult ones. Summer and I already had two “legs” (qualifying runs) in March of 2013. A third qualifier would give us our title. Spoiler alert: we succeeded.
At this last trial, the course was a fun one, with a lot of Summer’s favorite moves and a couple of the new signs added that year. Things went very smoothly until we got to the very back of the ring.
We encountered a problem I had never experienced. The required behavior was a spiral left. You must take the dog in a certain spiraling pattern around some pylons, with the dog on the inside, between you and the pylons. But the pylons were set up parallel to the ring boundary and very close to it. We couldn’t walk comfortably in the space between the ring fencing and the pylons. I don’t know how the people with bigger dogs did it. I had trained Summer to walk at a certain proximity to me and she kept trying to move over into her normal position. This sent her toward the wrong side of the pylons. But she was only doing what I had trained her to do.
I kept getting her back in position but she finally made a move that would have made us fail the sign completely. So we took the option of a complete 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 of the ring, encouraging her to stay extra close to me. Even with the do-over, we got a score of 96 (out of 100) and second place.
There were some other rocky moments when she got distracted by sights or sounds. I didn’t blame her. People were cheering in the other rings, and a bunch of dogs and people gathered around ours. I was so proud that she stuck with me so well in such a difficult environment.
Video of the Run
I’ve never posted a rally or obedience video before because we were decent but not all that great. We were true amateurs, competing in obedience less than once a year on average. But I was pleased when I saw the film. The only moments Summer looked unhappy were a couple of times during sit stays (at 1:13 and 2:15). When we were moving, her tail stayed up and she looked focused and happy. I even like the parts where she got distracted and looked out of the ring because she responded when I asked her to.
I edited out the first try at the spiral for brevity and clarity. I’m not embarrassed by the mistake. We were at the back of the ring and it’s hard to see our fatal error, so for most viewers, it would be 27 seconds of boredom. I linked to the unedited version at the bottom of the post for the curious.
As you can see from her body language, Summer was pretty happy in the ring. It’s not surprising; we practiced a lot and I regularly gave her a whole jar of chicken baby food after a rally run! She knew what was waiting for her. But even that ambrosia can’t turn a miserable dog happy, and she looked happy and comfortable for most of her time in the ring.
Nonetheless, this was Summer’s last competition. We could have returned the next day to compete at the next level, for which we had practiced. But trials exhausted both of us. And with her potential for noisy reactivity if a small terrier should get in her face, I felt it wasn’t responsible to keep taking her. Remember, in the funhouse, you are never quite in control.
UCD Summer RA NA NAJ TBAD TG2.
Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson