Dog trainers are often a little too focused on the dog’s tail. Many handlers think that if the dog wags its tail high in heeling, it must be happy. But it’s not always so. Also a dog who is nervous and stressed can wag his tail high. This works also vice versa. The dog’s tail can be physically connected so that it carries it low even if the dog is happy, relaxed and satisfied. That means we can’t only observe one sign, but instead, we must observe the dog holistically.
What are then those other signs we should give attention?
There is a reason why the judge is exactly on the field. Close to the dog the judge can see the dog’s facial expressions much better than far away where the audience is standing.
Eyes are reflecting a lot of emotions. The dog should observe the handler with open and interested eyes. If we see a dog with a glazed look, we can reason that the dog isn’t enthusiastic to work, but has shifted more on this nervous and unpleasant side. This can be difficult to see from the videos, but easy when you stand a few meters from the dog.
The dog might move his ears back and forth during moving. Or keep them behind all the time, for example when running fast in send out or recall. But immediately when the moving ends and the dog takes the basic position or sits in front of the handler, the dog should point ears attentively and excitedly towards the handler. If it still keeps them behind, it is usually a sign of an unpleasant feeling.
The dog may get shortly exhausted after running phases or in hot weather, but generally dogs should breathe normal throughout the obedience. Especially in the basic positions those dogs, who are fully focused and really excited to start the next exercise, will hold their breath right before the upcoming command. If the dog is in the Flow state, it knows what happens next and it is prepared to perform it powerfully. But it is able to wait for the permission calmly and silently, and thus it closes the mouth.
Dogs who are very stressed are not able to do it. They are panting continuously. Other signs of unpleasant feeling are rolling the tongue meanwhile panting, drooling heavily, clacking teeth or even foaming from the mouth.
One of the best moments to observe the dog’s emotional state are indeed the basic positions, sitting in front after recalls and retrieves and the motion exercises when the handler moves away and returns. There we can observe much about the relationship between the handler and the dog and also the dog’s self confidence. Many dogs become insecure or nervous when the handler doesn’t praise or reward like in training.
Probably one of the biggest reasons why dog handlers sometimes have difficulties understanding the judging is that they look too much at speed instead of the emotional state in the exercises.
There can be a dog who heels beautifully tail up, in a correct position and with a perfect eye contact. But in every basic position it has difficulties to sit calmly. It may then drool, whine or put his ears back. It may sit, down and stand very fast but look around and stay unfocused, insecure or nervous when the handler walks away or returns. It may run fast in recall, but feel uncomfortable when it has to wait 3 seconds for permission to finish the exercise.
How many points the dog loses for these mistakes depends on the level of nervousness or insecurity. If the dog moves once his ear or glances away in the waiting phase, it doesn’t mean the dog is stressed. If the dog is self confident and focused before and after the situation, it’s just a beauty mistake and no points should be taken. The performances should be judged realistically and the dog’s emotions should be evaluated as holistically and objectively as possible.
The dog should stay all the time on the right side of the Russell’s model in the competition obedience. Mostly on the upper side of it, feeling enthusiastic and inspired. If the arousal level drops too low, the dog isn’t energetic enough to perform well. In exercises such as long down where the power isn’t needed, the dog can naturally be more relaxed.
If you want to learn more about dog’s emotions and how to affect on your dog’s emotional state, watch our Flow lecture here.