Actually these five simple tricks will also reduce stress in classes, so if your dog’s stress starts there then read on!
First, Allow your dog to acclimate to the area. The days of crating your dog and not letting them look around unless they are actively working are over. Yes, some dogs will stress up as a result of lack of acclimation and that might create nervous energy. And soon enough, you will discover the difference between an anxious dog who is moving a lot and one who is paying attention to you and showing usable drive. It’s not fun to try and work with a dog who is screaming, barking, and moving a lot without giving you the time of day.
Let your dogs look around! How you do that varies depending on what works best for your team. Some dogs do best if they are allowed to physically explore as much of the space as is practical. Others dogs do best if they watch quietly from their crates for short periods of time. Regardless, let your dog see where they are so they can become comfortable.
Second, cover your crate! I am amazed at the number of people who do not cover their dog’s crates, and then offer every reason under the sun for not doing so. Just because your dog needs to see where the are does not mean they should be uncovered for an hour, two hours, or an entire day. That is downright exhausting. My dog’s crates are covered from the time they are very young unless I want them to be looking at the space for 10 or 15 minutes at a time to acclimate. And they learn to sleep! Even at IPO where ever other car is rocking with a screaming dog, my dogs sleep in their crates. It makes an enormous difference. Speaking of crating out of cars or away from other dogs…it’s awesome! Do it whenever you can.
If your dog barks in the crate, spins in the crate, watches alertly from the crate, etc.? Cover the crate. If your dog sleeps in the crate and it is uncovered? Do what you want. But I mean sleeping; eyes shut and snoozing! Dogs spend the majority of their day in their home sound asleep. If you go to a dog show and every time you look at your dog they are awake? They are being exhausted for no reason, which causes cumulative stress. Cover your crate.
Third, place an enormous amount of space between yourself and other dogs in crates as you walk through the space. Because most people will not cover their crates, their dogs will watch you as you pass. Understandably a high percentage of dogs don’t think much of having your dog walk within a few feet of the front of their crate. That means they will bark and react towards your dog. That will cause your dog to have a nervous reaction.
When given a choice, dogs give each other space. They do not walk two feet in front of unfamiliar resting dogs, yet a leashed dog has no choice. Being yelled at by other dogs builds up stress in both dogs. Do not walk within 8 feet of a crate if you can possibly help it. Treat it like the dog’s personal bedroom- which it is supposed to be. Stay away! Anytime you notice a dog bark at you when you move by then make a mental note that you were too close. Take that as a learning opportunity. You’re stressing out your dog! You’re stressing out the dog in the crate! You’re stressing out every dog in the space that is listening to the reactive display! And you are stressing me out as well, even though I am currently sitting in my quiet house, because I know what is happening out there!
Giving plenty of space to crated dogs is particularly important until people routinely cover their dog’s crates, which brings us back to number two. Which we’re done talking about.
Fourth, teach your dog what you want them to do when they are not actively working and they are out of their crate. If you are talking to your instructor, what should your dog be doing? How about a down stay? Now your dog knows that he can rest quietly and wait. If you want your dog to have energy when you are running, you don’t want your dog using that energy up mindlessly, either physically or mentally through frustration and stress. Not to mention, we want to have positive relationships with our dogs. We don’t want our dogs frustrated with us! Teach your dog what you want in the crate, which I have already addressed, and now teach your dog what you want when you are talking to another person like a judge, a fellow exhibitor, an instructor, etc.
This is about clarity. I have addressed this several times on this blog recently, so feel free to scroll back and read my thoughts about the importance of a “waiting behavior” when your dog is not working.
Finally, pay attention. Rarely do bad things “come out of nowhere” when you are on the show grounds. Of course it happens, but…it’s rare. If your dog learns that you do not pay attention, and random dogs yell at him (from their crates or otherwise), and that you disconnect for no particular reason in the middle of training, setting up for competition, etc., then your dog will learn to pay attention, but not to you. To keeping himself safe because he’s not sure you’ll do it! Don’t let that happen.
If there were one thing I wish I could give to people it would be to develop the skill of paying attention. It’s a hard one! If you find yourself at the dog show and your dog is out with you and you are feeling relaxed? You’re not paying attention. Put your dog in the crate if you need to relax. Otherwise, pretend that your dog is a toddler without a leash near a busy road. Are you feeling relaxed now?
I recently wrote a blog for FDSA on ” Understanding hyper awareness: What happened when I showered with a spider“. If you don’t understand how the above points are critical to your dog’s comfort in a competition or training setting, please read that blog.
Dog sports are awesome for people! But sometimes for dogs? Not so much. Let’s do everything we can to make sure that our dogs enjoy training and competition environments just as much as we do.