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Working with Sensitive Sport Dogs



Have you ever been in a training session, or in a competition ring, and suddenly realized your dog has become vacant, inaccurate, uninterested and/or unresponsive?

This may include:
• Moving slowly.
• Stalling in the middle of an exercise.
• Needing repeated cues for “known” exercises / activities / behaviors.
• Sniffing the ground, scratching or self-grooming mid-training or mid-competition.
• Not picking up the object in a retrieving exercise or dropping it during the return.
• Detouring to the wrong object in a multiple retrieve task.
• Curving in straight line exercises such as retrieves and recalls.
• False alerting in a nosework exercise.
• Not being able to stay focused and complete an independent exercise (e.g. nosework search, tracking, scent articles, search work, etc)
• Struggling to remain on a start line stay or leaving the start line slowly in agility.
• Becoming vacant / “unreachable” / unresponsive to voice and/or touch.
• Leaving during the set-up of an exercise / activity.
• Looking away from you and/or the task.
• Walking / running away from you and/or the task.
• Leaving to “visit” dogs / people during an exercise set-up or mid-exercise.

What causes a dog to respond like this?
• Environmental sensitivity (i.e. being acutely aware and responsive to stimuli in the training and/or competition environment).
• Spatial pressure (e.g. from humans, objects, etc.).
• Training pressure (i.e. physical discomfort, or negative emotions (e.g. confusion, frustration, uncertainty, discomfort, anxiety, fear), associated with the training, activity and/or handler.)
• “Poisoned” cues, environments, objects, situations.

Ironically dogs that really want to get it “right”, are often acutely anxious about the possibility of getting it “wrong”. Their desire to not make a mistake, can cause a paralysis of sorts; it can negatively impact their decision-making capabilities, it can reduce their ability to think clearly, and sometimes it stops them from even trying.

Dogs who are environmentally sensitive, and those that struggle with spatial pressure or training pressure, require more empathy from their handlers. They also require additional training components, compared to a more “typical” dog. Inserting additional exercises into the training program, understanding the impact of classical conditioning, and knowing what to look for and how to respond, can greatly improve success with these dogs.

In this presentation we discuss the underlying drivers for these types of responses, as well as specific strategies for improving consistency, engagement, enthusiasm and results with sensitive sport dogs.

Presented By:

Sharon Carroll MAnSc, CDBC, CPDT-KA

Sharon (she/her) has been a professional animal trainer for over 30 years. She has been both a presenter and trainer in a range of animal shows, and currently operates, a dog training and behaviour consulting business based in Newcastle, Australia. She started competing with dogs over 30 years ago, then made the change from competing with dogs, to competing with horses.

For the next few decades Sharon had a successful career riding, and coaching, through to the highest levels of both eventing and dressage (Grand Prix). During this time Sharon continued to train not just horses, but also dogs and a variety of other species. In 2018 she made the transition back from competing with horses, to competing with dogs. She has since titled several dogs and achieved multiple wins and best in trial performances.

Intent on really understanding animals better, Sharon completed a Bachelor of Applied Science, a Graduate Diploma (Captive Vertebrate Management – wildlife and exotics) and a Master of Animal Science. Sharon is currently completing a PhD in Veterinary Pharmacology. She is a fully certified behaviour consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) in both dogs (CDBC) and horses (CHBC), and is a certified professional dog trainer – CPDT-KA. Sharon guest lectures to post-graduate veterinarians and behaviourists at several universities and organisations on the topics of animal behaviour, training, species-specific cognition, welfare and psychological trauma in animals.

Nowadays Sharon’s core focus is working with dogs with behavioural issues, and helping people reach their training and competition goals with their atypical dog. In all cases, Sharon’s primary aim is to help the human/s to understand the underlying cause for their dog’s behaviour, and to use both management and behaviour-modifying training, to achieve a better outcome for both the dog and their human/s.