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Melt Down

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I took Brito to  a formal practice run last week.  I wanted to see where we’re at in our training and what we need to work on.  Apparently….stuff!

I try to treat myself with the same kindness that I offer others, so let’s start with what went well.  Here’s a video of the off leash heeling:

I’m happy with that picture – he’s happy, crisp and engaged.  That’s what I’m looking for.

Now let’s consider the on-leash figure eight:

Something is clearly wrong here.  He’s avoiding sitting (the start of work), he is not looking at me, his ears look like satellites and his tail wag is low and unsure.

If you work with fragile dogs, you might want to prepare for something like this because meltdowns happen.  It could be the pressure of the figure eight posts.  It could be the handler transmitting nerves down the leash.  It could be the formality, or the building, or the low rate of reinforcement.   And while it’s important to figure it out for your long term goals, it’s also important to have a short term strategy, to get you through the situation with minimal damage.

Here were my options:

  1. Jolly him out of it.  Over the years I have watched a lot of people jolly their dogs to try and recover them.  And as far as I can tell it never actually works.  So for me, that option is off the table – it’s a waste of time and it adds inordinate pressure to an already stressed dog.
  2. Bring out food or toys.  That might work for some dogs and is a perfectly fine temporary strategy, but if you have to do that, then you better do some hard thinking about your training.  You have a serious hole, and you don’t want to compete until you’ve figured out why your dog is reliant on the sight of a reinforcer to feel better.  But if it gets you through the moment, then what the heck.  Do it.
  3. Wait.  Just wait – comfort your dog, and see if they move past it.  If you run out of time, then that’s fine.   Leave the ring at that point.
  4.  Leave.  This is actually a more viable option than most people recognize.  Leaving the ring without judgement would have been an excellent option in this scenario.

I opted for #3.  He wasn’t so far gone that I felt that I was doing harm, and I really wanted to see where he was going to go with his behavior.  Since I was paying for a set period of time, no one really cares how I choose to use it.

Looking back, what I probably should have done was released him back to exploration – given him about two minutes to acclimate inside the ring (his first time in this ring), and then, if he requested work, gone forwards from there.  If not, simply left when time was up.

That’s why having a plan in advance is useful – it’s hard to make good choices on the fly.  Next time I have a plan.

That’s the answer that makes sense for this dog under these circumstances.  Brito became unsure.  In a case like that I want to give him a chance to feel comfortable AND I want to give him a chance to request work again.

What makes sense for your dog?  I don’t know.  Why is your dog struggling?  Fear? Curiosity?  Distraction?  Lack of reinforcement?  Start there – once you have an answer to that, you’ll be able to progress.  Just make sure you have a plan or two in mind before you head for the ring – even a practice one.

I went home a little bit depressed.  Would I ever get this dog competition ready?

And then I watched the tape.  What seemed like a total and complete meltdown didn’t look so bad after all! Our on and off leash heeling was downright cute, as was his stand for exam.

Why is it that our human brain is so determined to dwell on what goes wrong rather than what goes right?  My plan is to hold in my head all of his wonderful effort while I simultaneously work towards strengthening his weaker spots.  My goal is to have even more bright spots at our next run through.  I’m excited to get  back to work!  I got what I needed – information on where to go next.

Now it’s time to go there.


About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

17 responses »

  1. This was perfect timing to hear this for me. I would have fallen back into being demanding and commanding. Totally wrong direction to go. Help my dog! Ask what is she feeling and why may she feel that way.

    Again, thank you, Denise, for the wise words. And encouraging us to be kind to ourselves too.

    Deb & Ulli

  2. You are so wise, Denise Fenzi! You have changed the way I work–and play!–with my dogs. I’m so glad I found you.

  3. …and his off-leash heeling was pretty and happy. Your approach to Brito’s issue was
    SO respectful. That is one of the things I really love learning from you–not just +R but *respect* for the dog and the dog’s experience.

  4. Wow! This posting was so on point with what I and many of my friends deal with on a regular basis – whether it be agility or obedience. And why DO we always seem to focus on what went wrong more than we do on what went right? Be kind to ourselves. Have to remember that, along with HAVE A PLAN. Always great articles that make us all step back and take a look at the big picture.

  5. Thank you for this post! I’ve been determined to not repeat past errors as I transition my young agility dog into trialing. I”m sure that my rush into trialing ruined the agility trial experience for my first dog. Taking my time with my young dog….very few trials, more fun matches, and a lot more observation!

  6. You are exactly right, as usual. What you felt when you were in the moment was totally different than what you saw on tape. Another reminder for me to tape my work. You and I have that in common. The difference is that you actually tape your work with your dogs. The positive side of this post is that you have given me another gentle reminder to tape my works. Thank you very much.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your blog. I’m doing my first online course with you as a Bronze student and loving it. I have leaned an amazing amount. The best part is I feel a whole new attitude to training beginning to develop. . My dog and I are starting to have fun again and it’s wonderful!

  8. Perfect timing for me…as I get ready to go to a match with my young, not confident dog. Great idea to back away and make a plan that helps her feel confident and re-engage (I hope!) and tape it! the 8 was pretty when you did it!

  9. I would have opted for strategy 4. Just watching your video I was wondering why you didn’t just turn around and heel Brito away. (It WAS just ring practice wasn’t it?)
    I’ve found that with any of the other strategies the dog senses our frustration (no matter how cool calm and collected we think we are being) so doesn’t really settle down.

  10. And a question. You seemed to start the Figure 8 almost between the ‘posts’. Is that standard (for the body you trial with)? Here (Australia national Kennel Council) it is usual to start the Fig 8 from a position that would make you with your dog sitting at heel the third vertex of a equilateral triangle. This gives your dog the opportunity to see and ‘size up’ the people who are acting as posts.

  11. What a great post.. It shows not to panic when it goes wrong! Your points are excellent as always and I continue to learn from you all the time! Your heeling with Bitro was lovely! Thank you for posting this article!!

  12. This has always seemed So unfair–not allowing the dog access to the ring beforehand. Of course, I realize tht it is a matter of Time Element–but still…it Would be nice. It could eliminate a lot of angst for both dog and handler, and make the tasks a bit more happy.
    In Canine Freestyle Elements, dog and handler are allowed in the ring the day before and the morning of…..helps a bit.
    I think you made the right choice. Good luck next time! He is sooooo dang Cute!!!

  13. that was beautiful — you were really being and advocate for what your dog was feeling — I have a melt down all the time german shepherd and my trainer tells me the best thing to be in an advocate! If she’s not feeling it …give her time and if still not then be ok with it and try again another time.

  14. The heeling video looks great, and also very adorable 🙂 The figure 8 wasn’t that bad, and I loved how you waited him out and let him decide when he was ready. When he did go back to work, it looked awesome 🙂 I know so many people who would collar grab and reset as if the dog had done wrong, and I guess in some cases that works, but sometimes they just need a second to process.

  15. This post has so many nuggets (as usual :). Two that jump at me are the importance of having a plan, and the importance of executing it (or adjusting it, as appropriate for the dog on that day) even in the face of the pressure of having the dog not perform with human spectators in the picture. So many times, people do just pull out the toy or cookie when soft dogs deflate (been there, done that!) to just “get through it” without really analyzing the situation. My last dog taught me a lot about that and now I think before I reach LOL. And thanks for the reminder of ruminating on all that was right about the session and not just dwelling on what needed work. We humans are so hard on ourselves much of the time, at our teammates’ expense! Very cute heeling, indeed!


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