Significant Improvement

Spiral right, dog outside. Risa follows me through the cones.

This past weekend, I had planned on finishing up Risa’s RA title in AKC rally. Having done some APDT rally earlier this year, I discovered that Risa does actually enjoy competing in rally. It’s just the show environment that is really tough for her in AKC. I chose this trial because of the location. It was huge, yes. And the building was full of conformation rings along with the obedience and rally rings. But the ceiling is not as high and echoy as the one where we last competed and there was no agility going on nearby. This was also the location where we first tried competing in AKC rally a year ago. Risa seemed okay then and, with several more competitions under her belt, I thought we could be successful.

I was extremely pleased to see Risa more confident on the show grounds. I had her wear her Thundershirt up until it was almost ring time and that may have helped her feel more at ease. I also made sure to walk her around the site, mainly near the ring where we would be competing. With so much going on, I find Risa feels more comfortable knowing what is going on around her. By giving her a chance to explore and check out what’s happening, she’s less likely to be as hyper-vigilant in the ring because she’s already had a chance to see what’s going on.

When Risa is uncomfortable and nervous in a new location, she pulls on her leash. While I did get some tension on the leash, for the most part, her leash was loose as we walked around. This is huge for her. She really seemed to feel more relaxed. I do know how stressful these events are for her but she actually seemed okay this weekend. Her tail wasn’t tucked tight and her ears weren’t plastered back the whole time. She was able to look around and even able to easily re-focus on me. Being so close to other dogs did make her nervous but I rarely saw her consider being reactive. A few dogs got dirty looks but that was the worst she did. I was very pleased to see this. I’m certain that our year of trials has helped her become more at ease in such hectic environments. 😀

On Saturday, my hopes of finishing the year with Risa’s RA title were dashed. We did not NQ. Despite that, I wasn’t the least bit upset. There were a lot of things that still needed improvement but there were a lot of good things going on too!

Much to my dismay, there was an off-set figure 8 on the course. This is my least favorite obstacle. Risa almost always goes and sniffs the distraction item on the first pass through. In every course we’ve done, practice or in trial, the off-set figure 8 has had a toy as the distraction. We’ve never had food there. . .until this weekend. Oh. . .and I also neglected to actually practice the off-set figure 8 at all during our last 2-month session of focusing on focus training. I did assume that, if I got Risa really focused, it wouldn’t be an issue. While this is true, I should have known better and actually trained around food. The exercise on Saturday had two bowls filled with freeze-dried turkey hearts and Risa could not resist.

We started off badly in the ring. As soon as I cued her to heel with me, she broke and wandered off. I got her back quickly but it didn’t last. She raced over to check out the good-smelling stuff at the off-set figure 8. I was able to call her back and get her on track for several exercises. I finally connected with her on exercise four and was so excited about it that I completely missed sign five (I realized this when we were almost done). I never miss signs but this one’s placement was awkward. Usually, the moving side step right is right in front of you but this one was placed off to the left side. With it not being a stationary exercise, I totally forgot about it and breezed on past.

Risa forging ahead a bit not realizing I had stopped moving.

When it came time for Risa to take the jump, she walked right past it. It was the broad jump and Risa hadn’t seen one in almost half a year. Though I cued her to jump it, she just trotted on by. I turned around and retried the jump and she walked across it. Instant NQ and I knew it immediately (me missing the sign earlier was an instant NQ too but I hadn’t realized it yet). I looked towards the judge and she wasn’t coming towards us with our leash so I knew we could finish the course. We did. Risa was still a bit distracted by the food in the off-set figure 8 but not as badly as earlier. The rest of the behaviors were performed well (except when I stood too close to the sign on the halt-front-finish right-halt and Risa clipped it going around) and I even liked how she did the serpentines. When the judge handed us our leash, she apologized and told us we NQ’d because Risa walked on the broad jump, which I knew. I also told her I missed one of the signs; I’m not sure if she had noticed or not.

Despite the NQ, I was still happy. Once Risa finally got going, I had her focus. There was a visible improvement in her attention in the ring. I knew our 2 months’ focus on heelwork, fronts, and attention had paid off. I knew we’d do better the next day.

Sunday went much better, as I had expected, despite a pretty harrowing start. I had Risa out a bit early before her time in the ring. They had moved one of the later dogs in front of us due to a conflict and I hadn’t realized it. Fortunately, Risa seemed okay and I had enough meatball in my pocket to keep her focused and happy. While we were waiting outside the opening to the ring, I had to move Risa away from one of the other dogs. He was straining on the leash and pulling towards us to try and greet Risa. Ris has seen this dog in competition before and she instantly disliked him. Before Risa could react, I moved her away and rewarded her for refocusing on me. When this dog was in the ring, I continued to work with Risa and warm her up. I saw that the ring steward was distracted but took little notice of it. Just a small thought in my head that, should the dog in the ring make a break for it, there was no way she’d notice in time to block the gate. It was almost like a moment of premonition because, not long after, the dog broke and raced out of the ring and headed for us. In an instant, I pulled Risa up and away as the dog sped past and was grabbed by one of the spectators. Risa had begun to react but was in no position to do so. They returned the dog to the ring where he finished the course. I wasn’t shaken by the experience but I was upset. Just what we needed before going into the ring!! Not to mention, I would like to finish our AKC career without being banned for having an ‘aggressive’ dog. Which is exactly what could have happened had Risa gone after this dog; even if it was justified.

Once it was ring time, I had made a point to make sure I had Risa’s full attention before moving forward. Ris said “Hi” to the judge as she came over to take our leash. I repositioned Risa in a sit and had her wait, again, and was actually able to hand the leash over the second time. As the judge got ready, I got Risa’s focus. When it came time for the judge to ask us if we were ready, we actually were. I said that we were and Risa maintained eye contact with me. I was shocked. In fact, had it been a training session, I would have had a jackpot petting party with butt scritches galore right then and there. As we walked off the start line to the first sign, things were going good. Risa was forging a bit but not too badly. As we approached the cones for the spiral right, Risa trotted off sniffing towards the jump which was right where the off-set figure 8 had been yesterday. I think she wondered if the good smells from yesterday were still there. It seemed like it took forever for me to get her back but it wasn’t really that long. She wandered off again during the spirals to go sniffing and I called her back much quicker. Once we got through the cones, she was much better. I lost her forging a bit a couple times and our 360 left was really wide. But she did each sign well and I was very proud. Aside from those sniffing moments, it was a great performance. We exited the ring to applause (we never get applause in rally!) and scored 96. We earned our second RA leg and 3rd place.

Risa, exhausted from a great weekend, posing with her 3rd place and qualifying ribbons.

I now know, for certain, that Risa can earn her RA in AKC rally. While AKC events are crazy busy and hard for her to concentrate during, I know she can do it. We have another 2 months before the next local trial which I plan on entering. I have no doubts we should be able to finish our RA at that event and Risa will be able to ‘retire’ from AKC rally. While I have no doubts Risa could earn her RE (rally excellent) title as well, I am not going to pursue it. My main concern is the honor exercise (where your dog sits or downs on the course while another dog is running it). I know Risa could do it but I would be too concerned about the other dog in the ring with us. While many competitors are excellent and have beautiful control over their dogs, I have seen far too many who don’t. I am willing to pick Risa up should a dog come for us while we’re honoring and take the 10 point loss. But if I’m that concerned about a dog coming after Risa in the ring and potentially ruining things for us, then I’m better off not pursuing it. I would be heartbroken if Risa had a bad experience in the ring. It took me 4 years to get her comfortable enough to participate in dog sports. She feels most comfortable in the show ring when we compete. I would hate to have to retire her from competition because of one bad experience or to try and build her confidence back up again. No. It’s simply not worth it. Besides, we have other venues we can compete in and aim for high-level titles!

I don’t have video from Saturday’s run, but here is Sunday’s:

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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