I finally have an answer to one of the questions that’s been plaguing me for a while: Does Risa enjoy rally? After her last AKC competition, I wasn’t sure. I decided to try a new venue to see if trialing in a less stressful environment would help her have a better time. After this weekend, I’m positive that Risa does enjoy rally.
After her super stressful outing in April, I decided to call it quits from rally. The AKC rally environment is just too overwhelming for Risa. She tried her hardest in the ring but it was too much for her to focus on me. I had a couple friends who competed in APDT rally who suggested I try that instead. I was hesitant since I wasn’t sure if Risa even wanted to continue trialing in rally. It’s not as fast-paced and doesn’t have the flash and variety of moves that freestyle does. But freestyle competitions are few and far between making it harder for us to regularly compete. I wanted to have another venue to enjoy so I decided we’d enter an APDT rally trial and see, once and for all, whether or not Risa had any interest in continuing with rally.
We entered a 2-day trial consisting of two trials per day. It was a total of 4 trials and we had the opportunity to title in just one weekend! Unlike AKC trials, APDT trials are much smaller with usually only one ring of activity going on at a time (at the most, two). This makes it easier for Risa to concentrate and be less concerned with what’s going on outside the ring. On top of that, the trial was outdoors which made it much easier for me to navigate the show site with my dog reactive dog. I never wanted to trial Risa outside; it tends to make Risa’s lack of focus much more obvious with the changing winds and scents they carry. But I actually found it to be less of an issue than I’d thought it might be. Though I’m not sure we’re ready to trial on grass. 😉
The first day, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Fortunately, most of the signs between AKC and APDT rally are similar and I’d already prepared myself for the differences. Risa is also familiar with all of the AKC signs up through the RE (highest) level. The only major change was that some signs in APDT share a sit. So you might do a call front, finish left and then tell your dog to stay and do a sit walk around without your dog changing position between the two. It seemed really odd to me at first but I got it right away.
I went through my usual prep with Risa. I walked her around the site to get her used to what’s around her. I took her out and brushed up on some of the behaviors I knew I would need in the ring (especially the stand because I’d forgotten all about it for a couple weeks). I made sure to potty her before entering the ring. I got her out for her turn when there was one dog in the ring and only one ahead of us so she wouldn’t be out too long. I worked on having her do some moves and keeping her focus on me while we were waiting. Then it was our turn in the ring. Risa lagged and sniffed. Her focus was poor. I felt like I was dragging her through the course with me. I offered encouragement: “C’mon! Ris! This way. With me.” I had to have talked to her the entire time. Though I could have had food with me to reward her after the stationary exercises (this is legal in APDT rally), I didn’t bring any. I was too worried about dropping it and about breaking our flow. (Risa has a bad habit of searching for dropped treats after delivery which I’ve been working on fixing.) I was unhappy with her performance. Not because of anything she did; it’s never her fault when training/trialing goes wrong. I just knew what I could get out of her and was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t get it. Not to mention, I wanted her to have fun and I wasn’t sure she was having any.
Our second run went much the same way. Our scores were good. She got 194 (out of a possible 210) on her first run and a 4th place finish. Her second run earned her a 5th place finish with a score of 193. I went back to the hotel unsure if we’d ever do rally again. It just didn’t seem like Risa had enjoyed herself. I wasn’t sure I had either (at least not in the ring).
I did some thinking before the next day to try and figure out what I could do to help Risa enjoy herself more. Risa tends to do better on the second day of a trial. I think that’s because, between the two trials, I try and evaluate what happened and figure out how to improve things. 😉 I caught some heat from two of my friends because of how I felt about our performances the previous day. We discussed what I could do to make things better for the second trial day. One of them I knew but there was no way to fix that in a day. I rarely work on focused heelwork with Risa. I had noticed this about a week prior to the trial but it wasn’t enough time to fix this problem. However, I could stop being so nervous! I didn’t even realize I really was but it was apparently quite clear. 😉 I decided to change my game plan a bit.
Before her first trial that morning, I didn’t even warm her up. I didn’t practice heeling or auto sits. I just stuffed food in my pocket and got her ready to go. As we approached the entrance to the pole barn where the ring was, Risa sped up and dragged me towards it. I had my answer. Risa likes rally. As we waited our turn, I didn’t ask Risa to do anything. I didn’t nag her to focus on me. I didn’t drag her away from sniffing things. I let her do all of that. Totally counter-intuitive to everything I’d ever thought. But I did it. If she offered eye contact, I marked and rewarded it. But I never asked her for it.
I struggled a bit to get her connected with me when we first got in the ring. She got a treat at the start sign before we started off. She started slow and her focus was lacking. But I didn’t allow myself to get too concerned about it. I encouraged her but didn’t overdo it. I tend to blabber at her in trials but, when we train, I am fairly quiet. Since I learned at last weekend’s seminar that you should train as you plan to compete, I tried to keep my mouth shut. I praised Risa when she did what I wanted (especially when I saw her bright smiling face looking up at me) but, otherwise, I kept my vocalizations to mainly cues. I fed her at a couple of the stationary exercises much like I had in our second trial the day before. After we finished, it felt better. It wasn’t the bond and connection we have in canine freestyle, but it was far better than the previous day! This was our best score of the weekend: 200 and a 1st place finish. On top of that, it was the third Q and she earned her RL1 title.
For her second trial, I was even more “eh whatever” than I’d been for the first. I was rushed getting her in the ring (hadn’t realized they were doing Level 1 after lunch and we were second in line). She had a reactive barkfest at the other dog waiting to go in. In the history of Risa’s reactions, this was pretty minor. No lunging, hackles, or speedy spins in place. Just barking. She recovered quickly and then it was our turn for the ring. Risa already had her title so we were just adding another Q to a potential RL1X title (if you get 10 Qs in Level 1 B, you earn this title). So it didn’t matter. I got much better focus out of her this time and I didn’t even feed her in the ring! I meant to. . .but I have a history of not feeding in the ring so I just totally forgot! She scored a 199 (we are very consistent!) and got 5th place.
Aside from our eventual success in the ring, Risa was amazing on the show grounds. Most people would probably have never guessed her reactive and fearful history to see her out there. I was able to have her out and relaxing in the grass watching the goings on rather than needing to keep her kenneled for the entire event. If she started to posture and get worried about a dog coming by, I usually needed to say no more than her name. She’d turn to look at me and her body completely relaxed. It was amazing. There were several times where she got a bit more upset but, again, it was minor and didn’t effect her day!
Probably her most awesome non-reactive moment occurred after the trial. The trial hostess came in the ring area with her dog while Risa and I were milling around. They came close and Risa looked at the dog (I was already backing away but the leash was still loose), turned, and walked away on her own. I didn’t have any treats on me but I praised her immensely and offered some of her favorite petting. WAY TO GO MUTT!!!
She also did something I hadn’t expected. On the first day, I took her to a open area to play. I brought her tuggie and asked her to grab it. And we played tuggie. It wasn’t quite as vigorous as the version we play at home but it was darn close! If Risa is too stressed, she will not play. The fact that she engaged me in a fun game of tuggie speaks volumes.
If all of that weren’t enough, she was also social! It doesn’t hurt that she feels more comfortable around dog people. I do as well; I know I don’t have to monitor their interactions with her as closely. They generally know how to act around dogs. She readily accepted petting from complete strangers without shying away. She wasn’t rubbing on them or begging for more. But she was comfortable with tactile contact. Even from a guy though she was a bit more reserved and nervous around him.
Overall, it was a great weekend. I have nothing but good things to say about my dog and I learned a bit more about what I need to do to help her be more successful at trials. We’re still relative noobs when it comes to trialing so the more experience we can get the better! I don’t think this will be our last APDT trial and maybe I’ll consider trying to finish Risa’s RA title in AKC if we can find a trial that won’t be too crazy for her. Now, to work on focus and heelwork!!