Show Dog Stressed? Let’s Get That Tail Wagging!
By: Chelsea Murray CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, CTDI

There’s nothing flashier than a well-bred dog strutting their stuff in the ring. And a key part of that comes down to a dog’s confidence and happiness as a show dog. But not all dogs naturally love being in the ring. No matter how much you perfect your skills, part of that sparkle will be missing if your dog is unhappy at shows. But how do you know if your dog is stressed and is there anything you can do about it?

Identifying Stress
Identifying stress can be challenging if you don’t know what you are looking for. Some signals of an unhappy dog are obvious like growling, snapping, stiffness in the body, and raised hackles. But the more subtle signals that we need to keep an eye out for include licking lips, whale eye, flattened ears, tension in the brows, and paw lifts. You might also see your dog display stress signals that are sometimes a part of normal behavior, but which seem out of context (called displacement behaviors) like scratching when they aren’t itchy or shaking off when they aren’t wet. These small signals can help us identify when our dogs are experiencing stress and let us know when we need to step in to help.

Helping Our Dogs
The tricky thing about stress with our dogs is that they cannot directly tell us “that dog over there staring at me is causing me stress”. But with some observation we can identify those triggers and then we can act on them. Barking dogs, new environments, crating in new places, grooming, and strange people touching them during the judge’s exam are just a few of the things that could cause stress. Some stress responses are big and result in our dog trying to flee and some result in our dogs barking and lunging at the end of their leash. Big, emotionally charged responses to triggers may require a more guided approach with a certified trainer for behavior modification (learn more about reactivity in this SDPS webinar). But those more subtle signals of stress that result in a lack of show ring confidence, can often be handled with a little observation, some positivity, and games, such as the following:

1. Try to avoid or reduce exposure to known stressors: If you know there are certain things around the dog show and routines that trigger stress, avoiding them or finding ways to reduce the intensity of those stressors can help reduce your dog’s overall stress level. For example, if loud barking is upsetting to your dog, consider crating for naps in the car (when weather is appropriate). You can also be mindful about where you choose to crate indoors; choosing a location closer to an exit where it will be quieter and easier to get out for breaks can be more peaceful. You can add in crate covers to reduce visual stimulation and a Through A Dog’s Ear music box or Adaptil pheromones to promote relaxation.

2. Find healthy outlets that fill your dog’s emotional cup: All experiences that our dogs have either build them up or drain their energy. When our dogs are experiencing more emotional stress, it is important to evaluate our routine so that we can add in some activities that will help build our dog’s emotional cup back up (learn more about a dog’s emotional cup with Sarah Owings). Activities like long line sniffy walks, chews, food puzzles, play with a new toy, and trick training are a few fun ways to loosen up your dog and help fill them back up.

3. Teach some fun tricks: Trick training has a unique way of loosening up the human and the dog. Not only is it a fun way to connect with your dog, but it also can be helpful to keep your dog’s emotions positive around the ring! Tricks like hand target, spin, shake, and high five can help you and your dog connect and reduce stress. For a dog who might be a little worried and stiff, the games can also allow your dog the opportunity to move their body and loosen up. When trying to maintain focus in a breed ring with a large count or a group ring, tricks can even break up the monotony of standing still while keeping your dog engaged with you.

4. Check your own mental space: We love our dogs but sometimes being in the show environment can put a lot of pressure on us as owner-handlers. That strong connection we have with our dogs also means that they pick up on our emotions. We may unintentionally change our own patterns, our tone of voice, or how we handle while at a show versus during practice, which can increase their stress level. Working on some visualizations, positive affirmations, and breathing exercises can all be helpful tools as you reframe your state of mind and strengthen yourself as a teammate. Just like teaching your dog a solid stand stay for an exam takes some practice, so does learning to keep your own mindset in check. If you need some more help with mental management, check out this SDPS recorded webinar!

At the end of the day we go to dog shows because we love our dogs. Strutting our stuff around the ring is not just about the quality of our dog for us owner-handlers, it is also about the connection and love we share with our best friends. Having fun should be something that we can all share together. If you need some more tips and tricks for helping your show dog learn to love the ring, check out Vicki’s Mentorship program for some more personalized guidance and tools to put that wag back in your dog’s show routine.

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Vicki Ronchette is the founder of Show Dog Prep School and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Vicki has been working with dogs professionally for over 30 years as a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, groomer and veterinary assistant. She is the author of Positive Training for Show Dogs, From Shy to Showy and Ready? Set. SHOW! Vicki presents workshops and seminars all over the country on how training show dogs.