Miles and I have done a handful of AAC Agility Regionals. Since we have been competing, the West Coast event has always been held at the same large equestrian venue. The event draws between 300-400 teams from Western Canada and USA and is three days long. At AAC Regionals, each competitor has a total of six runs in which to attempt to cumulatively earn enough points to qualify for Nationals and to try to earn a coveted spot on the podium.
Of all of the agility events Miles and I have participated in across North America, there is no question in my mind that Miles struggles at this particular venue the most.
It took a while to figure out the main culprit, especially since Welsh Terriers are so distraction-prone in the first place! Several years ago, my friend JL who is also the organizer of the event helped me realize that Miles’ alligator-set eyes have trouble with the the footing, which is bright synthetic sand. AAC Western Regionals are always in June in full sun, which reflects off of the sand very strongly. On top of that, the event is the only one I’ve been to where hundreds of people are trying to qualify for a National event in one weekend. Many other venues such as AKC allow competitors to work towards points during a year-long qualification period.
How My Big Competition Strategies Can Work for You
Over the years I have tried many, many things to lessen Miles’ stress in a environment that I know is highly challenging for him.
I think the strategies I have come up with will work for anyone that wants to have success with a stress/distraction/overstimulation-prone dog, even if you just want to go on “normal” outings!
Many of you reading have dogs like Miles that are prone to stress, overstimulation, over-excitement, and intense distraction. I have worked very hard at refining my routines with Miles at Regionals — which is the place he finds the most challenging. Dogs like Miles are extremely sensitive to environment. Environmental stress can look like wildness, happiness, or overt stress. A lot of how it presents will be based on the dog’s age and personality. Stress isn’t always an unhappy thing — but you will know it is there if your dog basically “loses their mind” when in the setting. Knowing how to cope with it can be difficult, so I really hope that the things I have come up with can help you.
1. The Complex Art of De-Stressing
This one used to just be called: “be less stressed yourself.” That is what I was told by countless people when Miles and I did poorly at our first Regionals. I took the advice seriously, and went into the next Regionals relaxed and purposefully with no expectations. When I went in with that mindset and Miles still struggled, I realized that while de-stressing myself was critical, it was only half of the battle of the complex art of de-stressing. When it comes to dogs and environment, you have to address yourself first, and then think of environmental stress like a bad smell. You can clean up your act as much as you want, but what about the people around you? The stench of stress is better if you don’t smell, but, if it is environmental, it will still be there for your dog. Dogs pick up on stress like we pick up on a pungent smell. We can’t pretend it isn’t there.
The following are the 6 de-stressing factors that I focus on when I know a environment will be tricky for my dog:
- Decrease your own stress. This is easier said than done! Be honest with yourself about your stress level, and if it is still pretty high, don’t pretend it isn’t, but don’t be hard on yourself. Instead of pretending you are 100% immediately, recognize changes over time, and reward yourself for every step down the scale of 1-10 nerves/stress/worry level.
- Recognize that there WILL be stress in the environment that you cannot prevent. You can’t control other people or dogs. They might be stressed. Recognizing this will allow you to prepare for it.
- Don’t expect your dog to perform in the same way as you know they can in low-stress environments. The most common thing you hear both at the neighborhood park and big competitive events alike is, “My dog isn’t normally like this!” In some ways, this is the point of going on special outings or to big competitions — the experience will be different than your experience at home. Outings and big competitions can be novel and exciting, but they will also undoubtably test your skills. Sometimes the tests you will face outside of your normal home or training environment will be in highly unusual, unpredictable, or even adverse conditions.
- Recognize that the environment isn’t easy for your dog, and show them that they can trust you to protect them. By focusing on Miles, and putting his needs before my own, I prove to him that he is safe.
- Don’t blame others for your challenges or expect them to adjust just for you. If a dog is barking and stressing Miles out ringside at Regionals right before our run, I will sacrifice my view of the ring to go a bit further away where Miles will feel safer. If you try to ignore it (passive) or get angry (reactive), your focus will either be on pretending it doesn’t matter or on changing something or someone you probably can’t change. In the meantime, your dog won’t get any relief. For a lot of dog people in public places, the main stressor is rowdy children or dogs. It is tempting to get frustrated at the parents or owners, but who suffers if you ignore the problem, or focus on blame? Your dog. On top of that, you never know what the other party is going through. When you are in public places, take care of your dog and skip worrying about things you can’t change — I promise, you will feel better if your effort is put towards your dog!
2. The Balance of Focusing on Your Dog
Miles is so trained and so responsive, yet if he is in a place where he struggles, I know it is time to focus on him and support him more than usual. Focusing on your dog in a productive way is actually a pretty delicate balance! I have thought a lot about this, and I’ve decided that it is best to:
- Plan ahead so you are courteous of other people & dogs when your dog is prone to stress.
- Plan ahead so you are courteous of your dog when your dog prone to stress.
Dog people often end up in two extremes: One, we worry so much about being polite in public that we don’t support our dogs, or two, we focus so much on our dogs that we end up not being very nice to other people. It is CLASSIC to see two extremes in agility: There are the people who yell “get out of the way, my dog is stressed!” Or, there are the people who are so busy being polite, that they aren’t paying enough attention to their dog who is spiralling into a stress rabbit hole and starting to interfere with the space of other dogs. The latter, the person who isn’t focused enough on their dog, is actually a really easy position to get into, when you are trying not to be the crazy over-zealous dog person!
Figuring out how to focus on your dog properly requires awareness and planning.
One way I’ve learned to plan ahead at Regionals is that I do my walk-throughs of the courses for our competitive goals, then, I stand outside of the ring and pretend I am about to run the course. I visualize and memorize the path. That way, when I get Miles, I know it is too late to panic about the course, and I remind myself I already know the course very well. Instead of standing outside the ring staring at the course and ignoring Miles right before our turn, I focus completely on him from the moment I get him. When I enter the ring, I barely look around. I then take off Miles’ leash and fling it behind us and give Miles a reassuring little chest pet before I ask him to Sit & Stay. Some people can take the time to hand the leash to the leash runner — if your dog is really stress-prone, do not do this. It is a really nice gesture to the leash runner, but, it isn’t great for your dog. In agility, you can even tell the leash runner and thank them long before you run. Once Miles is in a stay, I lead out and instead of staring at the course, I stay connected with Miles. Making a special effort to connect with your dog will make a world of difference if they are over-excited or stressed.
3. Making a Plan, and Sticking to It
At small events, it can be really helpful to listen to other people’s advice and try new things. At big events like Regionals, if you run a dog that is prone to stress, you can really stress them out by giving unclear directions or changing your mind on-course. My dad identified this at AKC Nationals. He told me to “make a plan, and stick to it…” And this has now become my motto at big events! It has changed everything for me!
If you can walk into the situation with these in the forefront of your mind, you WILL feel the difference.
The biggest weakness we all have is to just hope things will get better, and that our dogs will magically be less stressed or over-excited this time around. The reality is, your dog is more likely to be MORE stressed over time if you aren’t strategic each and every time.
I have heard so many people say they knew that a part of the dog park wasn’t that great for their dog, but then they saw a friend in that area that day, and changed their mind and went anyway. It is the little moments that add up to make the big picture for your dog.
Don’t compromise your plan! Your gut is right, stick with it. If you know a festival, farmer’s market, or other busy place will be tough on your dog’s propensity for over-excitement and you are going in a group, make sure someone is always designated to work with your dog. Make it an actual role. Bring enough treats. Don’t go where you feel unsure about going. Stick to the plan and you will be a confident handler for your dog. The most important part is that your dog won’t sense any unsureness. Dogs, especially working breeds, still feel the itch that they should be doing a job at all times. If you project “I am unsure, a bit anxious, and flaky,” your dog will try to be the responsible one and will make big decisions for the both of you. Often “bad behavior” is actually just the dog trying to be the responsible one when they feel their owner isn’t that dependable! And this couldn’t be the case more than at big stressful agility events! I am sure many off-course tunnels in Miles and my agility career happened because of this…
So How’d We Do This Year?
This year, I was the most relaxed I have ever been at Regionals. I was the most calm I’ve ever been, the happiest, and also, I reacted the best ever when things didn’t work out at points. I felt very grounded in my approach.
For years, agility coaches have been telling me “think about the dog’s path, not about the obstacles.” For years it felt impossible that I’d be able to do that. It felt like “there are obstacles, my dog needs to get from obstacle to obstacle without taking off and getting distracted… Eeeep! This year, I walked the courses feeling like a new person. I knew what moves Miles would like and read the best, and I began dancing out there, planning my moves without focusing on the obstacles. The courses were becoming a new language in my mind. When I was out there planning, I felt like I was already running Miles, and I couldn’t wait to really run the courses with my buddy. It wasn’t a feeling of a mixture of conscious planning, worry about traps, and unsureness about what the heck Miles would do. I began hearing other people saying out loud as they walked the course, “we’ll see what my dog does, I have no idea what the heck will happen!” For the first time, I didn’t feel that way. I felt confident. I was imagining actually running the course with Miles when walking out there — I no longer say a series of obstacles to survive.
This year the most exciting thing of all was that we did not have a single off course (the dog doing an extra wrong obstacle). Off courses have been a regular part of our Regionals routine for years!! We also had zero obstacle faults (missed weaves, knocked jump bars, missed contacts, etc). We walked away from the whole shebang with only one fault — a “refusal” in our first run, a Jumpers. It happened because I cheerfully over-signaled Miles as we approached a tunnel trap, and he turned to look at me and avoided all obstacles! In that moment, I never felt so relaxed about a technical mistake. I cannot complain about my terrier listening so well to me saying “don’t do anything” that he obliged and did not do the jump right in front of him! Wow!
Once the mistake was made, I also handled it better than I ever have. In previous years, I would’ve panicked and fell apart and left it up to Miles to guess how to fix the mistake (if you let a Welsh Terrier guess, they will go to a tunnel!). This year, I calmly re-grouped and showed Miles the jump, then kept going very confidently and happily. When something goes wrong, it is easy to panic and make it worse, or to come apart at the seams afterwards. Mistakes in agility can be kind of like dropping BBQ sauce on a white shirt! You have to be calm and timely and know what to do! I am sure Miles appreciated my calmness and my confidence, because mistake and fix alike, he happily followed my instructions.
We were fast and clean in our Standard runs… Which just blew my mind. Standards have always been our kryptonite, but no longer. I actually felt like I was floating on clouds during those runs. I signalled the path so well and Miles was loving every minute. His had some environmental stress before and after our runs (it never truly goes away in the toughest environments), but during our runs, it melted away completely and we both felt ecstatic. The standards were so technical and it really felt like we were dancing. We also did very well in Jumpers. The first one was gorgeous minus MY mistake, and the second one, a Min Pin (1st) and Miles (2nd) beat out all of the shelties for speed and accuracy!
Our only real failing points-wise this year was missing not one, but BOTH final Gambles (distance work). Both times, the Gamble was set in direct sunlight against the black and white fence, and away from me, Miles struggled with his long-time visibility problems on the bright synthetic sand. I have become very “zen” about things I cannot change. I can’t fault either of us for things outside of our control. Even though Gambles are our speciality, this didn’t feel like a failing of our skills.
Finally! Miles getting SASSY at the venue that often causes him so much stress! He was feeling GOOD in this run! Rarely does he bark.
I felt so connected in our runs. It was a magical Regionals.
Miles is the first Welsh Terrier in the history AAC Agility to stand on the Regionals Podium — and in one of the most competitive height classes!
It was such an honor for Miles to be the first Welsh Terrier on an AAC Agility Regionals Podium. Given we missed the opportunity for major bonus points with our Gamble struggles this year, I was amazed that we had awesome enough Jumper & Standard scores to be the only team in our highly competitive height class to stand on the podium with NO gamble scores. It is funny to achieve one of my biggest agility bucket list goals with a Gamble dog — and we did not get there with ANY Gamble bonuses!
Miles is now the first Welsh Terrier in over 30 years of AAC Agility to stand on both the National and Regional Agility Podium. It can be weird to achieve bucket-list things… When in the moment, you will be surprised at what you really appreciate most about the experience. The podium ceremony, I don’t remember even now. The part I will never forget? Running as one with Miles in the courses. I would not trade those moments for anything. Those moments tearing around the courses, everything else melted away for both of us, and we were one. Those are moments I will remember for the rest of my life.