Saturday, August 29, 2015

Handler Stress Behavior

I had a difficult day with Molly's weave poles at the trial yesterday.  She missed her entry in JWW and stressed down and could not even complete the weaves.  In Standard she popped out towards the middle of the poles and we did several re-attempts, none of them successful.  I entered her in the training match at the end of the trial.  My intention was to excite her over the toy and let her have a positive experience.  Instead, she kept popping out to get her toy because I was trying to motivate her with it and was pulling her out.   In the end it felt like 70 seconds of drilling weave poles into my hot tired dog, and I am so ashamed of myself it very nearly burns.  I just want to utilize my time well and I can't seem to make Good Choices.  We did end on a successful rep of all 12 poles with a major party with the furry tug toy, so...that was good.

I have been mentally grilling myself: Why does my dog fall apart at trials with her weave poles?

To answer that I have to ask another question: Does Molly understand weave poles?
This is a hard question to be honest about.  But I truly feel that the answer is yes.  When Molly and myself are completely relaxed, she can get the "crazy" entries.  She is confident and fast and stays in the poles.  She is enjoying herself.  We work at home or at the park on layering, on weaving no matter what, no matter where, no matter my position.   We work hard.  It breaks my heart how hard we work and yet we cannot seem to get our act together.  I asked my agility instructor one time if she feels that Molly understands weave poles.   She paused for a moment and considered, and said that she can see that Molly understands her job.  My instructor is very experienced and is also honest with me, and I trust her very very much.  I was terrified to even ask that question of her.  But the answer is yes.  Molly really does have incredible weave poles and is capable of really enjoying herself while performing them.  I know this.

I also considered other obstacles that Molly has faulted consistently.  The A-frame and the Dog Walk.  The weave poles remain as an obstacle that we continue to fault and make no progress on at trials.

With the A-frame, my stress behavior was to blame.  What did my stress behavior look like?
"Whoah'ing" Molly, stopping dead beside the A-frame, pointing at the down ramp, turning towards Molly.
I wrote posts on this blog in the past about how difficult it was for me to cease those behaviors.  It was very, very, very hard for me.  But I did it.  I remember Molly's A-frame flyoffs jumped back up again on the weekend we were trying to earn our C-ATCH.  Major handler stress, as much as I tried to mask it.  After we earned that title, the fly offs dropped off again nearly completely.  She has not faulted the A-frame in about a month and a half, and the last time that she did so was because I was behind her.  Molly still "freaks out" if I am behind her because I think she still reads that as me putting the brakes on and it stresses her out.

With the Dog Walk, my stress behavior was to blame as well as Molly not being clear on the behavior that I wanted.  What did my stress behavior look like?
"Whoah'ing Molly", talking to her the whole length of the dog walk ("You're a good girl, do you want a treat?, etc etc.  Super heavy verbal management until she could not deal with it anymore and jumped off the end.), turning into her.
The other piece of the puzzle here was that at class, I would stop running at the end of the dog walk, and Molly would stop and get her treat.  This did not translate to a trial environment.  I began to wonder "If I taught Molly a new cue-word for a stopped contact..."   And I did.
Once again, forcing myself to remain silent and not turn into Molly while she is running the dog walk nearly eliminated the issue.  Now when Molly is on the dog walk I wait until she is halfway through the top plank and say "Spot!" cheerfully, one time.  When she starts the descent I say Spot one more time.   She understands, I am not stressing her out any longer...  I'm having a hard time even remembering the last time that Molly faulted the dog walk.

With the Weave Poles....
I am looking hard at what my stress behaviors look like when Molly is in the weave poles.  I already know that I "micromanage", I clap and talk too much.  I use to "Whoah!" Molly before she made her entrance.   That history as well as some major stress over not understanding the obstacle for a full year and a half of competition is what we are up against.   We both continue to exhibit a sort of PTSD at trials over the weave poles.
My stress behaviors: I have calmed down the ridiculous behavior in halting Molly into getting her entries.  I have tried so hard to not talk to her in the poles, and to not clap.  It seems that my body does these things no matter how hard I try to stop.  I noticed on my video of JWW yesterday how I am turning my shoulders into Molly.

It has to stop!  It all has to stop.  I completely lack confidence and it shows.  I absolutely despise weave poles and if they were eradicated from agility today, I would not miss them one little bit.  That's a hard mental process for me to beat!  I also feel like a complete failure on a consistent basis.  I must be a horrible dog trainer if I cannot get either Molly or Perri to weave at trials.  (Perri was wonderful until her shoulder injury.  While her confidence is being rebuilt at trials, it is stressing me out.)  I was so pleased two weeks ago with myself for looking ahead, not chattering...and sure enough Molly perked up and bounced through the poles in response.
The funny thing, or maybe not so funny, is that I wrote a post about this exact subject in January.  About trusting Molly in the poles, about not crowding her, about letting her work and trusting her.  And I cannot seem to do it.  So neither can she.  It seems that controlling my own stressed out handling is far more difficult for me with regard to the weave poles than it ever was for the dog walk and A-frame.  That is probably because success came much quicker with the contact obstacles than it has for the weave poles.

Tomorrow I will be a student of handler behavior when dogs are weaving.  I always watch the dogs weave, never the handler.  I want to study people and find the stress behaviors, and will likely recognize those things in myself.  And try stop doing them.  It will be a process.  Something that I have been doing without regularity is that during my walkthrough, I imagine how I will behave when my dog is in the weave poles.  This needs to happen on every walk through.  I concentrated on doing this on that Standard run two weeks ago that I was so proud of myself for "behaving" during the weave poles.  It needs to sink into my head.

Oh, how easy this must be for some people.  Perhaps one day I will look back on myself and laugh.  I sure hope so.  Heeling and weave poles - look ahead.  Be confident.  Trust your dog.  Why is this so difficult for me?

I wrote this To Molly on her birthday post in June, "Thank you Molly for making me think, making me learn, for forgiving my mistakes, for forcing me to be better, for forcing me to be smarter.  For forcing me to be what you deserve."
And I still mean it.  Every word.  I am humbled by dogs, how they give a hundred thousand second chances to humans.  I am humbled by my girl, who has given me so many second chances.  I know she will help me become the weave-handler that she deserves.

credit -- R. Gavin


  1. You will get it!
    I am reminded of several of Lance's broken behaviors in obedience over the years, all related to stress on his part. Utility is challenging for the dog's as they have to make decisions at a distance and although Lance is my more confident dog in general, he is also my worried to make a mistake dog. The only thing that fixed my down signal issue with Lance 2 years ago was pretending he was never wrong. Lance knew the down signal with heavy proofing very very well, just not at matches or trials where he was stressed. So I went to matches and no matter what he did when I gave that down signal I praised and chucked him tons and tons of cookies. He sat, I rewarded. He stared at me frozen, I rewarded. And wouldn't you know his stress started to disappear and his perfect response to the down signal magically came back.

    Not saying that will work for Molly, but it's something to think about.
    And on another note, I really really enjoy channel weaves. Just gets the running back,almost no thinking needed.

    Not that you asked for advice, so feel free to ignore :)

    1. Oh no, I very much appreciate the advice! Thank you! :)

      Molly is SO confident almost all of the time, I forget to help her when she is not.