I am usually appalled at the lack of advocacy dog owners provide for their canine companions, and the situations I find most appalling usually pertain to the dog show world.  These are “dog people.”  They should know better, and I am (understandably, I think) considerably more disgusted at their lack of canine advocacy skills than I am when “pet people” fail to stand up for their pooches.  The overall substandard understanding of canine body language and stress signals is one of this country’s greatest shortcomings since we have quite a few dogs coexisting with people in the U.S.A.  It is not that the information isn’t available, it’s that the information is not made relevant to professionals, let alone consumers of these professional pet services.  Veterinarians, dog trainers, groomers, kennel workers, daycare staff, and the like are all severly lacking in a basic understanding of what dogs are trying to communicate when they are uncomfortable, and if these folks don’t know, then why on earth should Joe Dogowner?  Fortunatly more and more people in dog professions are seeking and therefore gaining a deeper understanding of what dogs need and how to recognize those needs, but the show folks are still dangerously in the dark.

Conformation

I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen stressed, often downright terrified dogs in the breed ring.  Dogs are bound to become stressed while in the breed ring, if for no other reason than their handler’s nerves, and the unease of the dogs around them, but it is the way their stress is handled (or not handled) that upsets me.  Judges of AKC conformation events are required to go through judge’s education, why isn’t part of this education an overview of calming signals (the intentional signals dogs give off when stressed or surrounded by stressed individuals)?  Why doesn’t the AKC teach judges when they should absolutely not touch a dog, regardless of what the handler is saying?  I can’t answer these questions, but if the judges are not going to recognize a stressed dog in their ring, the handlers need to be able to.  I have seen a judge put up a Tervuren that was so afraid it dodged the judge’s exam quite skillfully, and a border collie’s handler insist her dog was “fine” only to get excused when her dog snapped at the judge.  Both of these dogs should have been excused, or their handlers should have asked to be excused.  The border collie was exhibiting whale eye, tongue flicking, and a rigid stance in response to her fear of the approaching judge.  She even curled her lip (not a calming signal, a WARNING signal) before snapping.  She not only warned, she screamed out for help, and no one did.  The handler either knew her dog was afraid and chose the prospective points were worth the risk, or just plain didn’t recognize any of these quite obvious body cues.  The scay part is that the judge actually reached for the dog to examine her teeth after she curled her lip.  This is when the snap occurred.  Shock of shocks.  Professional handlers, amateur handlers, breeder handlers, they’re all alike in one big scay way–most of them have no idea when a dog is cueing appropriately that he is stressed or afraid.  Even if they do know, they don’t know how to speak for the dog and help him out so that he is not forced to resort to lip curling, growling, or even biting.  They could train the dog to like a stranger approach instead of collar correcting her for moving.  They could show the judge their dog’s teeth themselves if the dog is particularly nervous that day.  They could ask to be excused if their dog has really decided she is too scared or stressed to show that day.  These things rarely happen, instead the dog is corrected and blamed.  If she finishes despite all of this, she is retired from the ring and becomes a brood bitch (great behavioral genes to pass on!), if the dog has particular boldness in the face of these corrections, he might be specialed, since “that is what it takes.”  The truth is more training and socialization needs to go into conformation so dogs are less stressed in the ring, and more education needs to be provided to judges and exhibitors alike.

Agility

This arena is considered by many to be one of the more dog-friendly dog sports, and you won’t see me disagreeing.  Still, I would be willing to bet that more dog-dog altercations occur at agility trials than any other type of AKC-sanctioned event.  I would also be willing to bet that if you measured the stress hormones in the dogs at agility trials, they would be just as sky-high as those at conformation shows.  I have witnessed many an agility dog (usually of the herding variety) barking, whining, and salivating at the end of his lead with pupils dilated and commisure (corners of the lips) pulled back while his owner at the other end of that lead boasts at the “drive” her dog is exhibiting.  Call it drive all you want (which I actually define as motivation for a certain thing i.e. toy drive, food drive, stock drive, etc.) but I call it stress, and there isn’t a person well-versed in canine stress that would disagree.  Then a friendly, if socially unskilled retriever type  saunters up and sticks her head up the rear of that dog that is supposedly “in drive.”  The retriever type’s handler (who is equally as oblivious as her dog, clearly) gasps in horror as the “high drive” (stressed) herding dog nails her retriever’s face.  Both handlers are upset and appalled, both offer up apologies (“I wasn’t paying attention!” says the retriever type’s mom, while “he just never does that!” is exclaimed by the handler with the “drivey” herding dog).  Neither can quite explain what just happened.  But anyone who understands canine body language and stress signals understands exactly what just played out.  Allowing our agility dogs to reach an unhealthy level of stress will encourage great speed from some dogs (these are the supposed excellent agility dogs, the ones that “stress up”) but we will pay with aggression and social unease as a side-effect.  I have seen a ridiculous increase in aggressive agility dogs in recent years, as well as impressively low course times and speedy performances becoming more and more commonplace.  I am not saying all fast agility dogs are aggressive, but I do think the encouragement of one trait often correlates with an increase in another, in our case the positive stress that creates fast agility dogs with the negative side effects of any kind of stress (i.e. aggression or overall edginess).  If agility handlers worked to teach their dogs basic impulse control as well as social skills we’d be in a much better position than we are.  Even better, if agility trainers and handlers knew how to recognize stress in their dogs we’d be helping everyone to enjoy this sport in a safer manner.  It is a common belief that if you do much obedience training with your agility dog (we’re talking loose lead walking, and basic manners like food politeness and not jumping up, not competition-style obedience) you will “kill the drive.”  It is also “understood” that allowing your dog to socialize with dogs through off-lead play and get fed cookies by new people will lessen her drive for working with you, her handler.  These beliefs only make dogs that don’t know how to act socially and are therefore stressed, and don’t know how to control themselves and therefore might act on that stress in unpleasant ways.  Agility trainers need a more solid foundation in basic dog training and communication so that they might pass that knowledge on to their students, creating a more dog-savvy agility community.

Obedience

If there were a gold medal awarded for the dog people most lacking in basic canine body language skills, it would go to the obedience crowd, hands down.  It is they that inspired me to write about advocay in the first place.  I could write a fat manual on the lack of education in the obedience crowd, but I will suffice it to say that they lose the advocacy race, every single time.  While conformation and agility handlers are mostly not sticking up for their dogs in the competitive environment, obedience handlers fail their dogs first in training, and then in the ring.  Not all obedience handlers are as appalling as most of them are–but it is my job to discuss and address the majority here.  The world of competitive obedience is mostly comprised of people who have been in dogs a very long time, and who have learned how to “train” from other trainers who have been in it even longer than they.  A competition-style obedience instructor is selected by the list of titles they have achieved, the scores they earn, and the number of years they’ve been in the sport.  They are not questioned in methodology, they are not expected to be versed in learning theory, and their experience is considered the final word.  Most of them will tell you to jerk your dog up into a “proper” sit if she slouches and sniffs during stays (calming signal!), and that the only way to train a reliable retrieve is to dig your thumb down into your dog’s ear and pinch (sound barbaric? that’s because it is).  The abuse that passes for competitive obedience training prevails as commonplace and even expected.  If this is how people treat their dogs when there is no judge watching, or pressure for perfection, then of course they really blow it when it comes to advocacy at the trial grounds.  I could do an entire photo essay on stress at one obedience trial. A common practice is for handlers take their dogs out into the parking lot or hotel grounds after a non-qualifying performance and “train” the exercise the dog flunked so aggressively and abusively that the stress that likely caused the dog to flunk in the first place is only intensified.   The dog-blame that abounds is absurd.  “He knows better than to break a stay!” or “She completely blew me off out there!” are exclaimed by exasperated handlers while their dogs pout at the end of the lead, not quite sure why mom is so very scary today.  Like I said, I could go on for pages and pages about this one sport, but I won’t, it will only depress me.  But again if AKC educated obedience judges a little better, and if the consumerism of dog training were greatly improved through education, all this junk would fade away. 

This weekend Idgie and I are going to her first conformation show (and mine!).  I will have clicker and treats in the ring with me, and will absolutely bend over backwards for her to have a positive ring experience.  If she is frightened, I will shape her not to be.  If she is afraid of the judge I will not force her to accept the exam.  Most of all, I will let her know that she is already the most gorgeous, brilliant, dog at the show before I even put on her lead.    

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