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How to keep your competition dog calm and focused in the starting area

A dog competition can be a stressful environment, especially the starting area. Excited dogs waiting for their turn can cause some dogs to get reactive, stressed or even scared. A competition dog that feels uncomfortable will not be able to perform well. Luckily, it is possible to train and improve startline behavior even for the craziest dogs. 

Dog trainer Steve Walsh at McCann dogs loves having a dog that is eager and motivated to work. Drive is important no matter if you compete in canicross, bikejoring, agility or obedience. However, it is important to maintain a certain balance to prevent your dog from getting overly excited and stressed. 

- One thing I don’t want to ever do is try and get rid of their interest and excitement. I really like it, but I really want to make sure that they can focus on listening to me in spite of that excitement. That’s a bit of a challenge to do, but like anything else, if I do it in a manner that my dog can be successful, that can help in those situations.  

Some typical signs that indicate that your dog is overly excited is barking, dilated pupils, salivating, panting, shaking, being more reactive than usual, ignoring the handler and even biting.   

Start at a distance 

Before even bringing your dog into stressful environments like trainings or competitions, Steve recommends you to spend some time just being near the environment. Gradually exposing your dog to high-energy environments makes it easier for him/her to focus on the task.  

- I do that a lot with my younger dogs. I can start to spend a little bit of time getting them comfortable in the area, doing basic things like asking them to sit, lie down, or walk with me. We spend a lot of time trying to simulate a trial environment and trying to simulate that energy level because it is so different, and teach our dogs to listen, Steve says in this episode of our podcast, Unleashed. 

This training can be done already when your dog is a puppy, but these exercises will also benefit older dogs.  

 Steve would gradually work his way closer. 

- If you’re right next to something and your dog is not listening because you’re right next to the start line and there are dogs screaming and barking, going 40 or 50 feet away can really help to bring that puppy’s mind back in and allow it to listen. 

Create your own «bubble» 

Steve thinks about his dogs as having a bubble around them. 

- When they’re puppies, of course, that bubble is quite large. Anything that comes within that bubble really affects them and distracts them. But the more adept they get at learning to listen with those distractions, the smaller your bubble gets and the more they can focus. 

Do simple, basic tasks 

You always want to set your dog up for success and make him or her to feel invincible.

- I don’t want to spend a lot of time telling my dog what not to do. I want to spend time telling them what to do and showing them how to do it to be successful. 

That starts with doing simple, basic tasks, like asking your dog to heel or just sit on a loose leash near the excitement.  

- It might not happen 10 feet away, but at 50 feet away, it can be successful. And then I would move slowly closer, building on that success. If I can give my dog a task he/she knows how to do when they are in an excited mindset, it becomes easier for me to prevent situations I do not want to be happening.  I replace behaviors that I don’t want with behaviors that I want.  

Teach your dog to offer focus 

Steve is competing in agility, where the intensity in and around the ring is high.  

- I teach my dogs to offer focus when they’re excited. If my dog goes crazy standing next to the ring, I will move away and encourage my dog to move away with me. I’m not going to tell them “leave it”, “no” or anything negative. I’m just going to wait, and often while waiting, they will offer to look and offer a little bit of focus.  

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That very moment is rewarded with treats, praising or playing. Be aware though, that playing with a stressed dog might make him/her even more stressed. 

- It is a great way to build the idea in your dog’s mind that when you’re excited about things, you need to look at me for directions, not continue to focus on looking at that thing that is exciting to you. I want my dogs to feel free to look around the world. I don’t expect them to stare at me the whole time. But any time they do offer me some focus, and especially any time they offer me calm focus, then I start to offer a lot more reward. My dogs learn that exciting things are there, but I’m still present and all the good stuff comes from me. 

Stay calm 

Pay attention to your own state of mind. Dogs can easily sense our emotions, read our body language and mirror our behavior. They might not see a reason to be stressed out in the first place, but seeing their leader be worked up about something they do not understand can make the dog stressed as well. Breathe, stay calm and transfer that energy to your dog. 

- Conditioning us both to be calm and collected can make a big difference.  

Set up fake trials 

To experience the same pressure as in competitions, Steve and his team will often set up fake competitions or play games in their training to challenge themselves and the dogs.  

- Pressure changes how we interact with our dogs and how the dogs react. We will make silly bets or play music really loud to simulate more stressful environments and teach our dogs to work through it. 

Practice start routines 

Making it unpredictable for your dog to know when it is time to compete and when you are just taking him/her out to practice start routines can also help dogs struggling with startline stress. 

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- I would do the same warm-up and preparation routine several times throughout a day while being at a competition, whether I’m starting or not.  

If you want to learn more about how to keep your competition dog calm and focused in the starting area and other common problems, listen to the full podcast episode with Steve.

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