Failure is Always an Option

When it became apparent during our last trial that Risa’s ability to focus in the ring was still sketchy, I decided I needed to up our game and actively work on it. Since it’s nearly impossible to replicate the chaos of a trial, I needed to find an acceptable analog. Our winter, much like that of the rest of the country, has been absolutely unbearable. Cold, snowy, cold, frozen. . . Distractions outside are few and far between and I didn’t want to risk frozen fingers in the attempt! This left me with few options.

So I chose to work on Risa’s focus in pet stores. This seems like an ideal place since there are both human and canine distractions along with enticing smells. I could also control the chaos a bit by going at odd hours when the store would be less crowded. They are also one of the few stores that allow dogs inside.

The problem is, Risa hates pet stores.

It’s probably entirely my fault that she gets super stressed out when she goes to a pet store. And it doesn’t matter which one or how often we’ve been there before. She hates going. This intense fear regarding pet stores goes back to the first weekend after I adopted her when I took her to Petsmart on a Saturday. I knew she was fearful and under-socialized. I was just trying to help her overcome her fears. Unfortunately I overwhelmed her, didn’t listen when she made it clear it was too much, and showed her she couldn’t trust me. It’s been almost 8 years and she still hasn’t forgiven me for my mistake.

I still thought I could overcome this obstacle and possibly change her associations with pet stores by working on her focus there. I started by giving her a treat as soon as we entered the store-something Jane Killion suggested at the “Pigs Fly” seminar I attended over the summer. This not only makes entering a new place awesome but also gets your dog’s focus on you rather than everything else that is going on. I then moved to a quiet location in the back of the store (if we’re anywhere near the door she spends her time pulling in that direction) and gave her some time to investigate. Once she’d had a bit of time to get her bearings and check the shelves for monsters, I would ask her to work. I kept the sessions short so as to not overwhelm her. After about a month’s time, I started adding in some “Give Me a Break” from Leslie McDevitt’s “Control Unleashed” to further help Risa acclimate to her environment and be less afraid.

For 2 months I have gone to a pet store every weekend (and to class, a match, and practiced before our club meeting) to work on her focus. I have seen very little improvement. Especially at the pet store. She has been more focused at our training facility (though clearly still not enough as she was very distracted at the fun match) but not at pet stores. I wonder if it’s just too traumatic and if I should stop taking her there entirely. The weather should be getting better soon (or so I hope as we consistently continue to plunge into winter-like temperatures despite it being spring) so I should be able to find more places to take her and work on focus. Or maybe we should tough it out and keep trying at pet stores.

I’m really not sure how to proceed but clearly something isn’t working. Her focus is still unreliable in stressful situations. Though at least it’s due to curiosity, not fear!

Focus work in the pet store:

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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