On the show Dance Moms, Miss Abby frequently tells her students to save their tears for their pillows. I can't say I've ever seen tears shed in agility class, but I'm pretty sure if someone were to cry our trainer would give us similar instructions.
So, when tonight's class went to Hell in a hand basket, I didn't cry . . . until I got in the car. Now, on my couch in my pajamas with puffy eyes and a stuffy nose, I'm trying to figure out just what went wrong.
Class started off a little rough. I noticed that the gate separating the new dogs and the old dogs wasn't pulled all the way to the wall, so I went over to stretch it out a little further. I had to adjust the middle section a little, but Barley was doing a nice sit-stay while I fixed it. Then the older man with a yorkie snuck up behind us because he decided to go get another jump pole from the opposite side of the room. Despite the fact that I've told him multiple times that Barley does not like other dogs, he let his dog wander close to Barley and she lunged. I know what went wrong there. Yorkies are one of Barley's triggers and I didn't have any warning that this one was approaching behind us, so I couldn't manage her reaction.
But, we picked the jump farthest away from the yorkie and I thought we'd be fine. Then the doberman, who we usually have no problems with, decided to wander away from his mom and in front of our jump. Barley lunged again, but I had her by the collar, so didn't go very far. Our trainer took her and walked her close to the doberman several times until Barley understood that she was to look at the trainer not the other dog. Then we went back to work (and had no more problems with the doberman, even when he was standing a foot away from us in line for the weave poles).
Things fell apart when Barley decided to go over the jump (like she was supposed to) and then skip coming back to me so that she could instead fly over the gate separating the two sides of the room.
Two weeks ago, Barley chased down a Dandie, which is a terrier that is apparently rare and very expensive. The Dandie had been running around crazily (like Barley has been known to do) and barking (another one of Barley's triggers) and there wasn't a gate up in the room. Barley decided getting the dog under control would be a lot more fun that going through the weave poles and pinned the dog against the wall. Fur flew. There was a big hunk of fluff in the middle of the floor. The dog squealed, but it wasn't hurt--just scared. The trainer immediately put the gate up and we didn't have issues.
Tonight, the Dandie was quiet and the gate was up, but Barley decided she didn't like it. Or maybe she just wanted to hang out on the other side of the gate because she didn't actually try to touch the Dandie--she just growled at it. Regardless of what was going through her mind, she flew over the gate, ran past the Dandie with a growl, and then came right back to me when she saw I, too, had flown over the gate.
Our trainer had us quit working on the jumping exercise and work on boundary setting. We spent a good chunk of class heeling up to the gate and stopping and backing away. If Barley didn't turn when I started backing up, I had to pop her leash (which doesn't hurt her, it's just grabs her attention). If she did turn immediately, she got rewarded. After 10 minutes or so, she was turning before I had even started backing up.
When we got to move on to the next jumping exercise, our trainer stood at the end with an extra pole in hand to herd Barley away from the gate if necessary. She made one attempt to go near the gate, but as soon as she saw our trainer moving towards her, she was right back at my side. The rest of the night, she was wound up and overly interested in her classmates despite the fact that we did the one-hour down game in between each of our turns on the dog walk and with the weave poles. There was not one minute of class that she was relaxed and very few moments where she was focused on me.
So now, I'm left wondering: what happened? Has she just regressed from all of the progress we've made in the last two years, especially in the last six months? Is it because she hasn't been walked twice a day every day over the last week? Is it our lack of a routine in the summer? Is it the medication she's on for lyme disease? Is it some health problem that isn't lyme disease that I don't know about yet? Does she know I'm getting ready to go visit my grandparents and leave her with my parents for a few days? Is it the energy from the other dogs/owners in class--most of our favorite classmates moved up to the next level this session, so we have many classmates that don't know her and clearly don't trust or understand her. It could be any of a million reasons and I have no idea how to figure out what the reason is or how to deal with it.
Now, I'm just not sure where we go from here. We were planning on moving up to the next level of agility next month, but if she can't focus, we can't do that. We can't stay at this level because the Dandie will still be in class and clearly that's too big of a problem for her. Can we even take classes anymore? It's not fair to other people to make them take classes with a dog that scares them.
When I first got Barley and read Jon Katz's border collie books, Katz's stories about his aggressive border collie made me realize that I would have tough choices to make with Barley. I'm not faced with deciding whether she should live or die, but I do have to make decisions about what's the best life for my dog. I thought that our classes were helping her. She was learning to focus and relax in high-energy situations. She was learning to ignore other dogs even when they barked or ran. For the last three classes, it's like all of our progress went out the window. I don't want to set her up for failure. How do I know if this is just a phase or if this is just too much for her to handle?
By the time we got to the car, Barley was fine again. Now, I'm here heartbroken and she's retreated to her dog cave under the bed and seems completely unfazed by the stress of tonight's class. I'd appreciate any feedback, advice, words of encouragement that the universe has to offer because I'm out of ideas.