A serious case of the yips: Competing with a reactive dog

What do you do when you’ve got the yips about your yapper?

PS: I just totally gave away the ending to this post.

“The yips” is a slang term for the sudden loss of skills (usually the fine motor skills of accomplished athletes). There are some medical explanations for the loss of these motor skills, but in common language, having the yips is usually attributed to a loss of confidence in one’s abilities. Sometimes athletes recover their ability or change their technique to compensate, but others end up retiring from their sports.

Most people probably don’t think of dog sports as, well, “sports”, but those of us who do compete with our dogs know better. Agility, obedience, weight pull, rally – all of these activities require training, physical preparation and mental readiness. They require partnership between dog and owner and — in my opinion — they are influenced just as much by mental mistakes as by physical mistakes. A lot of people go into competition and blame failures on their dog. “He knows better than that.” “He missed that jump.” “She was distracted.” Ultimately, it is the handler’s preparation and competition mindset that makes the difference here. A distracted dog is not engaged – so engage him. A dog doesn’t “know better” unless you prepare him – so prepare adequately. A dog who misses obstacles or signs has not been directed properly – so direct him. In fact, I would venture to say that most errors that cost dog-handler teams points or qualifications are caused by mental mistakes, not physical inability.

About 18 months ago, I got a serious case of the yips.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but I know how. I lost my nerve, totally and completely. I have always been an extremely anxious and over-controlling person prone to panicking (don’t I sound lovely?), so perhaps I was always at risk of confidence-related performance problems. I then managed to pair myself with a dog I thought I realized was my complete opposite: bombastic, confident, extroverted and stubborn. I thought. We enjoyed early success as a working partnership, taking lots of ribbons in the show ring and then moving on to the weight pull chute. We overcame some early fear and Cerberus became an accomplished weight pull competitor.

He was also becoming increasingly reactive towards other dogs.

I fought with him for months and months about it, butting heads with him, losing my temper, fearing his barking, lunging outbursts. He’s a big dog, the kind of dog people often fear, and the judgmental stares in response to his reactions would bring me to tears. I was frustrated and clueless and didn’t see a solution to his problems. The final straw came at a three-day event in 2011, when his outbursts seemed hair-triggered and it was difficult to even lead him in and out of the weight pull chute (though I found out later that another handler had been intentionally running his dog up behind mine while we waited in line to upset my dog – dog sports are as dirty as any other competitive activity).

I lost it. I left the show grounds in tears and didn’t go back, not for more than a year. I couldn’t, you see. I had this dangerous, uncontrollable dog who would always react and I had no way of stopping him and everyone would stare at us and judge us and-and-and… And so I worked myself up. I cemented in my mind the idea that my dog could not, would not compete. I could not, would not handle him anymore. I walked away from my friends, from all the fun I used to have at shows, and from preparing for competition with my dog.

“Cemented” is a perfect word. I encased that fear and anxiety and mistrust in a concrete block and froze it there in the center of my dog-sports mind, and every time someone asked if I would be at such-and-such event, I would shake my head sadly. No, I can’t do it. Cerb can’t do it. We’re not capable.

Left to my own devices, we’d probably still be in that place. My eager-to-please, work-driven young dog would be living the city-dog life and I would be sitting at home (okay, probably in my office, working) thinking about how I just couldn’t cut it in the dog sports world.

Good think that’s not what happened. Good thing we went out this weekend and Cerberus earned his UKC Rally Obedience title, URO1!

So how did we do it? How did I get back on that horse? How did I address Cerb’s reactivity and take him back into a trial atmosphere? How did I manage not to puke on my own shoes out of sheer nerves?! I will tell you!

For the last six months, Cerberus and I have been taking Control Unleashed classes with our trainer, Karen of Tao of the Hound. Karen is a dog sports expert – her rescue Dobe, Diego, has earned something like 28 titles. He’s done everything from formal Obedience to freestyle dancing! She is, of course, an honorary Team Unruly member.

In addition to the Control Unleashed program, we also work on Cerb’s Relaxation Protocol. The Protocol was developed by Karen Overall and is one of the lynchpins to the Control Unleashed program. We do a lot of mat work, which involves putting Cerb on his mat (a special blanket that is only put down for mat work) and doing all sorts of silly things around him. The purpose of the mat is to trigger relaxation; as long as Cerb can stay on his mat, he’s under threshold and can use his bulldoggy brain. If the things we are doing around him are too arousing, he’ll get up, and that’s the signal to us that we need to work on something. For example, the protocol starts with very basic things like taking one step away from the dog or just counting to 10. It moves up to more challenging activities, like ringing the doorbell (a trigger for many dogs) or clapping your hands quickly. The dog learns that while he is on his mat, sometimes strange things happen but it’s okay, because he is safe. You can then take the mat to public places and transfer that sense of calmness – if strange things happen out in the public space, the dog feels that this must just be part of that silly game his human plays when he’s on his mat.

So that addressed Cerb’s problems — and I don’t mean to gloss over it, because it was months and months of hard, frustrating work — but what about mine? It was no use teaching Cerb to be calm and relaxed if I was going to pick up the leash and immediately communicate to him in my body language and mental state that I was panicked and stressed. He needs calmness and focus from me as much as I need it from him.

They don’t make a Control Unleashed program for humans (sadly – I would like to sit on a mat and have someone throw cookies at me), but there are other mental management programs that can help us get our minds to a state of competition readiness. The book Karen recommended to me is With Winning In Mind by American sports shooter Lanny Bassham, who won a silver medal in the 1972 Olympics and went on to win gold in 1976. Bassham explains that in 1972, he failed to control his mind under pressure and fell short of winning the gold in International Rifle Shooting. In response, he sought a program in “mental management” but didn’t find one that suited his needs, so instead he interviewed Olympic gold medalists to figure out how they prepared and performed under such high pressure. From this research, he developed a system he called Mental Management. Using this system, Bassham went on to win 22 world individual and team titles, set four world records and take the Olympic gold in 1976.

Sounds pretty great, right? I’m not sure what better credentials you could ask of an author on this topic. It’s not just about winning gold, though — or winning at all. Bassham’s Mental Management program is about setting goals and achieving them. In fact, since learning about it, I’ve been thinking that it would help me accomplish some of my academic goals. As a grad student, I work under a lot of pressure and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and shut down. If I incorporated the lessons I’ve learned from Bassham’s program, I think I could do a much better job of managing my mental state.

That’s a story for another day, though. So! Preparing for Rally. How did we apply Bassham’s Mental Management system to my preparation for a dog sport?

Practicing walking the course while Cerberus relaxes on his mat.

First of all, we set a date. Karen made me a deal: if I agreed to trial with Cerb at the UKC Michigan Classic in March, she would trial with her reactive Dobe, Maya. At the time, March was still a good six months away, so I accepted. Then we practiced, practiced, practiced. I went to class every week and ran courses again and again – difficult courses, too, far above the level at which Cerb would be competing. We took Control Unleashed classes at the same time, working on having Cerb relax in the presence of other dogs, slowly increasing his exposure until he could heel right by another dog with his eyes glued to me. During this time, it became obvious that Cerb is actually quite scared of other dogs. For example, he’s quite familiar with Karen’s little Pom/Yorkie, Mollie, but when we ran a practice course that took us by her crate, he refused to do his right finish, a skill I know he knows how to do. I asked and he refused. Before changing my attitude about dog training, I would have attributed this failure to Cerb – “He knows better, he’s just being a brat” or “Why doesn’t he do what I say?!” After all the work we’d done, though, I knew better. Instead, I looked at why he might be stressed. It was then that I noticed we were right by Mollie’s crate, and it dawned on me that doing a right finish here would take Cerb right by her – something he did not want to do. He didn’t want to attack her or hurt her, he wanted to avoidher! I stepped away from the crate, asked Cerb to do his right finish, and he happily complied. Brilliant!

Another aspect of the Mental Management program was directive affirmations. No more telling myself we couldn’t do it or that something crazy would happen. No more saying “My dog will be slow” or “My dog will be distracted.” I told myself we would succeed. I told myself we would Q. I told myself it was like me to be calm and focused in the Rally ring, even though that was a blatant lie! I didn’t have to believe it – I couldn’t really silence that negative inner voice – but I had to repeat it. Five times a day.

I am calm and focused in the Rally ring. My dog is engaged and focused on me. I am prepared and I know the course. It is like me to successfully complete a Rally course with my dog.

If we do not succeed, it is a temporary upset and “not like us.” It’s not like us to fail. We succeed.

I don’t mean to give you the impression that I was cool as a cucumber on the day of the trial. The only way I resembled a cucumber was possibly being quite green. I wanted to vomit. Though Classic was smaller than in years past, all I could see was dogs everywhere, milling around on dental-floss leashed while their distracted owners chatted with old friends or waited to go into the ring. The Dutch Shepherd breed club was out in full force and their crating area was right next to the Rally ring. After I set up Cerb’s crate, a couple with an Anatolian Shepherd set up right in front of us with their dog on a fleece mat, not in a crate. I got a course map and obsessed over it, playing it out in my head the way Karen taught me, and when it was time to walk the course, I went through it as many times as possible in the 10 minutes allowed. I knew that course.

Then it was time to wait. I had entered on the day of the show, so I would be competing last in level 1A. Cerb fussed in his crate and I sweated bullets. Karen was across the venue, judging the weight pull, but she came to check on me frequently. “Karen, the shepherds!” I whined. “Karen, all the poodles! This is a disaster!”

So Karen swung into action. Seriously, she should wear a cape. She went over to the Dutch Shepherd club members and told them I was nervous and competing with a reactive dog, so would they mind moving their dogs back from the ring when it was my turn to compete? They were lovely and wonderful and did everything to help me out. When it was time to go into the ring, Karen and my other friends cleared a path to the ring entry for me, politely but firmly ushering bystanders and their dogs a few steps to the right or left so I could lead Cerb through.

Then we were in the ring and there was space. The shepherds were all in their crates, hidden behind a row of folding chairs. Karen had cleared dogs away from the other side of the ring. I put Cerb in heel position, got his eyes on me, and when the judge said “Are you ready?” I knew I could confidently say “Yes, ready.”

We scored a 95. Out of 100.

I left the ring in a daze, stumbled to Cerb’s crate, showered him with treats and was crushed into a hug by Karen. The Dutch Shepherd club folks were clapping for me. Everyone who knew us, who knew how we had worked for this or had heard about it from someone else — they all came over to say congratulations, to tell me they loved how Cerb worked with me and how happy he looked.

Cerb went on to earn his title in three trials with a 95, 87 and 91. There were two trials each day so our second trial on the second day was just for fun, and he earned a 93. He’s now RBIS URO1 UWPCH GRCH Jemm’s Twelfth Task ‘PR’, PH, CGC, TT. Not bad for a three year old!

So that’s how I overcame my case of the yips and got back out there with my talented, hard-working dog instead of giving up and quitting competition — and if anyone asks me, this is exactly what I’ll tell them. I addressed Cerb’s issues through Control Unleashed and the Relaxation Protocol, but more importantly I addressed my issues by learning how to prepare myself mentally for competition. No matter how much work we did on Cerb’s end, there’s no way we would have been successful this weekend if I hadn’t learned how to prepare myself to succeed.

8 thoughts on “A serious case of the yips: Competing with a reactive dog

  1. Great job! He looks so happy in the ring, that must make your heart sing with joy.

    Delilah has reacted a couple of times on me and I think once you’ve had your cherished baby react, it makes it very hard to remain calm. I’m on the other end of the leash and I know I’m transferring some of my angst to her.

    We’re working on it and I’m becoming more and more aware of what will set her off and distracting or redirecting her.

    Give yourself a giant pat on the back! I’m glad you had Karen in your corner.

  2. Beautiful! What a lovely and inspiring story :) I’ve got a reactive one too, and it’s such a great feeling to get past your first major hurdle…congratulations on Cerb’s title!

  3. Awesome story. We have spoken before as I have a reactive Mantle Great Dane who just turned two. I feel your pain on EVERY level. And now I understand how you feel. The fact that I was able to just watch your video without Lincoln running/lunging/hackles raised to the screen is how I understand. We have been working on the TV issue and once that is under control, we will use the same training methods to work on the outside/real life issue.

    Thank you for the above links and I am now going to read them and perhaps try. Lincoln is 147 lbs of stubborn, dominant, HIGHLY intelligent dog. He needs to work but like you were, I am scared to set him up for failure. So it looks like I have to change my attitude.

    Thank you for sharing your story. :)

  4. Thank you for this great post, I am working through reactivity with my standard poodle and its great to hear other people’s stories. We’re hoping to trial in Rally in 6 months, maybe, and you give me hope!

  5. I cannot, CANNOT. thank you enough. I’m serious. I have an extremely reactive husky. His backstory’s not sunshine and daisies, and my understanding is that he was never socialized. This has been very problematic, and I have been trying so hard with very little success. This post has given me hope, and not only that, I was able to find a group in my town that does Control Unleased. Thank you!

  6. Loved your article. Thanks so much for sharing. I’m working with my first border collie who is reactive to dogs and cars. We had to recently quit our first agility class because it was too much for him. I’m working with a great trainer and have read the CU book, and many others. We hope to be able to compete in some k9 sport for fun. Your article was inspiring. Thanks.

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