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When Not All of Your Dogs are Ferraris

At the trial this weekend I was talking to a fellow competitor and she was telling me that she was having a hard time with comparing her two dogs.  One dog was in her words “amazing” to work and the other one, less so.

I wanted to write a blog to tell people that THAT IS OK.  It’s ok to compare your dogs….  as long as you appreciate them for who they are.

Having a really amazing Nosework dog is like driving a Ferrari.  It can be so addictive that handling a “lesser” dog can be frustrating, demoralizing and downright boring!  At the same time we have to come to terms that not all of our dogs are Ferraris.  Coming to that conclusion will make you take one of two paths:  You can either quit handling the less talented dog or you can appreciate the dog for who he is.

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So I told this competitor:

Let’s say someone gave you a Ferrari at a young age and that’s all you ever drove.  You loved that car dearly, buffing and waxing it whenever you could.  Then one day your beloved Ferrari had to go into the shop and your loaner car was a brand spanking new Toyota Camry.  That Camry was a good car, but not a Ferrari…. how do you feel?  The Camry of course doesn’t shine like your Ferrari but it has good pick up (for a non-sports car) and gets you where you need to go.  It just doesn’t have that same “fun factor”.  However, that Camry is actually a pretty good car!  …. and for those folks who drive the Camry’s smaller cousin, the Toyota Corrolla, that Camry is a darned NICE CAR! 

My point is that everything is relational.  This is what we do with our dogs.  We label them and in the end we can let it impact our relationship with them and it can color our feelings for them…. The problem is, we’re not talking about cars… we are talking about living, emotional creatures who want nothing more than to be the center of our universe.

Once we spend time handling a Ferrari it can also discolor our expectations.  We can’t expect our Camrys to come out and win-it-all.  Then when they don’t we get disappointed in them…. even when the dog has done his best!

I handled my Camry (one of them) yesterday.  Joey didn’t title but he did ok in the end and worked within his limitations of age and natural drive.  I admit, I had to work hard to not compare him to Judd or even my puppy, Brava (who is a F-15 Fighter Jet instead of being a Ferrari!). It was hard not to be disappointed…. it was a long drive there and a long day.  In the end though I gave myself the same Ferrari-Talk and came out feeling good about the day.

We can choose to let our perceptions of our dogs hurt our relationships or we can choose to appreciate the Camrys out there!

Happy Sniffing!!!

Trialing a Reactive Dog

Nosework, at least in NACSW, is “reactive dog friendly”.  It’s one of the things that I love about the organization.  These are your red bandana dogs…. (reactive to dogs ONLY…. dogs who are reactive to people should not trial for safety reasons).

I sit here writing this blog on the morning of a NW3 trial with my reactive Standard Poodle, Joey….  wondering what the potty area and the parking lot will be like.  Will I have to run the gauntlet today or will people follow rules and keep their dogs in their cars when not searching?  I hope people will be sensitive and respectful but in the day and age of “ME ME ME”, you see people out all of the time with unentered dogs, dogs taking excessive potty trips, dogs taking walks or the worst offenders…. people stopping in the parking to talk to their friends without caring for their dog’s needs first and getting the dog back in the car.  Am I worried?  Well after having trialed in probably 50+ NACSW events, no.  I also know that although “reactive”, my dog is not truly aggressive.  (there is a distinct difference).

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The photo above is from Joey’s NW1.  Note the red bandana!!  Joey ended up coming in 3rd Overall.  Then he moved on to being High in Trial at his NW2.  Reactive dogs can Do This Thing!

I want to focus this blog on the owners of non-reactive dogs…. in order to sensitize you a little so that you can understand what these dogs go through.  I want to talk a little bit about biology.

This is the hormone adrenaline.

Your standard dogs (i.e. non-reactive) will get a hefty dog of this on trial day.  The more stable, the more this dose of adrenaline will not negatively affect performance.

Adrenaline affects AROUSAL.

Yerkes-Dodson Law tells us that as arousal increases, so does performance levels…. TO A POINT…. then as asrousal continues to increase, performance decreases.

It’s just science.

Adrenaline along with it’s stress hormone cousins: norepinephrine and cortisol are released from the Adrenal Gland.  Then the Hypothalamus in the Limbic System of the brain connects the neurological aspects of stress (think “fight or flight”) with the Endocrine System, namely the stress hormones released by the Adrenal Gland (which sits near the kidneys).

Now norepinephrine and cortisol are insidious…. if released in excess quantities, these hormones can stay in the dog’s system FOR DAYS!!  This means that the dog whose fight or flight instincts (read: reactivity due to arousal, fear or stress) causes physical malaidies for DAYS.  These physical implications can include hydration (fluid balance), appetite, blood pressure, among other things.  So just walking your dog through the potty area can mean that your dog can’t perform or search in some cases!

And…. just because the dog doesn’t “react” meaning bark/lunge, doesn’t mean that the affects haven’t been felt.  Good handlers of reactive dogs can get them in and out in ways that can almost look easy-peasy.  A good reactive dog handler won’t look like a “reactive dog handler”.  You won’t know the difference in that dog aside from the red bandana and the cautious look on the handler’s face.  It also doesn’t mean that the dog is at ease.  These dogs tend to be hyper vigilant.  Their natural stress levels are higher.  They can come into a search area high as a kite and the handler will be working to keep the dog’s arousal even lower than normal.  And…. this doesn’t reflect the fact that all of these stress hormones are now coursing through the handler’s body too!!

NACSW is beacon for reactive dogs…. It’s an oasis.  It means that those of us with red bandana dogs can for a day perhaps pretend that our dogs are “normal” and we can go out and do something with them, possibly for the only outlet in the dog’s life.  I know with Joey…. Joey can’t be walked in town and when I CAN hike with him it means in the winter and on trails that are as devoid of humans and dogs as possible.  It means MANAGEMENT, MANAGEMENT, MANAGEMENT.  Having a dog like this isn’t fun in general regardless of how much we love them.  Trialing in NACSW affords us a very brief feeling that we can be out there Doing The Things.

Nosework as a sport has been growing exponentially.  There are lots of trialing opportunities.  AKC Scent Work is coming on the scene (this weekend in fact!). This means that as a the sport increases in popularity, the number of dogs out there that are NOT stable or that are NOT bred for this will start to proportionally get lower and lower.  It also means that folks who don’t have reactive dogs will proportionally be higher and higher in NACSW trials (I am excluding AKC as that venue is more traditional with respects to views on reactive dogs…. it’s a venue for my 2 very stable Labradors…. not my reactive Standard Poodle and Miniatiure American Shepherd).  NACSW though is Joey and Why’s oasis and their “turn to play”.

I advocate for my dog.  I manage him.  I love him.  I want to ensure that he can search with as few stress hormones as possible in his system.

I am also considerate.  I know that my dog won’t be the only red bandana dog in the parking lot.

I know today will be yet another challenge.  Even with very few dogs in the potty area or parking lot, it will still be stressful.  I am sure will be feeling the effects of norepinephrine and cortisol on the ride home!

So this is a plea to the non-reactive dog owners out there…. to the “lucky ones”.  I want Joey to play too.  I want him to be successful.  So PLEASE when you are not searching, keep your dog in the car.  Regardless of how much happier you think your dog is out of the car or how stable your dog is, your very presence in the parking lot is a problem.  I say that in the nicest way possible.  But remember that where your rights start, mine end and vise versa.  Good sportsmanship means considering the comfort of your fellow competitors and their dogs.  We about both allowed to be there.  I’m not asking for special consideration…. I’m just asking you to adhere to norms of the trialing body.  Just because no one is out in the parking lot telling you to put your dog away doesn’t mean you aren’t breaking norms and rules.  If you feel very strongly about your rights to walk your dog around or socialize with your dog outside the car, please consider one of the other organizations.  In a sport that is growing FAST and FURIOUSLY…. we need to preseve that special space for these special dogs who want to play too.

© Stacy Barnett 2015