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Keeping agility safe...

Agility isn't just a hobby. It's a way of life. For dogs too, working agility can be a literal lifesaver, boosting confidence and giving the dog an outlet for excessive energy. Sadly though, it seems that increasingly, people are putting dogs into the ring that they suspect may become so stressed or threatened, they feel the need to bite. It's important agility is a positive experience for all concerned. Editor of The Agility Voice, Jill Spurr has kindly agreed to share her article.

Agility is a great outlet for dogs that have issues, but you should always balance the benefit to your dog of that run in that place on that day against the risk of putting your dog into a position where they feel they need to bite. Of course things happen out of the blue but, if you know your dog is at bite risk, you need to manage that risk closely.

  • Recognise your dog's triggers and keep a record of them. How many triggers can your dog be exposed to in a day without showing stress signs? Do you recognise the early signs of stress before they reach over arousal?
  • Beware of trigger stacking. Biting is at the top of the ladder of Aggression, but a series of smaller triggers can push your dog to the point it feels the need to bite.
  • Diarise any behaviours related to the dog's aggression or triggers. This can help you to become more aware of what lies behind your dog's problem. Use this to think about the accumulation of triggers over a day or week to help you decide whether to attend a competition and potentially how much to do while you are there.
  • Understand your dog's critical distance - how close does a potential trigger need to be to cause a reaction. Use this to assess how safe a run may be.
  • Agility has the potential to increase arousal, which in turn increases the risk of a bite and should be considered when deciding to run. At the very least, natural arousal from the show may affect critical distance your dog may need to be further away from its triggers to be comfortable and unlikely to react.
  • The link between pain and aggressive behaviour is well documented. Be vigilant for any sign of injury, soreness, ill-health or simply being off colour, and be cautious when bringing a dog back into competition after an injury or illness.
  • Risk assess each run individually - is your dog likely to be exposed to its triggers? What is around the ring? Where are entries, exists, queues? What will your dog be running towards? What is the judge's path? Are there any points on the course your dog's confidence may drop. What is your dog's demeanour today?
  • Don't expect people to take off hats and move children. You are responsible for what triggers your dog is exposed to and you can only guarantee what you are in control of. If your dog finds everything like this triggering, ask yourself if your dog is really benefitting from being at an agility competition where there will be lots.
  • Don't assume that plastic netted rings are safe. It will NOT contain a dog intent on getting out (or in) and, in addition, can be a trigger itself, causing Barrier Stress.
  • Always play safe for people and your dog. If in doubt, don't run.
  • Don't resume a run if your dog has interacted with a trigger, even if it went a short distance towards and then broke away. Definitely reward the decision to return to you without resorting to aggression, but don't use agility as that reward.
  • If your dog has bitten or has shown the early signs of aggression, then invest in professional, qualified, experienced behaviour advice.

Be honest with yourself. What does your dog get from a show environment that it cannot get from training with well-managed interactions with people? Who are you competing for? It is it possible with management to compete with a reactive dog, but it requires vigilance and understanding on your part.

About the author...
Jill Spurr is Editor of The Agility Voice.

First published in The Agility Voice (August 2022)

Reposted on 17th July 2023 with kind permission of the author



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