March 6th and 7th 2011, Wags unlimited and Sit Happens! (in Calgary) co-hosted a second round of Backyard Agility games with Catherine Thomas, from New Brunswick, as the instructor. What an amazing seminar with great little gold nuggets of learning for each participant individually. 

Apart from being the trainer who really got me inspired to learn more about dogs and the one “responsible” for my current obsession with the canine-human bond, I consider Catherine to be one of my main mentors, a trainer with an amazing eye as well as fantastic communication skills. I have learned so much from her over the years, and continue learning all the time. The most recent epiphany happening just a mere three days ago – about a week after she returned back to N.B after the seminar.

The massive “light bulb moment” is all about AROUSAL.
I have been on a massive roller-coaster learning curve with my flat-coat Maggio in regards to AROUSAL. He is an interesting dog, great worker (!) but to try to paint an image of his story: one who balances his own “stability” on a fairly wobbly teeter, if that makes any sense. As long as there are no outside stresses to his life, I have a pretty good chance of predicting how he will respond to things and where on the arousal curve I may find him. However – environment does affect him a lot – and the the longer his environment is unfamiliar/ or adds stress to his overall being, the more his behavior will be affected – as well as his overall arousal. So far this all should seem pretty natural and logical. As human beings, most of us are affected by stress and environment, too – so it only makes sense. 
For Maggio and me, the learning and journey has been a long one, and in frequent moments of frustration or disbelief,  I have often picked Catherine’s brain about “what to do?” and have gained much insight through her and from her experiences.

Last weekend I was entered with Maggio to compete in obedience. I had entered him for three trials in Novice B, and certainly knew he was Ready and well prepared for the exercises. Mostly I was really only concerned about myself – and my ability to come across as “normal” to my dog (HA!) my ring nerves are not the greatest; I have a tendency to want to perform Really well and thus I put a lot of stress and pressure on myself, which can result in a very strange looking human being….all of course in turn affecting the performance of the dog.
At any rate – I am happy to report, my ring nerves held together and in watching video of my runs, I seem normal 🙂 and had scores I am completely thrilled with!
195.5, 197.5 and 192.5 – three Qs (Qualifying scores) thus resulting in a title: CD.

 (If unfamiliar to obedience; a dog and handler team need to pass all parts of the “test” with at least 50% of full points for each exercise, a total minimum score of 170…with 200 being a perfect score. To get a title, this performance then needs to be repeated three times, under at least two different judges.)

After our first trial – with a score of 195.5 – which placed us third – I reviewed the video of our run and also played back the visual memory of the two higher scoring teams. And – oh…video is so great for learning (!!) — I watched and actually I was not 100% content with the heeling! There was a bit of lagging and a couple of wide right-turns. I knew we could do better and spiffier heel-work. When we are completely connected as a team – there is no lagging and the turns are tight! 

So, now I tried to analyze what I should try to do differently before the next trial in less than 24 hours? And, apart from handler experience and perhaps training – what set the performances apart? What was different about what Maggio and I did, to what they had done? And the answer in its simplest form, was AROUSAL. Both higher scoring dogs, had been working in a much higher state of arousal. 

So, day 2 of trials I went in with a plan of going in with Maggio a bit “higher” on the arousal scale. Warm-up routine was a bit different than day 1, we played more, let the arousal build more and indeed we walked into the ring connected, together and “ON”. And did it ever pay off?! 
Our score went up by 2 points; to a lovely 197.5. The heeling was spiffier, tighter – and we were connected. All because of being ready to understand an internalize and also use this new understanding of arousal…a lesson that has been in the making for many years now, really for all of Maggio’s life – and often a source of frustration…

As Catherine – and others – have often reminded “We can only learn when and what we are READY to learn”. 

As much as I am on a high from this newly earned obedience title and doing well together with a dog I love so much – I am overwhelmed by this new insight and my own internal learning about arousal…It is all so much clearer now! “seeing” the bigger picture of this magical scale so often talked about….a curve that extends on one side into “low” arousal and on the other into “high” arousal…neither place a great one to be if we try to get the very best out of our dogs….

With each individual dog, it becomes our challenge as the human handler to get to know them well enough to see where they are in any given moment. 

And what happened to the third score? I guess it revealed some gaps in training/ proofing / preparing, which had the performance dip a bit, but certainly also fatigue played in. It had been a long two days already by the time we stepped into t
he ring for the third time. 

My goal and dream was to have all three scores over 190 – which we did! So, even though, by comparison the final score was ‘low’ – my boy was still “on”, happy to perform and work; did a great job finishing the day with a third and final Q to finish his title of CD. And on top of a title, I had a great epiphany of learning…something that will definitely stay with me always!
Now, onto the next training challenges! And Rally trials next weekend…..

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