Trialing with a Reactive Dog

Competing at our first trial. It was a great place to start as it was fairly small and Risa had been to the show site a few times before.

Choosing to trial with a reactive dog is a difficult decision. There are a lot of factors that must be weighed. After all, each dog is an individual. Not all reactive dogs are so bad that they cannot successfully trial. Yet some reactive dogs are a disaster waiting to happen. You have to think long and hard about your decision to trial and weigh the pros and cons of doing so. Competing with any dog can be a stressful event (but also a lot of fun!). It can be doubly stressing with a reactive dog.

Firstly, you should know the venue. What behaviors are required of your dog to successfully compete? If your dog must be touched by a judge, will your dog accept that? Will they be performing behaviors in close proximity to other dogs? What type of environment will the show take place in? Is it on leash or off leash? Will there be lots of people or dogs there? Is it loud? Are their kids? Where will you be set up? How are you going to navigate the show site? How long do you need to be there to prepare your dog? Have they ever been in similar situations? Have you gone to fun matches before? What do the rules say about ‘reactive’ dogs? Are you willing to accept responsibility if something bad happens? Will you be alright with the possibility of being banned from competition if your dog behaves ‘aggressively?’

It’s very much a ‘know thy dog’ situation. I have wanted to compete with Risa for the entire 4.5 years I’ve had her. I couldn’t wait to get in the ring and start earning titles together. I soon realized that was not going to happen. She was much too fearful and her dog reactivity was not under control. Neither one of us would have had a good time.

I worked very hard on curbing her reactivity, getting her less fearful around people, and being calmer in new situations. I put in four years of very hard, demanding work. In May of 2010, I decided she was finally ready for a live competition.

The trial was located close to home so, at the end of the day, she could relax in her own environment. We had been to the show site a couple times for practices so it wasn’t an entirely new place. I also knew the number of entries would be small so it would be less overwhelming for her. She was only entered for one day of the two-day trial. The second day, I brought her just to get her used to the trial conditions without the pressure of competing too. I’d be lying if I said she wasn’t nervous. That she didn’t want to bolt out the door as soon as we got close to it. However, when it came time to compete, she couldn’t have been better. She was focused on me and not the least bit concerned about the goings on around the ring. In fact, I think she took great delight in performing in front of an audience. 🙂

Are long down stays a part of the trial? What is your dog going to do if a dog breaks? Risa is definitely not comfortable being in such close proximity to another dog so a CD is out of the question!

Several months later, I decided to try trialing her in rally. Unlike canine freestyle, we’d struggled with rally in the past. I had difficulty keeping her focused during it but we were currently enrolled in a class and she seemed to be enjoying it better. So I entered her for another one-day trial. This trial was taking place at a huge site and one she’d never been to before. I decided that, if she absolutely hated trialing for rally, we’d never do it again. Her happiness is paramount and if she’s not having fun, we’re not doing it. She did amazingly well in the ring and so we went on and finished her RN title.

Now that we’ve really gotten the competition bug, I’m usually looking for another local show we can attend. Right now, I am keeping her close to home for several reasons. The main one being that, once we’re done for the day, we can go home. A show site is very stressful for Risa and I think I’d have a lot of trouble getting her to compete in a back-to-back trial if she didn’t have some down time in a familiar environment. So after she finishes in the ring, we start getting ready to go home.

Not only is trialing stressful for Risa, it’s stressful for me. I have to be on my toes and watching 100% of the time. I constantly scan the environment and figure out how we’re going to navigate through it. I keep Risa close to me and avoid other dogs as best I can. Fortunately, Risa seems to be more interested in sniffing dogs at shows rather than reacting to them. But I still need to be on guard at all times; she still does NOT like other dogs in her space!

If Risa is not safely secured in her kennel at a show, she is ‘working’ with me. There is no standing around and chatting with friends while my dog lays calmly at my side. I can’t risk taking my attention off of her like that. There is too much potential for things to go wrong. I have food in my hand and I’m constantly rewarding her for focus on me or non-reactions to other dogs. I also rarely stay in one spot for long as I often have to move us out of the way of other competitors.

I get to show sites early; usually right around when they open. This gives me plenty of time to set up and gives Risa time to wander around and check out the grounds. I always make sure to take her for a non-working walk shortly after we arrive. She is allowed to do some sniffing and investigating. I have food at the ready should I need it. By letting her check things out, she feels more at ease. She’s usually still nervous and a bit overwhelmed but at least she has an idea of where she is.

After that, I put her back in her kennel (she’s usually quite happy to return to her safe place) and I walk around and check things out. I get the lay of the land, check out the vendors, figure out where I need to be and when, etc. Then I get Risa back out, find a decent spot to stand, and practice some of the behaviors I am going to need from her in the ring. Most importantly, we work on focus. I’m also still constantly scanning and moving us around to keep her away from potential problems. I try not to overdo it since I don’t want her sick of working when it comes time to compete. She spends most of the morning in her kennel.

When it’s finally time to compete, I get her out and we stand around the ring entrance. I have food in my hand and I’m constantly rewarding attentive behavior. I’m also watching everyone around me like a hawk so that I can keep Risa content and move us if needed. I pop whatever’s left of the treat in her mouth before we enter the ring and then it’s time for business. 🙂 After we’re done, we quickly return to our kennel and she gets her super bonus treat for a job well done!!

Once we're in the ring, it's usually pretty easy for us. It's outside of it we have to be so on guard!

For now, I think we’re going to stick to two-day trials at the most. Firstly, it’s very stressful for Risa to go and perform at a show site for two days. Secondly, it’s very stressful and tiring for me! Being proactive is hard work!

If I thought Risa weren’t having a good time trialing, we wouldn’t do it. If I were worried she were going to cause serious injury to another dog, we’d stay home. However, through working with her and rehabilitating her, I know what she is capable of handling. I know things could go wrong. They could even with a so-called normal dog. Trialing is not without risk. I just weigh the pros and cons and try my best to not put her in situations that are too much for her to handle. For example, Risa will never get her CD. While I could probably train her to accept handling from the judge, I don’t feel comfortable with the long stays. If a dog broke position and came over to Risa, she might react. I would hate to create a negative association to showing for Risa. Even more, I would hate to create a negative association for another dog. Showing is supposed to be fun and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for ruining someone’s good time or potentially ruining their dog’s show career.

It’s a very individual decision as to whether or not your feel comfortable trialing your reactive dog. At the end of the day, you have to feel at ease with what you’ve chosen to do. If you’re really unsure, your best bet is to attend a fun match with your dog. That’s a good way to get an idea of what a trial is like without the pressure of performing (since they don’t count towards a title). If you do choose to trial, good luck and have fun!

About Jamie

I'm just a traditionally-trained artist with interests in dog training. I currently teach classes at the local obedience training club (tricks, freestyle, and Rally-FrEe) and I also teach classes professionally for an organization who helps veterans train their own service dogs.
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