Sue Yanoff, a student at FDSA and a longtime obedience competitor, wrote the following description of her journey to her CDX with her Beagle Ivy. I asked Sue if I could share it here because in my experience, ring stress is the most common problem trainers run into within their competition career. The fact is, training and trialing rarely end up being the same.
There is an amazing amount of wisdom in the following paragraphs. Thank you Sue. I am quite certain that your words here will help other competitors recover from their struggles or, even better, avoid them in the first place.
Ring Stress – My Journey with Ivy
On Oct 18, 2014, I showed my beagle, Ivy, in Novice for the first time. It was at the Beagle National Specialty in Wisconsin. Ivy scored 198, which was High in Trial. It was the worst thing that could have happened in my training journey.
Wait, what did I say? Don’t I mean the best thing that happened? At the time, yes. It was great! It was exciting! But in retrospect, it was the worst thing. Because I gave up what I wanted most (OTCH) for what I wanted now (showing at our specialty).
Ivy is the first dog that I trained entirely with positive reinforcement. I switched from “balanced” training to positive reinforcement training when I was trying to get a UD on my older beagle. I made a conscious decision that there would never be any “have to” in Ivy’s training. Ivy was an outgoing, friendly, confident, fun-loving, and highly food motivated puppy. Nothing bothered her. Teaching her skills was fun for me. Learning the skills was fun for her. As I saw her progress, I was confident that she would not only be good in the obedience ring, she was going to be great. That was my first mistake.
At a Denise Fenzi seminar that I attended when Ivy was young, Denise said, “Expectation is pressure.” I understood what she meant, but I did not think it applied to Ivy and me. That would come back to haunt me.
For Ivy’s second time in Novice (March 2015), she scored 190.5. Not bad. But where she has lost 1.5 points on heeling in her first trial, she lost 9.5 points at this trial. I was surprised and disappointed in her. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Ivy felt that disappointment.
At her third trial (July 2015), Ivy scored 186.5. Still not bad, but come on. She was capable of so much more. She lost 13 points in heeling! Ivy earned her CD, but not in the manner I expected. What was going on?
This video shows Ivy’s first time in Novice, and her third time. I show from the end of the stand for exam to the beginning of heel off leash. Looking at it now, I can see all the signs of stress in that third show. But back then, I did not recognize it as stress. Boy, do I know better now!
We continued to train. Her next time in open was May 2016. She qualified with a 188.5. She was distracted on the heeling and lost 9 points. But the other exercises were very good.
The next time in open (Jun 2016), she had a nice run, losing only 2.5 points on heeling. On the long sit, she got up and walked a few steps to follow me as I walked away. I should have called her to me and left the ring. I left her standing there for 3 minutes.
At the next trial, she ran out for the dumbbell for the ROF, picked it up, dropped it, and ran back to me. Hmmm, that was new, but not big deal, because she seemed happy.
At the following trial, she ran out to the dumbbell and stood there. I gave her another command to “take it” and she did, and ran back.
At the next trial, Ivy’s heeling was poor (she lost 18 points!), but the other exercises were good. She went down on the long sit with 15 seconds left. That was in Sept 2016. We took several months to “fix” the sit stay.
We continued to work on open and utility skills. Ivy’s attitude towards training was not as happy as it used to be, but I didn’t think too much of that.
In Jun, 2107, I thought Ivy was read for Open again. I put her in Open B, to see if a different order (heeling not first) would help her to be happier in the ring. She Q’d, but with a score of 173. She did an automatic finish on each exercise. She walked out to the dumbbell on the ROF, and walked back. On the broad jump exercise, she jumped over the high jump before jumping the broad jump. But we had our second open leg.
At the next 3 trials, Ivy did not pick up the dumbbell on the ROF and/or ROH. Twice, I excused myself from the class, and left the ring frustrated and pissed off. No jackpot for Ivy after those performances!
I should also mention that Ivy’s set-ups were bad. I had a hard time getting her to come to heel position. She would walk away, walk around me, sniff. I could “feel” her lack of energy. I continued to think that Ivy’s skills just were not good enough. I did not think it was “ring stress” because my dog was not a “stressy” dog.
I continued to work on her skills, at the expense of her attitude. Shortly after Ivy’s last open trial, I was looking through videos of trials and matches, trying to figure out what might be going on. At one match, I left Ivy for the drop on recall. As I was walking away, Ivy looked stressed. A lightbulb went off. My dog WAS stressed in the ring. It only took me 2 years to realize it. (Poor Ivy!).
This is the video that was my “aha” moment. This was in Dec 2015. All I saw at that time was a beautiful drop on recall. I did not see what Ivy looked like when I left her until I reviewed the video in light of our ring issues.
Stress is cumulative. Imagine how much stress accumulated over 2 years. I knew that not only did I cause it, but I knew how I caused it.
The main cause of Ivy’s stress was too much punishment. Wait, there is no punishment in positive reinforcement training, right? Wrong. There is negative punishment – taking away something that Ivy wanted when she did something “wrong.” What I took away from Ivy was reinforcement. If she did not meet my expectations, she did not get a reward. We stared over, or I put her in her crate, or I just ended the session.
I trashed Ivy’s positive CER towards training. I think it would have been O.K. if I did this once in a while, but I did it fairly often. And I did it way too soon in her training. This was very hard on Ivy. And the worse part was that I did this when I had access to practice rings! I punished Ivy in the ring!! Many times.
Another cause of Ivy’s stress was that in my efforts to get her “ring ready,” I put too much pressure on her. I had high expectations. She “knew” these exercises, why wasn’t she doing them? She was so good in practice, why couldn’t she do it in the ring?
A third cause was that I took a lot of the fun out of training. As I drilled the exercises, I ignored the fact that Ivy wasn’t having as much fun as she used to. Sure, she got excited when I got the food out, but that was the only thing that made her excited. When she made mistakes in training, I just whipped out the food and got her excited again.
O.K. So I knew my dog had ring stress. Now what? At first, I just worked on the exercises, trying to make them more fun. I thought if I could bring the fun back, while working on fluency, Ivy’s attitude would improve. But I didn’t really feel we were progressing. I also believed that I had put good foundations on the exercises, that I had proofed them well, and that fluency was not Ivy’s main problem.
When I took Sarah Stremming’s Hidden Potential class, there was a lot of good information that was applicable to Ivy’s situation. Two statements that really helped me focus on what I had to do were: 1. “Think of emotion as part of the fluency of any behavior you are teaching. She must exhibit joy in each piece, or we have not actually taught her the appropriate criteria.” This made me lean towards working more on getting Ivy to feel good about training and the ring, rather than the working on the exercises themselves. 2. “If behavior that you previously has decreased, punishment is involved.” This clinched my belief that Ivy had been punished for being in the ring. Why else would she stop doing behaviors that she had previously done well?
A very important part of Ivy’s rehab was something that Nancy Gagliardi Little stressed to several of her gold students in her latest Handler’s Choice class: clear cues. I made sure that my cue word that told Ivy reinforcement was coming was given before any other movement on my part. I think Ivy was confused as to when she might get reinforced, and that stressed her.
I also re-trained Ivy’s “jackpot” cue. I took Julie Daniels’ Cookie Jar Games class, and sort of trained Ivy that she would get reinforcement outside the ring, but I used a few different words, and they didn’t always result in reinforcement. I now use the word “jackpot,” which clearly means we will run out of the ring, right to a big food reward. I use that word in training, even when we are not in a ring, to mean the same thing. It is now very clear to Ivy what that word means. I think that clarification has helped her a lot.
I started to concentrate mainly on Ivy’s emotional response to the ring. In training, we did a lot of ring entries, as taught in several FDSA classes. I did a lot of set-ups. I would set Ivy up in heel position, release her, move to another part of the training area (or ring), set up again, and reward. We worked up to several set-ups in a row, followed by “jackpot.”
I also changed how I released Ivy. In the past, I had her do a hand touch. She does these very well in training, with a lot of energy. This behavior has been heavily rewarded. But she never did a hand touch in the ring when I asked. Then I read what Denise wrote (in a class, blog, or FB, I don’t remember): “For those of you who try to get your dog moving with a lot of hand touches to CAUSE the energy in a nervous dog – rethink that. Once the dog is “ears up” and with you – it’s fine because you are joining their energy. But you cannot force energy – it falls apart when you enter the ring.”
I decided to stop trying to do hand touches in the ring. I trained a new “exercise finished” behavior. I hesitate a moment, smiling at Ivy and leaning forward slightly, then say Ivy’s release word (break) and move quickly to the next position. (If any of you know the “exploding tree” exercise, this is how I start it in training.) I verbally praise her as we move, but do not pet her (I don’t think she liked it when I bent over her to pet her).
After I set her up in heel at the next position, I bend my knees next to her (not over her) and briefly pet her while whispering what the next exercise will be. Ivy seems more comfortable with this routine.
At Show ’n Go’s and in training, I would enter the ring, set up, and then have the “judge” throw a piece of food for Ivy. Several people told me that this would make Ivy pay too much attention to the judge in a real trial. I was willing to take that chance. I wanted her to have a positive CER towards the judge.
When I entered the Jan 2017 trials, I wasn’t sure if Ivy was going to do any better. I had been to several Show ‘n Go’s, and had trained twice in the building where the trial was going to be. I thought she was better. I wanted to finish Ivy’s CDX before the rules changed. I had had trouble with the long sit, and I wanted to prove that I could teach the long sit and down.
Even though I felt pressure, I tried hard not to let Ivy know. I entered the ring knowing it would be O.K. if Ivy did not do well. I knew as soon as I entered the ring and set up that I had a different dog. I could feel it and I could see it. Ivy’s ears were up and she did not look worried. She set up right away for the heel free exercise. During the heeling, I kept expecting Ivy to lag, or walk in front of me on the slow, or hang back on the about turn. She did none of those things. I felt good, and I’m sure Ivy felt that. Her figure 8 was perfect. I felt good as we moved from the figure 8 to the drop on recall spot. Ivy felt good, too. Her performance, instead of getting worse, actually got better. On the retrieve on the flat, she ran out, grabbed her dumbbell, ran back, and gave me an almost perfect front. Same with the retrieve over the high jump. I was feeling really good as we moved to the broad jump, which was also great. I kneeled down to pet Ivy and tell her how great she was.
The judge asked if I would be back for sits and downs. Hell, yes! The steward gave me Ivy’s leash. After I put it on, I softly said “jackpot,” walked out of the ring, then ran to Ivy’s crate, where she got her (large) reward.
Since Ivy was the first dog in the ring that day, I had to wait about two hours for the entire class to be judged before we did sits and downs. I was nervous, but Ivy came through. I was so relieved when I left the ring. When the judge called us back to the ring for ribbons, I knew we had done well, but I was not sure how well. The judge said, “In first place, with a score of 195…” I looked at the two goldens and a lab that had also qualified and thought, “If one of them got a 195, Ivy probably got a 192 or 193.” Then the judge called our number!! I was so happy, and so proud of Ivy. She lost only 1.5 points on heeling. The other points came off for crooked fronts and finishes. But she fronted on every exercise!
I wish I had video of this run. I did not bring my video camera because I did not really think Ivy would do well. I regret that decision.
I am under no illusion that all of our problems are solved. Ivy could be well on the road to recovery, or this could have been a fluke. I will continue to stress Ivy’s emotional well- being over anything else. I will not punish her. I will not be disappointed in her. I will not drill her. I will make training fun as we work towards getting ready for utility.
This has been a long, frustrating journey, but I have learned so much. I love Ivy, and appreciate her. She still loves me, even though I have given her a lot of reasons not to. Dogs are so forgiving! Ivy has made me a better trainer, and my next dog will benefit from this. Every FDSA instructor stresses that your dog’s emotional well- being is more important than anything. I will NEVER forget that. I want to thank Denise Fenzi, and all the FDSA instructors. You gave me the knowledge and the tools I needed.