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Signs of trouble

The first indications of trouble slid by me. I saw them, but I did not worry. Some I actually found endearing. Rather than stay by my side, she’d run to my coat like she was ready to leave, for example. It wasn’t until later that I realized my little sweetie, who is perfectly smart enough for agility, perfectly athletic enough for agility, might not be emotionally strong enough for the sport that captured my imagination.

It’s certainly possible it’s just not her thing, but the stark contrast between her performance when we’re alone (fantastic) and her performance when we’re not (non-existent), tells me it’s not that she doesn’t like agility. Currently, she just doesn’t like doing it in front of other people (and dogs). I still hope that’s a temporary condition.

Because I did not know better, however, I made mistakes that may have ruined Lilly’s chance at a competitive agility career.

I picked the wrong trainer for us, and I knew it the first day, when I went home in tears with terrible nylon rope burns on both hands. (Dogs were not allowed to be on leash, and the tiny ropes we could use cut like a hot knife any time the dogs moved quickly.)

But, I didn’t know my options, so I stayed put for several months. In that time, she chastised me for praising Lilly too much and later for not making training enough fun. She told me one week that Lilly should focus only on me, and later she got frustrated when Lilly would not work for her. She rarely said anything nice about Lilly, even though my girl was clearly a quick study. And, it took her three months to say one, small positive thing about my handling. Three months without a single word of encouragement.

I was unhappy. Lilly wasn’t running well, so we quit. Later, the animal communicator confirmed what I already knew. Lilly did not like this trainer and did not trust her – not the start we needed.

I accidentally corrected Lilly too much, which wicked away her motivation. I was the paper towel in the happy Kool-Aid stains in Lilly’s life. Every “Nope,” every sigh, every time I dropped my shoulders, telegraphed my disappointment as much (and with the same force as a harsh correction). I might as well have screamed at her.

Thankfully, our next trainer showed me how to stop this bad habit.

I did not understand the signs of her distress. First, she ran slower that usual. Next, she’d run, but then she’d slink off or go into tunnels and not come out. Eventually, she refused to run without Academy Award winning coaxing in my part. And, still, I thought it just a motivation problem.

By the time I finally got the hint (duh, mommy), Lilly refused to get out of the car or cowered the entire class.

As I’ve mentioned before, one particular encounter with another dog and the teeter-totter (before I’d introduced the teeter) may have set this whole agility fear thing into motion. Until that, she was doing pretty well. I suspect there are other triggers, but I’m not sure what they are.

Think of it as doggie post-traumatic stress. The first incident primes the fear pump. Any following scares increase those pathways, and any tiny thing after that triggers a full-blown response. So, seemingly insignificant things can cause a huge emotional cascade.

It makes me sick to think of what could have been, what should have been … if I’d only known better.

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.