Seems like lately I'm reading stuff about how hard it is for some dogs to keep their focus and motivation in agility while trialing or in other high distraction situations. Sometimes the dog is just young and so hasn't learned about how much fun agility trials can be but many times it takes some time and effort to get the dog to really love the game. If you think about it, that's not so different from what we experience when we start entering agility trials.
I remember how nervous I was for the first several years after I started trialing. I hadn't had a lot of experience in any kind of competitions (when I was in school the only sport offered for girls was cheerleading and it wasn't the gymnastic sport that it is now, it was quite literally just cheering for the boys' teams. This was before Title 9 and schools weren't required to offer sports for girls.)so I would get so nervous that I couldn't work up enough saliva to swallow and my legs felt like rubber. Although I've been trialing now for 17 years I still get nervous at even small local trials and I doubt that I'll ever be much different.
It makes sense to me that dogs are much like us in that some dogs rarely get nervous while trialing while others get nervous every time they step in the ring. And some dogs are good at hiding it, like me, even though inside they're unfocused and jittery. Unfortunately, we'll never really know for sure how our dogs feel so it seems like it would be wise to assume that they may be more nervous than they appear and give them lots of opportunities to just have fun without any pressure to perform.
But even after they're seasoned agility dogs and have been to lots of big trials, how do we know that they won't develop some stress along the way just because performance is stressful no matter how careful we are to make it fun? It's really hard to deal with all the mental and physical challenges as the handler much less keep your focus on how your dog is feeling.
And then there's the stress of travel which some dogs never get to like no matter how long they do it. I like to travel, I like staying in motels and going to new trials but I have to admit that it's not without some stress. Especially when I'm going to new trial and I'm not sure where it is or what I'll find when I get there. I'm distracted by wondering where I'm going to be able to park or set up. Will I be late? Miss my walk through? Do I have the right clothes for the weather I'll encounter? All these things really detract from my ability to focus on running the course well.
When you really think about it, it's amazing that our dogs are able to focus as well as they do. We aren't aware of all the things our dogs are noticing as we engage in this sport of ours because we aren't walking in their--er--paws. We don't even seen things from the same vantage point or in the same colors. We also don't know what those other dogs are comunicating to our dogs. Maybe our dogs are picking up on the stress of other dogs and other handlers.
I think I'm going to try to be a lot more understanding of my dogs' performances. Not just at trials but also in class and at practice. I think I'll try to cut them as much slack and be as understanding of their mental state as I hope they are of mine :-)