Posted by: jility | April 10, 2012

…But She’s PERFECT at Home!

Agility is a humbling experience for some of us. If you are a miracle trainer, then perhaps things are different. Alas, most of us are not, and hearing that the reason our dogs stress and have performance anxiety is because we suck, does nothing to help our self esteem or our stress level.

I thought I had all the answers once. I thumped my chest and parroted things I had been taught and it all worked fine for the first six dogs I trained in agility. Five of those dogs are standard Poodles with various degrees of drive and softness and the other is a crackhead Border Collie who started with major self-control issues. My husband runs most of them, but I did the early training up to a year or so, then handed the best dogs over to him and kept the difficult or slower dogs for myself. He is a much better handler than I will ever be and a lot faster (well who isn’t faster than I am?).

Then the Universe sent me a major lesson in humility…

One of the Poodles I trained and ran in competition is Charisse Poodle. She is as sweet a dog as ever set foot on the earth. She is also dumb as a post and was quite fearful in the beginning. I chalked it up to her upbringing. We didn’t get her until she was three and she had no agility training at all except for some jumping. I couldn’t get her within 50 feet of the teeter at first, so the process was long and arduous.

Charisse Poodle went on to earn her USDAA Performance equivalent of a MAD title as well as two MACHs in AKC. I bred her a couple of years ago and we kept two puppies. Sadly, there was one in the littler that had major fear issues, no drive at all and couldn’t have cared less about toys or playing. She is the one I kept for myself because I didn’t want to stick her with anyone else. I have written about her many times and will many more, I am sure of that.

We have struggled on our roller coaster ride and will struggle lots more. There have been times people suggested I place her in a pet home. I thought I would never do that, but recently the thought has entered my mind on several occasions. Just when I think we are over the hump, the Universe, convinced my course in humility is far from over, kicks me in the face with another lesson. One such lesson happened this past weekend.

Pankies was spayed about a month and a half ago. I have seen definite improvement in her behavior, so I wanted to try trialing her again. It had been a couple of months since our last try.

When I first trialed her last fall, she was brilliant! We went through AKC Novice 1-2-3!

Pankies getting her Novice JWW title.

Then she suffered from IPE (irrational Poodle exuberance) in her first Open run, but I didn’t think anything of it. Clearly, she did!

Her IPE run in Open

At her next trial after that, she was obviously stressed. We finished the course, and even qualified, but she was not the happy, carefree dog that came out in Novice.

We put trialing away for a bit after two unsuccessful tries and a stress level that was escalating with each run. I decided to train her more and get her to some show and gos if possible. The problem is there are none around. When a local UKI trial came up, I jumped at the chance to enter (you can train in the ring with toys). I took in my trusty ball and she was brilliant! There was zero stress. Her state of arousal was so high, she forgot all bout the scary trial atmosphere and all the big scary dogs around. We did two runs and the second run was ever better than the first. I was STOKED!

Her UKI run.

So, I entered her in another trial. It had been months since our last try, and she was running so well in training at home and at class. We even did a Greg Derrett seminar and she was awesome. Her skills are fabulous!

The trial was at a place she has often been so I didn’t expect a problem. She started off great but, when she got to the weaves, stress took over and she couldn’t do them. Eventually, she did but she was not happy. Weaves are her favorite obstacle too, but stress overrides all with her. The next day she was even more stressed so I decided to quit trialing again.

A couple of months passed and I entered her in a local USDAA trial (jumpers only) She did half the course, then ran to the score table (where somebody FED HER!!!!). So, back to the drawing board and more training.

Sir Cussalot and I decided to hold our own private trials in our training yard. We called it The Big Jility Invitational. Pankies was the winner of the first one, and has done well in each one, but Sir C cheats and wins it with Crushie now, so we don’t stand a chance.

Pankies in her BJI win

With the spaying behind her and our triumphant BJI, I decided to enter her again. Since she already has a leg in Open, we couldn’t go back to Novice so I decided to put her in Novice Preferred. My plan was just to go have fun. The courses are so easy, we should be able to do them in our sleep!

Here comes another humility lesson. WHACK!!! BAM!!! BIFF!!! SMACK!!! (Hey! Where’s my toy? – read Easter Biscuits). Thanks Universe! I needed more of that!


So now, what little ego I have left is on the line with Pankies (literally). Pankies tugs outside the ring but, as soon as I step through the gate, she refuses to tug and begins to scope out her surroundings. I knew I was in trouble, but went for it anyway. She had warmed up beautifully at the practice jump so I thought we might have a chance.


The video speaks for itself.

In the race horse business, they call that “refusing to break.”

Things have been going downhill with every run. She has gone from brilliant to cautious  to stressy to paralyzed with fear. We have really been going in the wrong direction and only a miracle will bring us back.

On the incredibly LONG and silent ride home, I thought about it.

Do I give up?

Do I place her in a home where she can do nothing?

Do I keep trying?

If I give up, that means no more agility for me for at least two more years assuming I got a puppy tomorrow. We already have EIGHT dogs so that is really out of the question.

I don’t want to place her. I adore her and she adores me! So, that was also out of the question.

So, that only left “keep trying.”

I talked to my friend and instructor, Stacy WInkler, and Sir C about it and we formulated a plan. Sir C would stay in the set up so she didn’t have the excuse to go looking for him. I would not warm her up at the practice jump right before entering the ring. I would do that earlier, put her away, then rewarm her in other ways before I ran her. I would keep her far from the ring until it was her time (she is petrified of other dogs). Stacy would stand down by the ring and wave at me when we were two dogs out. Then, I would get her out and run (or waddle faster than I normally do) down to the ring, tug her in, if she will tug, take off her leash, do a couple of jumps and run out and celebrate.

As we entered the ring, she was tugging hard. AWESOME!

She was engaged. AWESOME!

She actually looked at me! EVEN MORE AWESOME!

So, I made an executive decision to take a few lead out steps before releasing her. She actually ran with me! She was slow and tentative, but she ran AND she jumped!

We did six jumps and celebrated! I even did a serp.

Here is her video (thanks Nancy :).

So where do we go from here? We keep trying and we celebrate baby steps. If I have to flush money down the toilet I will and I will do it for as long as it takes. If it gets to a point where she can’t even do a few jumps or is really miserable, I will stop and limit our trials to the BJI, but I am not ready to quit yet. Our roller coaster ride is far from over, my ego is the size of a tit mouse’s ear and I am sure the Universe is not done messing with me, but we will keep going.

My new tag line?

If at first you don’t succeed, keep on suckin’ ‘till you do succeed.” The Three Stooges.

Helen Grinnell King


  1. In AKC, you don’t have to “move up” after you complete a title. You can stay in novice or open as long as you want! But you can’t go back down, so some handlers dealing with stress issues elect to trial in easier classes for awhile. I didn’t understand why anyone would do this until recently, when my Lucky Lucy began exhibiting stress behaviors in Excellent B, after completing her AX and AXJ titles. She has almost quit performing in the ring. I enjoyed learning I’m not the only one trying to figure out this problem and stay in the game.

    • Yes, I understand that. I went to Novice preferred because she already had an open leg. Once you have a leg in the next level, you can no longer go back down.

  2. Pankies plays wak a mole like no other. Everyone is good at something.

  3. I loved you post! Awesome!

  4. Unbelievable Helen. Has certainly made me realize that I am not the only one with fear issues out there and anxiety. Thank you for sharing all of this it really does help. Our journey with our dogs is what it is all about not the end result. I also believe that we have what we have for a reason. Fully understand all your questioning though. I can so relate to it. Well done with Pankies. The love that you both share is very evident!! 🙂

  5. Helen, your dedication, courage, and sense of humor have been a constant source of inspiration to me.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to share this. It’s really helpful because I think we’ve all been frustrated and worked through it and are glad we did. Hang in there and good luck!

  7. I love reading about your journey with Pankies – not because I like to hear that friends are struggling but because your love for each other shines through.

    I travelled a similar path with my Maya. She is my first dog and I immediately started her in flyball and agility in the search to find a way to calm this insane poodle down.

    I ended up training and trialling with a great group of people. At one point however, things seemed to get really competitive. We were almost always clean but not winning – and I wanted WINNING.

    There was one particular evening that we were learning Lead Out Pivots. Maya got confused and I got frustrated and that was that. Maya left and went and hid in a tunnel. She refused to have anything to do with me and I had to force her to come home with me.

    The next week, she wouldn’t even look at me in the training hall.

    Maya’s message to me was super simple – if it’s not fun for me, I’m not doing it. Over the course of several months, we got back to having fun in class. She moved back to a beginner class that was all obvious courses and all stuff she knew how to do and started having fun again.

    Trials were a nightmare. Maya either wouldn’t go in the ring, or wouldn’t get up from her sit or she would go into a tunnel and not come out. Lots and lots of people told me to get rid of her. Some “kindhearted” people told that I shouldn’t train her because really, “you’re a better trainer than she makes you look”.

    Well, I love Maya and I’m not getting rid of her. Morons…

    I needed to find a way to take the stress out of trials for her. So, I made the conscious decision that Maya is always right in the ring. Always. Always.

    In the beginning, I would pick a very short simple path – not necessarily the one laid out by the judge. I would walk Maya and then crouch down and “ready, ready” and turn and she would chase me. I directed Maya on a path but if she missed a jump or went off course I always yelled out “YES, GOOD GIRL”. People thought I was an idiot – whatever. I really consciously yelled out “yes” because instinctively I would tense and want to correct the mistake which sucks out all Maya’s confidence. I found that yelling “yes” and getting all tense are mutually exclusive. “yes” is happy and Maya would bounce in pleasure (yeah, I made the right choice) and that made me happy.

    I also never corrected wrong tunnel entries or skipped weave entries. If she went in the wrong end of a tunnel, I yelled “yes, good girl” and we went on to the next obstacle. If she skipped the weaves, I would take off for the next obstacle. Eventually, Maya didn’t want to skip obstacles. You get more “yes, good girl” by doing more things.

    Over time, Maya’s confidence grew. She started trusting me and my directions – because if she was wrong I yelled the same thing as if she was right. “YES, GOOD GIRL”. In fact, Maya had no idea if there was a problem in a run. Every run was happy and eventually we started doing full courses. We even got back to Qing.

    Throughout that entire time my one and only goal was to have Maya happy in the ring. I wanted her itty bitty tail wagging while she pranced out of the ring sure of how brilliant she was.

    We did get to that point and it is one of my proudest accomplishments.

    Maya and I continued to play together until she had a stroke. Maya relearned how to walk properly and got her balance back. We trialled a few times afterward just cause.

    Last summer, I entered her in a fun match near our house. At 12 years old and many, many health issues (pancreatitis, 2 different cancers, seizures, cataracts, hip displaysia) she was jumping 4″. Maya was thrilled and gamely hopped, skipped and jumped through our modified course. I cried the whole time. I can’t believe that this beautiful creature wants to play this game with me all these many years later.

    Helen, you too, will find the key to Pankies. It is there waiting for you and then your joy will be boundless. Keep looking!

  8. I have lived this exact scenario with a few of my dogs. One of my current dogs, who came to us at the age of three, seems to be on the upswing and hopefully overcoming her ring stress. I’ve been working on it for about a year. We took our skills on the road, we went to parks, I joined classes that were new to us, just for different field and atmosphere scenarios, took equipment to parks, show n gos, matches, and “blew” runs at trials. We’ve done one “go for it” trial since all our work, started back in novice preferred (she has one leg in ex A std and jww), she did really well, out of 4 tries, she q’d twice, one second place, one third place. The biggest news, she was happy in the ring :).
    One more, “you can do it! ” story, my now 9 year old, had the same issues…gosh, it must be me….he overcame in a big way, going on to MACH, qualify for the AKC nationals and become a Top Twenty Doberman. He still runs agility with me, runs happily and now sits at the # 2 spot for Preferred Agiltiy Dobermans.

  9. wow…. what a wonderful journal of your struggles.
    I so admire your dedication and commitment to pankies and to yourself to find out what works for her. For the many of us who do not have easy dogs to train and work with, or our skill level is not up to par, you give great example of stretching ourselves and trying to find that sweet spot. Thanks allot for having the courage to share your struggles with the rest of us….
    I learn allot from you in working with Stella . We both thank you !!

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