Proofing Your Dog

Willie and Beth Island Fling Freestyle

Willie and Beth Island Fling Freestyle

My olfactory signature must have triggered a confusing mix of messages in my lanky border collie, Willie. One moment he’s happily trotting beside me, ready and willing for whatever tricks and treats followed and then suddenly he’s acting suspicious, alert, and overly focused on the large black dog sprawled on the floor 30 feet from the gate entry.

Without warning, my reliable and normally steady partner, won’t take his eyes off the oblivious and sleeping Newfie, and its our turn to enter the ring. Inexperienced and nervous, I step through the gate knowing we aren’t walking, working or looking like a team. He’s trying to stay focused on me, but that black thing is just too enticing to look at. Desperate, I feel a qualifying score slipping from our grasp. Thinking to get as far away from the gate as possible I head to the far corner catching glimpses of his eyes, it’s a kind of backward glance here and there and the odd, “if you insist mom” as I ask for practice tricks. But mostly I see over the shoulder stares in the general direction of the gently snoring behemoth, a dog he’s even been in class with.

As I wait for the judges to give the signal they are ready, I keep him moving and distracted with trigger words like ‘working’, ‘tricks’ and his erstwhile favourite, ‘are you ready?’ But he’ll have none of it, contorting himself to see around me at the big black dog. When the judges are ready, we aren’t, but at this point, I just want to get out of the ring, find a corner and mull over what the heck just happened.

In freestyle the competitor sets the timing for music to begin. Some dancers have elaborate props to prepare or poses to step in to. Once they are ready, a hand up or nod signals the DJ that their music can begin.

Striking my pose, my hand at my temple in a salute to Tipperrary, I signal the music to begin and we work through a simplified routine leaving half the tricks out as one musical cue after another is missed and my carefully thought out dance moves are forgotten in an effort to keep Will’s attention on me. Our perfectly practiced spins flop, our peekaboo-backwards-walk is a pop out, and the roll over gets forgotten completely. Meanwhile the music is still playing, it’s the longest 1 minute and 30 seconds ever, and all we have is a distracted heel. When the music starts dying out, I ask for a quick bow and almost run to the exit.

This happened once before at a NADAC agility trial in Victoria. We entered the ring confidently enough ready to run and have some fun, when suddenly he’s looking at the Belgian shepherds walking to the barn door about 100 feet away! Not wanting to look a fool while attempting to calm my dog, I remove his leash, set him up, and call out the first obstacle, he takes it but with little heart and even less concentration. It’s downhill fast from there.

In four years, his focus has never failed to come back to me. This blip has now happened twice. What did I do wrong? And better yet, what could I have been done better?

Backtracking every minute before and during the event I realized there were similarities. At both trials, just before entering the ring:

1. I was very nervous, with butterflies and dry mouth. I don’t always get that excited but both times special people had come to watch and I really wanted to show off.
2. A door opened, a big black dog moved, people were lined up close to the fence and some of them were watching us.

Put those two things together and Willie’s nose must have been having a heyday over my flustered and flighty pheromones! Add a loud noise and large movement and of course he went in to alert/protective mode.

So what could I have done different? And how can I prevent that from happening again? Because let’s face it, big black dogs might just show up at dog shows and trials and my nerves are not predictable and no amount of perfume or essential oil will hide that fear smell from the nostrils of my loyal companion.

Beth’s Resolving ‘BigBlackDogSyndrome’ Tips

1. Proof your dog (thanks Doug and Rico) by having the big black dog walk back and forth while you get your dogs attention with the best toy ever.
2. Breathe before you go in the ring and then breathe some more or try a glass of wine.
3. And never hesitate to take the time to control your dog before you start your routine. You’re surrounded by dog people, they understand!

In the end, we qualified and got a second place ribbon. We also got some great footage on video of the whole routine. And guess what? It didn’t look that bad at all! I can hardly wait till the next competition!

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