This week I took Hannah and Kestrel to agility.  Both girls are in heat right now.  I brought the girls into the training arena and brought towels to put down in the crates where I would contain them during our lesson, with the intention of wiping down the crates afterwards.  Having bitches in heat has never been a problem where I was doing agility training before, nor has it ever been a problem at any herding venue.  In fact I had both girls at a herding clinic this weekend and all I did was keep them a few feet away from the boys to avoid unwanted puppies.  The boys still had to think and work, and they had no problem doing so (young dogs with virtually no training, I might add).  In herding, the attitude is: “if your dog can’t work around a bitch in heat, that’s a fault in the dog, not the fault of the bitch.”  This is also true for Shutzhund and other working-type sports, and even conformation competitions.

Today I found that this attitude is exactly the opposite in the agility world.  My instructor said bitches in heat are only allowed on the property while wearing diapers, and warned me that they are universally banned at all agility trials.  The reason she insists on diapers at her facility is that she holds trials there and can’t afford to replace equipment spoiled by contact with an in-season bitch’s blood.  Furthermore, bitches in season are forbidden on the property two weeks prior to any trial.

The argument is that intact male dogs often lose their brains around a bitch in heat.  In fact, they lose their brains if a bitch in heat has been near the agility equipment, ever.  In other words, if my dogs were to go over a jump and leave a drop of blood on it, the jump would have to be thrown out because intact males would become incapable of going past the jump without stopping and sniffing and losing their brains.  This – the argument continues – is not fair to the owners of said males, so bitches in season must be diapered, and kept away from any competitions completely.  It was further explained to me that the reason that things are do different at agility trials is that dogs in agility are rarely exposed to bitches in season, and as such don’t learn how to control themselves.

My thoughts on the above is that this is a load of crap.  At the risk of anthropomorphizing the situation, it is more than reminiscent of the argument that women should be covered up because men are not capable of controlling themselves if they see hair or breasts or, heck, an ankle in the Victorian era.

Last fall I competed with Hannah at a sheepdog trial and the male dogs there were all perfectly capable of functioning in her presence, and keeping their mind on sheep despite her scent mark at the post.  I’ve seen an intact stud dog pick sheep up off a bitch in standing heat at a trial and, after a quick glance and sniff in her direction, get back to work with a single holler by his owner who was a couple of hundred feet away.

I would hazard a guess that these agility dogs lose their focus because agility is not something they are driven to do by instinct (unlike herding) and as a result, they are not used to having to control their primary instincts, unlike a trained herding dog.  At the same time, an intact male agility dog with sufficient training should get over this.  The first step in agility training is, after all, impulse control.  Hannah has been in standing heat at an agility class and the intact males were perfectly capable of running a course, although they did sniff and froth a bit while waiting for their turn.  My former instructor (who is now too far away to train with) never thought twice about having my girls in class while in heat.

I think a big part of the problem is that a bitch in season will bring out holes in the training of the owner of the intact male.  If the dog’s training is not solid enough, or if his enthusiasm for the sport is not strong enough, he’ll get distracted.  And since our society is quick to blame the woman for any poor behaviour on the part of a man, the distracting bitch must therefore stay home.

Another potentially contributing factor to this issue is that, in my observation, agility dogs on the whole tend to be a lot less stable than working dogs.  A dog who is capable of working (be it stock work, hunting work, search and rescue, police work etc.) must be capable of considerable self-control.  In fact, many people do agility with their dogs specifically because their dogs are so high strung and reactive.  I have taken a number of my foster dogs to agility classes for exactly this reason.

This is likely for a number of reasons.  Dogs bred for these types of sports (agility, flyball, dock diving etc.) are selected for manic and obsessive-compulsive behaviours, instead of for an ability to think and have self-control in face of strong stimulus.  Also, many agility people get partners from shelters, and many of those dogs have been rejected because of their behavioural issues to begin with.  In other words, it’s a population already tipped in that direction.  This is often made much worse by the stress of the shelter coupled with being surgically altered and heavily vaccinated all at the same time (for my thoughts on this horrifically damaging practice, read this).  Some agility training facilities require yearly vaccinations, and many of them as well, further contributing to the mental problems of these dogs.  As a result, many agility dogs start with much lower thresholds for distractions.  Reactiveness and hyper-sexuality are both behaviours that can result from a demyelination of the central nervous system caused by vaccines, especially the rabies vaccine (here is a list of articles discussing this further).

Nevertheless, I don’t think this is a good reason to ban bitches in heat from competitions.  How about more proofing people?  Is it my dog’s fault if your dog can’t work past a toy or treat that has been dropped on the ground?  Or gets distracted by someone else’s shout or movement or click?  Certainly not.  When a dog who is afraid of men is running, does the judge ask all men to stand back from the side of the arena so as to not distract her or cause her to panic and run out of the ring?  No again.  People who have dogs who break for these reasons all have to work very hard to desensitize their dogs and have them stay focused despite such distractions. My girls will all break for various reasons, and I proof my training against this as much as possible.  We in fact look for such holes and practice, practice, practice. This is a big part of agility training in general.

My instructor told me today that until I could get my dog to hold a 2-on-2-off contact position and continually nose target a piece of plastic on the ground, while I run at top speed, hooping and hollering and tossing toys and treats as I go, she will not be ready to trial. If my dog can hold her position during the above scenario, surely an intact male can learn to hold it when a bitch in heat walks by. So why not train and proof intact males around bitches in season?  Why should my girls have to stay home just because someone else hasn’t trained their dog to keep his mind on the ball instead of her tail end?  It seems to me that sending any bitch in heat home only serves to make this problem worse.  If I had an intact male (which I have had in the past, and will have again in the future), I’d work him around bitches in season intentionally, as another level of distraction.

The icing on the cake is that if you have to keep your in seaons bitch home from a trial you have already paid for, you can only get your money back if you get a certificate from the vet to prove that she is in heat.  This requires having a good relationship with a vet so that you don’t get charged for an office visit to get the certificate. When I heard this, it was enough to make me reconsider ever trialing in this sport.  How unbelievably ridiculous.