This past weekend, Risa earned her RN (Rally Novice) title in AKC rally. I am so proud of her!
After her amazing performance at her first rally trial back in November, I decided we should pursue the title. I knew there was a nearby, two-day trial coming up so I entered her in the hopes that she could earn a qualifying score both days and achieve her RN. Even better, the trial was being held at the facility where we had been attending classes for rally. I figured that would make things less stressful and easier for her since she’s had plenty of positive experiences in that building.
When we arrived at the show site on Saturday, I couldn’t believe how crowded it was! There was no crating space left in the competition area so we had to settle for setting up camp in the hallway. I didn’t realize how busy the hall would actually be at the time. As the day went on, I noticed there was a lot of traffic back and forth as well as handlers and their dogs practicing nearby. While I do cover Risa’s crate to make her feel better and to keep her from snarking at every dog that walks by, I’m still not sure she ever felt comfortable. One of the times I went to check on her, she was panting from stress. 🙁
I was considerably nervous about stepping into the ring with Risa. During the morning, I had spent some time working with her on the rally exercises and walking her around the show site. She kept trying to check out everything. Chairs, kennels, dogs, lint on the floor, people, etc. I had considerable difficulty getting her attention even in the hallway while holding a meatball! Though I had been nervous during our November trial, I think I was even worse this time. I now knew she could do it and had higher expectations of her.
When we stepped into the ring, she was very distracted. The course was heavy on heelwork. There were only three stationary exercises and two of them weren’t until the end. In fact, they were the last two stations. So there was a long string of turns in the middle of our course and Risa was looking all over the place. We lost a lot of points for having a tight leash. On the stationary exercises, Risa was outstanding. Her focus was great and she performed them with ease. It was the long stretch of heeling that killed us.
That being said, we still qualified with a score of 86. We even managed to get a 4th place rosette. I know Risa tried her best and I was very proud of her. We went home to rest shortly after finishing our run. I knew the event was stressful for her and wanted her to have a chance to get some peace and quiet so she could be ready for the next day.
Saturday evening, I assessed our performance and spoke with a friend of mine who’s quite accomplished in APDT Rally-O. I realized that, despite knowing the facility where the trial was held, it was three times as busy during a trial. Risa is hypervigilant, fearful, yet also curious about what’s going on. With all the activity, it was really hard for her to keep her focus on me. There was little I could do to fix this overnight. I also realized the course had hurt us with it’s long stretch of heeling. It gave Risa plenty of time to scope out the place. While there was nothing I could do about that, I hoped that Sunday’s course would have more stationary exercises and that the heeling would be more broken up.
My friend gave me some great advice also. She told me to talk to Risa more. I didn’t say much to Ris in the ring Saturday because I felt I had said TOO much when we competed in November. I was also advised to take my time to make sure Risa was focused on me before starting and to work on my footwork so that Ris would anticipate when a turn was coming.
Sunday morning, I had higher hopes for our attempt at the title. I got there earlier than I had on Saturday and was able to find a crating spot INSIDE. The location was perfect. It was quiet and not nearly as traffic-heavy as the hallway had been. There were fewer dogs competing on Sunday so I was able to take Risa around to investigate without having to weave around the crowd. Her focus seemed better than it had on Saturday, especially while we were in motion. I had a feeling she was going to do much better.
When it came time to trial, we were the first dogs in the ring. I was just about to step in to start when the judge told me I had to wait. One of the ring stewards had stepped away. I was already nervous and had given Risa the last of the meatball I had been using to keep her focus. I didn’t want to wait; I was afraid I would lose Risa. But I had no choice.
I took my time with Ris when we stepped in the ring, really trying to get and keep her attention. She looked around, scratched at an itch I knew she didn’t have, and stretched out to sniff the judge. Eventually, I got her focus and we started our course. The course was a much better one for us. Plenty of stationary exercises and the heeling was more broken up. I was worried one of the signs would goof me up as it was in the same place as the previous day and was almost the same sign! It was a call front, finish right, halt. The day before, it was a finish to the left. When I came upon it, I remembered to finish Risa on the right. . .but I forgot to halt! Whoops!
I spoke to Risa more this time around but I didn’t see much of a difference. She was still distracted and looking around but a bit less so than the day before. Her focus on the stationary exercises was exactly what I had expected. I was pleased to see our score was much higher than Saturday’s, despite my goof (which I didn’t realize I had made until I watched the video when I got home). We qualified with a score of 93, got fourth place again, and earned our RN title.
Aside from her performance in the ring, she was actually quite good outside of it. Most dogs she either avoided or tried to sniff. On Saturday, she barked at a Lab while I was walking her down the hallway but that was the most reactive she was that day. It was only one bark as well.
Sunday she was a little bit worse. Her German shepherd friend was there competing as well so I took Risa over to see her an hour or so before we were due in the ring. Ris was VERY happy to see her friend (I think she was also happy that I finally let her sniff another dog!). While they were sitting near each other and behaving nicely, we were giving out treats. At one point, Ris’ buddy came over while I was just about to hand Risa a goodie and Risa lunged at her. It was brief and there were no hard feelings afterward. Just Risa showing her lack of confidence by guarding a resource.
She also lunged at a small dog who got too close when its handler wasn’t paying attention to it. I tried to back Risa away before she felt the need to tell him off but we were in a tight space and I wasn’t fast enough. Fortunately, the dog got the message instantly and backed away when Risa asked him to. The dog’s owner never saw what happened.
Finally, she growled at a dog who walked close to us while we were waiting outside the rally ring for the awards ceremony. It was very minor and I was able to refocus her easily. As soon as that dog turned its back on Risa, she stretched over to sniff it’s rear. She can be a funny dog sometimes. “Don’t get close to me. Oh hey! You’re turned away so I can check you out now!”
While we were waiting to go back in the ring for our award, we got to watch our friend compete. There were no dogs nearby so I was able to keep my attention in the ring. About halfway through their run, Risa started air scenting and pulling me towards the ring. At first, I thought she was catching the scent of food or something from the right side of the room. After all, many of the dogs I had watched during the day seemed to be caught by a scent from that direction. I tried to reel Risa back in with food but she was completely distracted. It took me a while, but I realized what it was. She had caught a whiff of her friend in the ring and was trying to go see her! As soon as they finished and exited the ring, Risa was right there to greet them.
While Risa still has some insecurities regarding her newest buddy, she clearly enjoys her company. We had difficulty keeping the two of them apart when we stood in the ring to get our awards. It was pretty humorous watching the big GSD trying to pounce on Ris and watching Risa try and drag me closer so she could sniff her friend.
Now that she has her RN title, I must ask myself “Where do we go from here?” Do we try for her RA title? Do we switch venues and pursue titles in APDT Rally-O? I originally chose AKC because I could compete close by but I think we might have more fun in APDT. I’m not sure right now and I can always decide later.
I’m also still not sure if Risa likes rally. She was throwing a lot of stress signals this weekend. I knew she would be anxious; she usually is in these types of situations. But I have never seen her use as many calming signals as she did this weekend. When we trained in class, however, she did seem happy. Her heelwork was snappy and focused. Her stationary exercises were outstanding. So maybe it was just the overwhelming craziness of the trial that made things so tough on us both.
While I am disappointed in how distracted she was, I am not at all angry with her. This is a dog who, shortly after I got her, refused to go anywhere near a poop disposal can. She parked herself and would not move any closer. At the trial, she wanted to investigate EVERYTHING. Including clumps of dirt on the floor (“It could be food!”). *Sigh*
If nothing else, I have learned we still have a lot of work to do if I want to keep her focused in heel during a trial. Now that it’s winter, I’ll be hard pressed to find a location that will simulate the craziness and crowds of a dog trial so that we can practice. I want Risa to realize that, no matter what is going on, it’s okay and I will watch out for her so she doesn’t have to. This is a lengthy goal and one we’ve had for a while.
There is a fun match coming up this month and I think we’re going to go. I initially wasn’t sure if I wanted to take Risa. They’re only running a Novice rally course and I assumed (correctly) that we’d have our RN by then. After seeing how distracted she was this weekend, I think it would be in our best interest to go. A trial without the pressure of a trial. Another chance to get out there and see that it’s not so bad. After all, since we plan on continuing to compete, it’ll be a great chance to work on her focus!