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Using Calming Signals

Before an agility run, I was talking to Kelly Misegadis, owner of five-year-old AKC, NADAC and USDAA champion Boston Terrier, Hoosier (MACH, Hoosier Hamburger Padees- CD, CGC MAD), Elite Versatility. Suddenly, Hoosier began what Kelly later described as a reverse sneeze. Instead of blowing air out, the Boston Terrier began to snort air inward in short, rapid, and inefficient breaths. There was no missing the panic in Hoosier’s eyes as the dog suffered the equivalent of having the breath knocked out of him. Although I had no idea what precipitated this attack, I knew without a doubt, the dog could not run agility in that state.

Kelly went right into action. She moved to the front of her dog and focused his attention. “Get it together,” she said in light, upbeat voice. And Hoosier did get it together. His breathing came back under control. “Good job,” Kelly said, then they entered the ring and Hoosier had a great run.

I talked later with Kelly about what had happened with her dog. Kelly explained that this isn’t an unusual problem for dogs with compressed nose conformation. The condition is known as Brachycephalic Syndrome. Nervous is only one of the triggers. We then talked about how nervousness can effect dog performance in the ring. Kelly, who also teaches dog classes, has observed that it isn’t unusual for dogs to take unwanted cues from the owner or dog handler, especially nervousness. Even with dog handlers who display disappointment in their own handling mistakes, more sensitive dog can pick up the wrong vibrations, resulting in that dog shutting down its performance.

Although Kelly’s intention with her calming techniques were originally designed to get her dog out of respiratory distress, she has found her techniques can help calm all dogs struggling with nervousness that effects performance. Kelly wanted a less hands-on way than stroking a dog under its neck to calm him, so she turned to Turid Rugas’ visual cue of yawning. Since Hoosier had attacks several times a day it was a matter of waiting to give it a try. When Hoosier had an episode, Kelly gave a verbal command, “Get it together.” Then she began to take deep and slow yawns, looking away from Hoosier while yawning. After a few yawns, Hoosier’s breathing distress subsided.

The success of this technique was quickly tested. A few hours after Hoosiers first lesson, Kelly had to leave the dog in her husband’s charge to attend to some business. She instructed her husband how to conduct the calming signal. When she came home hours later her husband excitedly said, “it works, I can’t believe it works.” Since Kelly began using this technique she has noticed that Hoosier’s attacks are now on the decrease.

Nervousness can easily result in less than an ideal performance from a dog. Dog owners that find their dog’s performance suffers from anxiousness and nervousness can greatly benefit by teaching the dog how to calm down before entering the ring. Kelly has devised a series of training techniques that help calm down nervous dogs.

One of the most effective techniques is to do a nice, long, wide mouthed yawn. In preparation for the yawn, Kelly will drop her shoulders. Relaxing her shoulders in this way not only provides another visual cue to the dog, it helps her relax. Next, Kelly slows her breathing, and relaxes mentally. She often tips her head sideways, and makes sure she doesn’t make eye contact with the dog when she executes the yawn. If she speaks to the dog to get the dog’s attention on her, she uses a lower, calm tone of voice. If a dog is too keyed up to relax after a couple of yawns, Kelly uses another settling cue—to turn her back on the dog. She does peek out of corner of her eyes to check on the dog’s reaction.

When using calming signals, Kelly recommends you first try this in a less stressful area. Often times a dog is more relaxed at home, so that’s a great place to start. Once you get down the basics, you can then work the at the dog show. You don’t need to invest in entries while training, but can take the dog to a show when you are not entered to polish your technique.

When working the dog at a dog show, make sure you mimic all of the things you normally do when showing. Don’t be surprised if you find your dog begins to get a little anxious from the moment you take him or her out of the crate. If you find that your dog becomes so nervous by the time you get ringside that the dog can’t focus on your calming signals, then you will need to move your lesson away from the area where the dog first shows anxiousness. Find a quiet corner at the dog show and work to train the dog there. Once you have success, you can work up to the area where the dog has difficulty.

Ironically, the calming signals can be self-perpetuating. The dog hander that engages in those dropped shoulders, quieter breathing, and yes, even those wide mouthed yawns, will dispel their own nervousness. This quieter demeanor is picked up by the dog and creates a calming all its own. Often dog handlers don’t realize they are giving cues to the dog that can create stress. A bad night’s sleep or hassles in traffic when driving to a dog show can emit negative energy that our dogs pick up on. Whether a dog is struggling to breath or struggling to find reassurance from the owner, offering those calming signals can help the dog put out a better performance.

Next time you find yourself waiting ringside for a class, make sure you are relaxed. Go ahead and loosen up those shoulder muscles, draw in a slow and deep breath, and even indulge in a yawn. The calming signals you get and give can only help your performance.

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