It's been coming on gradually, but this weekend I finally said it aloud -- I'm not sure I'm ever going to title Laev in Schutzhund.
This is really rough for me. I bought Laev (the first dog I've ever purchased, as opposed to adopted from a shelter or rescue group or off the street) specifically for her genetics, developed specifically for this sport. We started sport-training at 8 weeks old and have never stopped, except for the occasional time off for a minor injury or such. I've worked hard on this, sacrificed other activities to make training time, etc.
But we're just not beating this gunfire thing, and without that, nothing else matters.
It's not that we've made no progress at all. My theory was that what was learned (Laev didn't show any trouble with gunfire until age 2, and no serious trouble until 3) could be unlearned, and I started desensitization. Our low point was a shaking, whining, drooling dog; our high point was Laev heeling beside me while I fired a cap gun in my right hand, without losing her. So we have definitely seen progress.
But it's not steadily-forward progress; hunting season and the neighbor's target practice started again soon after the aforementioned high point, and we backslid horribly. There are a lot of chemical processes attached to this kind of sensitized emotional reaction which we've only barely begun to understand (see Mr. Hooper's Sketch for a great essay on this) and a major complication is the fact that I don't know when neighbors might practice, which means I'm not always prepared or even aware that my dog is being exposed to her trigger without any counter-conditioning whatsoever.
The locals use a variety of guns, including some big ones, and they may shoot for a few minutes or a couple of hours. Some of you may recall that I once came home to find my kennel empty with a hole through its roof and blood smears on my front door, with my panicked dog in hiding. No desensitization program can stand up to that kind of intermittent experience among the positive associations.
Saturday I was sitting on the edge of the training field, watching other dogs work while Laev relaxed in the car, when someone started firing in the distance. I had just been talking about Laev's progress and backsliding, describing how her relaxation protocol had enabled us to achieve long downs again in the "scary" part of the field, but how we couldn't pull off heeling and relaxation (involving matwork) at the same time, and so her obedience work in center field was still abysmal even though she hadn't heard gunfire there for a year. I went back to the car when the shots started (probably someone practicing or hunting coyotes) and took Laev out. She seemed relatively calm, and I started asking her for basics, but after a moment she began to whine and then fall apart. I moved to one side and asked her to down, and she immediately went chin-down (part of her relaxation series) and calmed. Good news: the relaxation protocol does work, and she will choose it if she has a chance. Bad news: it still only works in a down. She hopped back into her crate and was fine.
That's how it always is; that's how it took me so long to recognize a gunfire problem when it began to develop. Laev doesn't bolt at the first sound of gunfire if we're working; she tries to keep working through it, with the most subtle stress indicators I've ever seen, until it finally reaches her threshold and she explodes in either running or freakish barking, jumping, and general physical displacement. (Her initial stress signs really are subtle; people have told me she's not stressed at all, that I'm just imagining things, and then seconds later she's bolted.) So it may be a good ten or twenty seconds between the shot and her apparent reaction, but it's the gunshot which caused it.
Laev is otherwise nearly fearless; she shows a modicum of common sense regarding snakes and larger animals like horses, but she barely blinks at most things which typically alarm her species (I once caught her turning on the vacuum cleaner as a puppy so she could play with it, and the occasional attempt of an uneducated houseguest to intimidate her into compliance results in Laev blissfully continuing to do as she wants). While working on this issue, I tested other types of noise, filling a steel bucket with chains and asking others to rattle and bang them obnoxiously all around us as we heeled. No sweat; she never took her eyes off mine. And recorded gunfire has no effect, either; only the real thing matters.
(I have found a drug which, if given in time, will abate her more panicked reactions -- but even aside from the ethical issues of trialing a drugged dog, I'm not sure that it doesn't interfere with her ability to do the work of tracking, obedience, protection. So it's not a solution.)
Laev has so many good points, and her /cough/ less-stellar qualities have been so good for me as a trainer. But this, this is killing us. If she can't hold steady during gunfire, she is disqualified from obedience and the entire trial, as happened to us last time. We've put a lot of work into her protection behaviors, and we've gotten a lot of good comments on her bitework. When I started with Laev, I didn't know many clicker bitework trainers, and I won't pretend that what we made up as we went along (some of it unique to us, as far as I know) was always the best choice -- but I am personally proud of what we've done, and I do believe that we have some good training among the mistakes. And I'll never get to show it, because unless she holds steady during gunfire in obedience, she can't even enter the protection phase.
I'm not retiring her. Ye gads, Laev is only 5, and she would never be happy to be just a pet dog! And I don't want to drop protection sports entirely, as she adores the training. I'm going to keep doing Schutzhund club training, and I'm going to shop around for other venues where we can use our skills.
When I started this blog, I gave it the subtitle: "A professional dog trainer raises a puppy with lofty working goals.... At least, that's Plan A. But anything can happen." That seems rather bitterly appropriate now. Plan A was to get her BH and then title, and even when we had /cough/ BH issues I still fully intended to train on through Schutzhund 3. Now, I don't know what the plan is. Still exploring....