I adopted KC (a miniature Australian Shepherd currently 12 years
old) from rescue at 2 years of age. Her history was minimal;
however, at the time of adoption, she was noise sensitive and
would submissively urinate.

KC was attacked by a Golden Retriever at  3 years of age.
She was under the table with the dog during a lunch break where
I worked. Some food fell and both dogs went for it, resulting in
deep puncture wounds to her nose.  As a result, she would go
over threshold to “chase off” what she was afraid of. (See triggers below.)
Her body language would progress from ears forward, stiff stance (body leaning forward and standing higher on her toes) and staring to barking, growling, pulling at the leash.

Her triggers include:
  • Type of dog: initially KC would be fearful of larger, Golden Retriever type dogs but then generalized to any dog that would not back down when she reacted.
  • Dog’s behavior: any dog acting rudely by invading her space or staring her down would set her over threshold. She also generalized this to dogs playing tug.
  • Distance: tight enclosed spaces but also face-to-face interactions.
  • Tight leash: if the leash would go tight, KC would be put on the defensive and go over threshold.

I worked to desensitize KC to the presence of other dogs, using high-value treats and distance from the trigger. Using Click to Calm techniques, I taught her alternative behaviors to engage in around her trigger (especially tricks) and counter conditioned her to focus on me instead of the dogs. I learned to be a calmer, more consistent leader for her.

Because of the techniques described below, KC went from trying to stare down a dog, to looking at the dog and then “checking in” with me for direction. And, as a result, has become a champion agility dog:
  • Focusing ritual: we work a series of behaviors that help KC and I stay calm and connected. These include eye contact, tricks (including play bows and some freestyle dance moves), hand touches and “doodling” (heeling in a tight square). The consistency of the ritual helps her generalize no matter what the environment.
  • Being a calm, consistent leader: If I’m not calm, KC is more alert and goes over threshold. I do a lot of visualization to help. I also massage KC, which calms me as well as her. This is particularly helpful as we wait on line.
  • Using highly valued motivation to make agility fun!  Luckily KC is very food motivated and we have a hierarchy of treats we use depending on the circumstances (e.g., new trial location, closeness of crating). Also, knowing when to use my “happy” voice to redirect.
  • Jump in my arms: I taught KC to jump in my arms as a means to get her to the start line as well as how to leave the course. It started out as a management tool to eliminate close encounters with dogs she would have issue with. I no longer carry her to the start line; however, our victory celebration has her jumping in my arms!

The following techniques did not work with KC:
  • Forcing: KC would shut down if forced to go on the teeter. She would try to leave the course or stop and scratch. These displacement behaviors increased until we back chained with no pressure and upped the value of the treats.
  • Redirecting from gates: Using a “shaker can” or water bottle to keep KC from leaving the ring only made it worse.
  • What I wish agility instructors knew about training/trialing a shy dog:
  • Time on the sidelines is important too!  Fearful dogs become near threshold and over if just left to stress over the environment. Expecting your dog to sit still as other dogs run by is distracting at best for dogs without fear issues. KC and I bond and engage with each other on the sidelines by working our focusing ritual instead.
  • Using techniques such as a “shaker can” or water bottle to “discourage” a dog from leaving the ring only worsens the fear. Instead, run shorter sequences and celebrate those shorter sequences.
  • Teaching their students to respect a dog’s space and control their dog, especially those that let their dog encroach on a dog that is crated. After all, that crated dog is trapped with no avenue of escape!

KC’s agility successes include:
  • KC and I went to the 2011 CPE Nationals in Minnesota. There was a time when I thought we’d never title, let alone achieve what we have. We had five qualifying runs at Nationals. But, even better than the ribbons – no over threshold explosions – not even when a dog lunged and aggressed at her!!
  • We earned our CPE Enthusiast Agility Trial Champion Title (CT-ATCH) April 2012 and in June our CPE Enthusiast Champion FullHouse Title (TChFH). KC had not gone over threshold at a trial in years, yet the first weekend we went for our CT-ATCH Title, she exploded at a dog only five minutes after arriving. It was then I realized how nervous I was to run for the title and how she had felt my nerves right down the leash! We didn’t get our title that trial but did at the next – probably because I was a calmer and better leader for my KC!!
  • Two years ago, KC and I were running at an outdoor trial. She was coming down the dog walk and stopped dead still at the contact. Since, she’s always done running contacts, I was worried that she had hurt herself. However, I followed her gaze over to a dog outside the ring. It was a Golden Retriever who could have been a twin of the dog who attacked her.  I redirected her with my “happy” voice and she continued on through the course completely ignoring the dog! This was huge and better than any ribbon. It taught me that dogs do remember; the dog attack had been five years earlier!
  • KC had problems when dogs would approach her crate at trials. When an oblivious handler would let her dog stick its head in KC’s crate, I would body block the dog. I would cover her crate. And when she was quiet in the crate I would drop treats through the opening in the top of the crate. Now she is quiet and relaxed even when dogs pass by within inches.

I've recently retired KC from agility competition due to health problems. But, she will always remain my running mate in life! I hope the story of her success will give you the encouragement and persistence needed to work with your special dog!!