Reacting right….

So life is full of lessons, and as a dog trainer and sports dog coach, I have had many!

I have been involved in this ‘game’ for close to 30yrs, achieving success at the top level of dog sport, with various dogs, of various breeds, in various disciplines… so its fair to say, I’ve picked up a thing or two along the way… BUT being a new parent is a totally different skill set… or is it!

Last week, my daughter, Neave returned from school in an absolute state… she was hysterical! Crying her eyes out, and clearly distressed about something.

On speaking to her teachers, it transpires Neave had ‘not listened’ when asked, and as a result not received a gold star.

To many readers this may seem trivial, and now in hindsight, I can see things with more clarity.

BUT at the time, my initial response was mixed.

The first cause for concern was the though of my child, my baby girl in a state of distress. This instantly caused the papa bear to kick in, and ask ‘who needs to be shot?’… ‘would I be able to kidnap a teacher and hold them ransom until I get a gold star for Neave?… 

Slightly disproportionate? Just a tad.

Secondly, was the ‘consequence’ my baby experienced for ‘not listening’.

As a dog trainer and professional sports dog coach, my preferred option is always to reinforce. Create a way for the dog to be ‘right’ and reinforce appropriate responses. Whilst, I am happy to have a ‘consequence’, and my dog not being reinforced, I will ensure that they absolutely understand what I want first. 

She had effectively been punished for ‘not listening’. This made my clicker twitch! 

The talk of ‘punishment’ or consequences in teaching and training can divide a crowd, like a skunk in an elevator… and most def this dad! I just didn’t know how I felt about Neave being ‘punished’ for something that I am not truly sure she understood, and is largely out of character. Neave absolutely loves school and loves engaging, so I found it odd that she didn’t listen.

On further conversation, it transpires that Neave was one of 3 children who didn’t receive a ‘golden star’ for not listening… and it was no coincidence that the other 2 girls are her friends.

Neave goes to school with her cousin who she adores! However they are in different classes, and on this occasion the two groups were brought together to read a story. I expect Neave and her cousin were so overjoyed and excited to see each other, they probably got over excited and lost focus.

So essentially, she had both a ‘distraction’ and was in a heightened state of arousal. Two complexities in one.

Now, as a reinforcement based dog trainer, I could think of a 100 alternative set ups to resolve this situation, and create an environment where Neave succeeding. But none the less, she didn’t get a sticker for good behaviour. She didn’t get reinforcement. She was punished.

Now there is so many emotions and responses I felt in that moment, and discussed it with friends and family. The responses were varied as you can imagine.

What should we do as Neave’s parents? Do we talk to the school? Do we intervene? Do we take her from that situation, as they don’t follow the principles of how we wish for Neave to be taught and raised? Do we get irate and defensive?

These are all options. Granted, some a bit of an over reaction, but still options. 

As it happened, Neave had her ballet class the following day. She again, loves to go and gets excited about the prospect. After class, as always I asked how she got on, and to my great approval, Neave had been the child chosen to get a ‘Gold star’ for great listening! I asked if the teacher knew about what had happened, and she didn’t. Neave had been engaged and took instruction and guidance so well, she received a gold star to acknowledge her behaviour. 

It was just coincidence that this happened the day after she had been punished for ‘not listening’.

So the question is, did she learn from the punishment? Did she change her behaviour as a result of the ‘lesson’ the day before? 

To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know if the school experience had an impact on her, trying to glean the details of a situation from a 3yr old isn’t easy, as most conversations dwindle down to ‘pepper pig’ and peanut butter sandwiches. What I do know is, Neave had largely forgotten ’no-sticker gate’… she bounded into class the next time she was in nursery, happy and excited as always. She hadn’t held anything from that experience, even though I may have done, potentially more than she had.

But there were lesson to be taken from this, for me.

We can’t always predict or control the experiences our children will have in life, as much as we would want to. We want to protect them from harm and ensure that every experience is positive, well thought out and productive. However sometimes that just isn’t what will happen. Sometimes, it will go badly, sometimes something will happen you absolutely didn’t want, and sometimes there may even be a few tears. As a parent, it hurt me to see her upset. It cut straight throw the core to think of her being tearful. My response was normal and totally natural. Slightly disproportionate, but ‘normal’. We can’t help but be protective with these little people. But we need to balance over zealous ‘protection’ with allowing life to unfold. 

Now think of this, and the similarities between our dogs. It may not be that your dog has had a negative experience at ‘school’, but it may be that they have had an experience that you would rather they didn’t. It may be your young dog, being ‘attacked’, art may be that you had a poor training session, it may be that you trained something poorly…. But ask yourself, how did you respond? This is where the real lesson will be. 

Being vigilant in your training and making great decisions is the standard we should all aspire to, but sometimes ‘stuff happens’, and it’s ok. It may not be ideal, but it’s ok. Reacting right is a skill set to develop, and it can be learned. Stay calm, think rather than react and you may just get a gold star!

Tribal Affairs

Picture this scene….

Two tribes, standing at the edge of a battle field… the sun beating down, blooded, sweaty, rage in their eyes… weapons poised…. chanting diatribe filled with anger and venom! Their staffs banging on the dusty ground… both blood thirsty and prepared to sacrifice all for the sake of ‘their people’…

The reason? The cause of this inevitable massacre?

Well that could be one of many….

Well it could be, Raw feeding vs Kibble or Vaccinations vs no vaccinations….. Positive reinforcement vs balanced training…. The list goes on… but you get the jest! Whilst I may be using this epic scene fit for the silver screen, to articulate my point… and it is somewhat in humour, there is a lot of truth in the sentiment behind differences and the ‘tribal effect’ of disputes.

As a professional dog trainer, and seminar presenter, I am often asked to deliver talks and presentations to audiences that are filled with people who have a different and sometimes conflicting perspective to that of my own.

When you are fortunate as I am, and travel to various parts of the country and world, this is kind of inevitable. In a time when division seems to be the norm, I am asked how I ‘cope with’ this situation.

Well firstly, I put down my spear! I have been known to be slightly ‘passionate’ in topics of debate and discussion, it has to be said.

Often we all can get defensive about our perspective and beliefs, but it is worth remembering that we are all entitled to our own views. Whether it be diet, training methods, heelwork position, stays or no stays… the endless list of topics that can divide a facebook group like the red sea parting… we are all equally entitled to that viewpoint.

But remembering that whilst you can have a viewpoint, be aware that someone else is entitled to debate it, contradict it or dispute it. And you know what, thats absolutely fine!

Social media, whilst it has its many uses, can often fuel the fire of debate and difference. This difference can often take a dark turn, and cross the boundaries of acceptable social conduct. Debate is healthy, but when discussion becomes personal, we need to take a look at our conduct and remind ourselves of core human values and common civility.

Training methods are a mine field for differences, and debate. Positive vs balanced, punishment vs no punishment, and even within these core groups, there is splinter groups within that then continue to debate amongst themselves! Even under the heading of reinforcement based dog training, there is a huge umbrella… and often there is a tribe within the tribe!

As a professional dog training and someone who puts his head above the parapet, this is a phenomena that I encounter on a regular basis.

So here’s how I view and deal with it:

⁃ We are all entitled to our opinion, and if you have yours and are prepared to defend it to the ends, that you have to anticipate that others will be the same, with views that conflict with yours. And thats ok. It is there right as much as yours, be grateful that we live in a society where this is possible, as there are many where it is not!

⁃ Try not to make your points personal. This will only add fuel to the fire, and deflect from your point. It becomes about the individual rather then the discussion. It may be hard, when you feel you are being ‘attacked’, but stop… take a breath and see the comment for what it is. It is rarely truly about ‘you’….

⁃ Be open to the possibility of dialogue. Change, discussion and growth can often be uncomfortable. You are potentially challenging the status quo and people take that personally. Putting up your barriers and shields, won’t allow communication. And if you truly believe in what you say, and what to get that point across, communication is a necessity.

⁃ Every viewpoint has its strongest and weakest examples. Judging a perspective or opinion by a poor example, isn’t the best way to gauge a true reflection of the viewpoint. And if you are using this as an example, be mindful that you could be subject to the same!

⁃ Agree to disagree. If we all agreed on everything, can you imagine how boring life would be! Having people to challenge your beliefs is healthy, it will test them! If your opinion can weather a little bad weather, then you can take confidence in them.

⁃ Be respectful. You may not agree, but be respectful of the individual, and if you cant walk away with your head held high. Walking away isn’t a loss, its a choice.

⁃ Listen. As simple as it sounds, try listening to the other persons perspective. But dont just ‘hear’ the words, truly ‘listen’. Often there is far more in common then there is apart. Passion, life experiences, emotional influences… We are far more alike then we are different.

⁃ Whilst we would like to believe that we are so different to those that don’t share our beliefs, when you scratch beneath that defensive facade, you will find we all have far more in common then apart. Often, in dog training, our commonality is our love for dogs. This in itself is sometimes worth remembering.

⁃ Avoid judgement. It just makes people defensive, and whilst it is easy to point the finger at others, you will probably find, that you are seeing in them what you hold yourself. the mantra when you know better, you do better, is often a way to avoid judgemental views.

⁃ You don’t always have to ‘be right’ to be right… Walking away from a debate doesnt mean you have lost, you can still hold your beliefs, and find people with a commonality. It may serve you to put down your weapons and step back from debates, and disagreement. Channel that energy into bettering yourself, and your cause.

Enjoy your dogs!

Kamal

Comfortably uncomfortable

As a dog trainer/owner/coach and teacher, there is what question that I am asked more then any other. It is the question that I am asked most, by those that are curios about my training or unsure about the results that reinforcement based dog training can achieve.

The conversation usually goes a little something like this:

Interested party: “So I get that you can get your dog to do those tricks, and behaviours… I get that… I REALLY DO…. BUT, what do you do when they don’t do it?”

Me: “well it would depend….”

Interested party: “ Depends on what……?”

Me: “In depends on what they dog does, and why”

Interested party: “Yeh, I get that… BUT… I mean when the dog just says NO”

Me: “It depends…”

Interested party: “Yeh yeh yeh… BUT When the dog just doesnt do it”

Me: “It depends :)”

Interested party: “FGS I get that, it depends… BUT, what do you do when the dog just says no, I am not doing it?”

Me: “Well I would ask a question of the dog… and depending on the answer, decide how to progress….”

Interested party: “Oh I knew it…. So you do make your dog do it”

Me: “No, I make the dog WANT to do it ;)”

This is the question that I get asked countless times, and if I had a pound for every time that this happened, I would be floating in a yacht in the south of France.

However, it is a legitimate question.

Countless books have been written about what you do to create behaviour, but little is discussed about what to do when it falls apart or you hit a cross roads (obviously MY BOOK Pathway to Positivity http://www.performancedog.co.uk/pathway-to-positivity?search=Kamal%20fernandez covers this extensively ;))

What do you do when you hit a point in your training when the dog doesnt do as you have asked or trained, or expect. How do you deal with the dog that says ’No thanks’ under the premise of reinforcement based dog training? We have committed ourselves to following this path of training, come what may… but what do you do when it all falls apart?

So firstly, take a deep breath. Its only dog training. Its fixable and resolvable. Even if the dogs inappropriate response to what you ask, is a regression in their behaviour, take a deep breath and maybe have a glass of some medicinal beverage… but either way. Lets see it for what it is.

A dog that doesnt do as we ask, can be whittle down to 5 distinct areas:

⁃ Lack of motivation

⁃ Lack of understanding

⁃ Lack of Boundaries

⁃ Lack of Relationship

⁃ Lack of physical ability

First review these areas, and make objective decisions.

If there is a lack of any of the above, that can be easily resolved. So lets assume that you have diligently reviewed the above, and you still get an incorrect response.

This is when I employ what I refer to as the ‘success protocol’. This is a systematic manner to work through any problem, without making it a knee jerk reaction, and potentially creating long term damage.

When the dog makes a mistake which is out of character or unusual, I may simply choose to totally ignore the error. Dogs are dogs, and sometimes they, like us, make mistakes. This would be dictated by the level of training and knowledge, the dog has.

If the error, persists. Review your training. Reinforcement builds behaviour. But is what you are reinforcing, what you wanted?

However, even with all these careful and cautious steps and analysing, it is not uncommon for the behaviour not to be ‘performed’.

This is when it can get sticky. Now what do trainers who subscribe to reinforcement based dog training, do?

Well first, don’t reinforce the behaviour. This may seem obvious, but trainers who gravitate to reinforcement based training, have this over riding need desire to reinforce the dog, despite what they do. This is often based in the fear that the dog will stop wanting to engage or the emotional impact it may cause. However think of the confusion this may cause by reinforcing a behaviour you ‘don’t’ want. Even for ultra sensitive dogs, this can create a huge amount of confusion. With these types of dogs, you may not make a huge issue of the error or even ignore it, but avoid reinforcing a ‘mistake’. End your session, abort the plan but avoid reinforcing for the sake of it.

You can try something else the dog can do, and reinforce that behaviour. Or go back a stage in your training to where the dog is confident and run through the steps, but what I refer to as ‘fast tracking’.

Each behaviour performed for a low level reinforcement until we are at the point where the dog struggles.

The part that a lot of people struggle with, is when the dog becomes visibly stressed or uncomfortable.

It may be where your dog is out of their comfort zone, or where a situation arises you haven’t planned for.

It happens. Unfortunately, dog training isn’t always a distinct line from start to finish. How I wish it was!!! But often a situation arises where my dogs show confusion, or uncertainty about what I am asking.

In this circumstances there are key things to remember.

⁃ Its not personal. As much as you may feel like it is, it really isn’t. It’ll be fine.

⁃ Focus on the behaviour and don’t let your emotions cloud your judgement.

⁃ Support the dog. This means being clear and fair about what you want.

⁃ The dog can do it. If you have trained diligently, and the dog has sufficient reinforcement available, it will work it out.

⁃ Know when to stick and know when to twist! Sometimes in training you make a decision that creates a moment where the dog may doubt themselves, this isn’t unusual. And sometimes you need to work through or around the issue. Think, plan and do!

⁃ Review your videos from previous session, if may explain the confusion.

⁃ Only ever ask a question of your dog that have every chance of answering. The question doesn’t have to be ‘easy’, but it must ALWAYS be fair!

⁃ Celebrate the success!! If the dog overcomes a challenge, let them know!!! Go mad! Pay BIG!

⁃ Make it worth their while to want to answer the question with the right response, by paying exceptionally well! Don’t skimp! There has to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, if they come through the ‘storm’!

⁃ It’s about the journey, not the destination! If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth it!

Lets go fishing…

Have you ever heard that expression… ‘give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day… teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’…

Well, I was delivering a seminar in beautiful Aberdeen, and I was asked about how I teach and why.

The question came from a gentleman who had been in attendance for the two days.

He made an observation, that I taught dogs in the same way that I teach people.

It’s an excellent and fair point.

As a professional dog trainer and sports dog coach, I view teaching in the same way. Its all behaviour. And like my dogs, my preference is to shape.

I want to create a situation for my dogs to learn, where I solely focus on what I want them to do, and reinforce them for their choices. It may be a small insignificant effort looking from the sidelines, but for that dog, its a milestone. Not all dogs are comfortable ‘offering’ a thousand behaviours. Some stall, shutdown, get frustrated… displace, disengage, get over aroused. I set them up for success by creating an environment they can succeed in, breaking down information into achievable pieces and reinforcing any effort.

As a coach/trainer, I see my role as both a teacher and a support system, to build confidence. So it is logical, that I apply these principles to my students.

Confidence is initially created by an infinite amount of successes… but it also comes from facing and embracing struggles and challenges. Often people fear failure or mistakes, as though this is an indication of the eventual outcome, rather then a stepping stone to success.

As a progression with my students, be in two or four legged, I challenge them to step out of their comfort zone, as this is where real growth will occur.

Identifying the line between too much and too little is key. ‘Easy successes’ will definitely create confidence, but is that confidence fragile? One significant failure and will the confidence will crumble? Do they have resilience? 

Imagine a being in a team, where you never lost. Amazing right! Where you literally, never experienced ‘not’ being crowned the successor. Or think of a sports person, who has reigned supreme for a time, yet then experiences a loss. 

Often, we hear stories of the aftermath of ‘loss’ or ‘failure’. They take it so severely, they walk away from the sport or worse. They have lost in a way that was significant for them. A may be by a huge points difference, or in an important competition….

What do you think that would have on their confidence?

Some would  they be able to dust it off and call on their bank of wins.

Some would take it to heart and question everything they ever knew.

Some would walk away and quit.

Some would get angry and want to come out all guns blazing.

All these are typical responses, that both people and dogs display as a response to ‘failure and frustration’.

What determines this wide and diverse response to failure? 

Genetics possibly? The ‘core’ make up of the person? The core make up of the dog?

By apportioning the outcome to genetics, we are limiting those that can achieve success. We are saying that it has to be the right dog or right person.

However, what would we want the ideal response to be?

Thoughtful? Reflective? Still engaged? Still focused and still willing to try again? Tenacity? Committed? Confident? More determined? 

This is what I aim to create in my dogs and students alike. 

My agenda with both is to create confidence, inner belief and the ability to ‘think for themselves’.

When I teach, I allow my student to ‘try’. It doesn’t matter if they make a mistake.I let them first fall in love with the task and process. I also give them information in ‘pieces’, rather the chunks. I give them information that they can initially achieve, and then gradually increase the challenges. 

Once they have this ‘want’, I then focus on what I want them to do, reinforcing the correct behaviours.

I challenge them, push them and ask them to figure out their own solutions. 

By doing this, I aim to create ‘trainers’ rather then just ‘students’. I want them to have confidence in their own judgement, and apply the principles and theory to their own training, and not being afraid to ‘make mistakes’. Long term, this also makes them better competitors and trainers in their own right.

I can ‘easily’ show them what I want, spoon feed them information. A, then B then C… There is nothing wrong with that, but does that help them ‘truly’ understand and have that confidence in themselves? Does it create that ‘dopamine’ hit, that we know shaping induces? Do they have that ‘aha’ moment, that allows them to develop skills that make them ‘fishermen’, and not just have ‘cod and chips’..,

Often when teaching students, that are new to me, they can find this initial process a challenge… and alien to what they have known. This may be how they have experience learning in other areas in their life, school, a sport, work etc…. So I blend supporting them with allowing them to ‘figure’ stuff out. One of the tasks I ask them to undertake, is to teach a trick… but I dont tell hem how… I let them work it out. I also would do this with a behaviour chain. They have to ‘figure it out’…. There is no ‘wrong’ paths, just the one that suits the individual and the purpose.

This process has allowed my students across the globe to develop skills and ability, that defies their experience. First time dog owners, with no previous dog training experience, with unconventional breeds of dogs, deemed untrainable’, going to and winning at the biggest dog show in the world! ‘Inexperienced’ sports dog trainers, representing their country at World Championship level competition. And in doing so, have a relationship with their dogs that defy the boundaries of sports. This is where my real joy lies. 

A good teacher will teach, a great teacher will inspire.

I am so excited about the possibility of helping more people reach their goals, develop their skills and ultimately fulfilling their dreams via my online training site…. more information to follow on this, in the next few weeks!

For now…enjoy your dogs!

Kamal

Lets get physical!

The final part in this blog series of over aroused dogs, is looking at the physical aspects and causes.

There are two main areas of physicality that can affect over arousal, either creating it or affecting it.

Those broad areas are physical health, and physical stimulation.

Each can be further divided into sub-sections including hormonal changes, chemical imbalances, ill health, injury or lack of physical stimulation, inappropriate physical stimulation, lack of strength/fatigue/fitness etc.

Dogs that are easily over aroused, can often be a result of an underlying physical issue that is causing a level of discomfort or anxiety, which then subsequently results in their behaviour changing. This could be a underlying health issue, that is affecting their behaviour. It is not un-common for dogs that have sudden and random behaviour changes, specifically aggression, to have a thyroid issue. This is often difficult to identify at first, but can often be an indicator of over arousal.

There has been more recent studies that have shown the importance of a healthy digestive system, and specifically the gut and stomach.

A very close friend and student, had a border collie who as classic of a dog that lived and engaged in a over aroused state, and a lot of his tension would be linked to his gut health. When he was young he started to suffer from allergies and had to have a specific diet to help maintain his health, and would often have stomach cramps and self induced hunger strikes because of it. The signs were initially sporadic and random. His behaviour would change unpredictability. You would see a noticeable change in his state of arousal, when his allergies were proving challenging. This took extensive investigation to able to reach a series of dietary adjustments, immunotherapies and general management to ensure he was ‘feeling good’ and not being anxious and extra ‘hot’ in his work. It was very much a one step forward, two back…. it was emotional and challenging, seeing him clearly uncomfortable and anxious. It was because of his owners relentless dedication that his health issues were resolved and he ultimately became an Obedience Champion, and more importantly, lived a long and happy life till 15yrs old. He had management of his health throughout but was able to be ‘happy’.

Those from a horse background will be able to affirm the need to pay close attention to your charges diet, and adjust accordingly to the temperament of the animal. The same can be said of dogs. Being aware of how much protein or red meats your dog is having, can also have an affect of their behaviour. Whilst, I am not a nutritionalist, I know with my own dogs over the years, that I will make adjustments to their food and supplements depending on their activity levels and temperament.

Coat quality, reddened eyes, muscle tone and general appearance can all be indicators or your dogs well being, and over arousal will affect the cortical levels which will have an impact of their well being, both physically and mentally.

However subtle behavioural changes, over arousal, eating habits, anxiety, tension, aggression etc could also be symptoms.

Physical stimulation is a crucial part of creating a dog that isn’t constantly over aroused. Sometimes it’s as simple as having an insufficient outlet for their abundance of energy. I talked about the malinois in the previous blog in this series. There is a breed that has a lust for physical stimulation. My first malinois could easily do a 6mile bike ride, maintaining trot throughout and still have energy to train afterwards! He LOVED it! He would go into what I can only describe as a mediative state.

I always explain that exercise to my dogs that are of a type, likely to show over aroused tendency’s, perceive exercise as a drug. I equate it to insulin for a diabetic. It needs to be consistent, it needs to be appropriate and it needs to be diverse. I can only assume that they get addicted to the chemicals released as a result of physical exercise.

However, creating an ‘adrenaline junkie’ is also a typical trait of dogs who are over aroused. Repetitive exercise or behaviours can create exactly that. How often do you see people using ball launchers to exercise their dogs, paying no attention to the physical and mental ramifications?

I appreciate their popularity and convenience, but a closer look would actually prove very enlightening.

A good hard sprint is excellent, it blows off the cobwebs and expels energy… but this needs to be balanced out with more sedate, casual activity.

Paying attention to the physical aspects, subtle signs, behaviour changes can often give a indication as to why your dog is over aroused.

1. Regular exercise, varied, diverse and challenging. This can be a series of hill sprints, or a mooch in the woods. One of my greatest pleasure is finding new interesting locations for my dogs to investigate, its like watching kids in Disney land… pure joy! They are literally getting a feel good chemical release! You can see it in their every being.

2. Provide an outlet for who the dog is. These dogs tend to be intense and obsessive. So provide an outlet for that part of who they are, but additionally create ways to stimulate them that isn’t always go, go, go! Nosework is excellent for doing just this. As is trick training and problem solving games. Get creative.

3. Regular check ups with health care practitioners as a preventive measure, means that you aren’t allowing physical issues to develop and become a potential problem. Prevention is often better then cure.

4. Diet and behaviour are closely linked. The phrase ‘you are what you eat’ springs to mind…. if you see changes or issues of over arousal, start to keep a journal of diet and see if there are any patterns.

5. Behavioural changes are like clues to a mystery ‘what caused it’, you may have to put on your deer stalker and get out your magnifying glass… the clues will lead to a solution. The clues can be often be subtle. The prize is your dogs well being and mental health. Its worth the investigation!

6. If you time is limited and you can take your dog out for an extensive walk or run, its ok…. the odd day off won’t hurt! Although physical stimulation is crucial, everyone likes a ‘do nothing’ day to slob… PJ’s on, good movie and a duvet! Unwinding is as important.

7. Believe it or not, lack of fitness can create over arousal. If mentally you REALLY want to do something, but your body won’t let you… imagine the frustration you’d feel? This can create an association with the environment, or situation which then becomes the trigger for that stress. Being able to complete a behaviour, with physical ease, will equate to confidence and clarity.

8. Dogs that are ‘over triers’ or easily over aroused, will often have no comprehension of pain. You have to be sensible for them, and observe if their anxiety and over arousal is masking pain and discomfort.

9. Creative ways to feed are a useful tool in dealing with dogs that get over aroused. Kongs, snuffle mats, frozen, hunting and searching games are all ways to feed in and around environments that may be challenging. This creates a association that is conducive to calmer behaviour.

10. Taking baseline stats is a great way to monitor physical changes which may be linked to issues of over arousal. Posture, movement, weight, muscle size are all crucial data to note. Having them logged can help when behaviour changes.

These are just 10 points, this list could have been double easily…

I hope this series has given you some food for thought…

Keep posted for following up ‘surprise’ this weekend!

Kamal

Nice Genes!

The genetic influence to over arousal can prove a complex conversation. It can be personal, it can be historic, it can be emotive and it can be enlightening.

There are some breeds, types or lines within breeds that are predisposed to ‘over arousal’, and beware aware of this can help minimise this becoming a huge issue.

The following could be applied to many dogs and breeds. However for the purpose of explanation, I will focus on one.

Lets look at a breed that I hold near and dear to examine ‘over arousal’ caused by genetics and selection based on traits deemed desirable. The malinois is the ultimate and extreme end of the canine world that ‘suffers’ from over arousal. I use the term ‘suffer’, but in truth it also makes them so amazing. Their characteristics are both a blessing and a curse.

Malinois’s by nature are a dog that ‘live on their nerve’, meaning they are hyper-vigilant, easily aroused and have extreme reactions, swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other, in a split second and then being perfectly ‘fine’ the next. All traits, that when not channelled, utilised and educated can become problematic.

They are a breed who come ‘over aroused’ from birth largely! If you ever see or meet a litter of malinois puppies, they are notoriously intense even in their early interactions. It is not unusual for malinois puppies to want to bite and show ‘aggressive’ behaviour more akin to older dogs. Their exteme intensity is often apparent early on.

This can be displayed as aggression, apprehension or anxiety. Whilst it is much sought after to find and select a ‘calm stable’ malinois, they are somewhat a rarity now due to their popularity and prevalence in dog sports, and even rescues across the globe. Its a numbers game. As a breed increases in popularity, often so does the loss of core attributes.

So why and how have we created a dog with these traits that we see in the malinois?

A huge determining factor today, is the influence of dog sports, and the Malinois’s aptitude to undertake any dog sport with tenacity and verve.

The malinois intensity, allows them to complete behaviours with speed, intensity and flare. All appealing in dog sports. The Dog/human relationship originally stemmed from harnessing natural behaviours or desires, into tasks or ‘jobs’, and then subsequently modified to sports specific tasks. So hunting, chasing and biting have been moulded into sports specific skills. Therefore any animal with ‘more’ of these attributes would be best suited to perform these behaviours. For example, the dog that loves to chase and ‘grab’, would be ‘easy’ to train to do bitework or agility. However, this desire can come in abundance and without an off switch. And what happens to the remainder of the time, when you aren’t using these traits? Unfortunately they don’t disappear.

Additionally, this tenacity and drive makes them resilient, which is an attribute needed to endure the rigours, knocks, misinformation, lack of understanding etc that we have inadvertently imposed on dogs as a trade off with the human/canine dynamic. Dogs are amazing, and tolerant. Having resilience comes in handy.

The dogs that had an aptitude to these behaviours or character traits, would be most ‘successful’ and then their genes perpetuated within a sport. So the cycle continues.

To have a dog that is prone to over arousal, takes a great deal of understanding to be able to harness those attributes into a task and create a stable citizen.

I regularly encounter clients who have taken on such a breed, or type and initially are allured by all their ‘assets’ until these grow and develop and become their undoing. This can result in rehoming, submitting to rescue or even PTS.

Often their drive and intensity can appear dormant or non existent initially, but like a genie in a bottle… it is there waiting and itching to come out. I call these ‘slow burners’. My first malinois was off this type, I made the fatal mistake of thinking he ‘had no drive’…. I soon learnt that lesson!

These type of dogs are most definitely for specialist, they can be fantastic ‘pets’ but need an outlet for those breed characteristics, and they need an outlet that is ‘healthy’. Often these types of dogs have an unhealthy obsessive compulsive mindset, which if not worked on can contribute to over arousal. But they are also ‘special’!

1. Ensure you find out exactly what you are taking on, warts and all. In dog sports specifically, it is easy to create an illusion of what a dog is, rather then what they truly are. See a dog/breed etc from all perspective and ensure you do your homework! Having to cope with a dog that is susceptible to over arousal in daily life, can be a all consuming commitment. Make sure you know what you’re taking on.

2. Dogs that are prone to over arousal, are generally a joy to train and engage with. That isn’t going to be the struggle. The challenge will be teaching them to ‘chill’, be ‘calm’ and switch off when needed. Place as much importance on this as teaching skills.

3. Teach a clear on and off switch. And be consistent with its use. This creates a dog that knows when it can be ‘off’ and not ‘ever ready’. This is crucial for creating ‘balance’.

4. Two positive make a negative. Putting two high energy dogs together doesn’t necessarily mean a good thing. More isn’t always better. You want to select dogs that compliment each other. What does your dog lack and what attributes would you like to improve. Be objective in your choices. No dog is perfect and thats ok.

5. Look at the sport beyond the sport. How does the cope with the challenges of the environment, test and situation. There lies the ‘real’ dog. A good trainer can make an average dog look amazing, or mask flaws. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you have nothing to hide, the answers won’t be an issue.

6. Ensure your dogs relationship to the work is healthy. A slight amount of obsession is a great asset, too much and it can be your ongoing. Balance out desire with indifference, and do it from day one.

7. Be mindful of awakening the genie too early, too soon or without any understanding. Once the genie is out, it won’t go back in the box! If it’s in the dog, let it come out with understanding, maturity and time. It isn’t a sprint to success, its a marathon.

8. These type of dogs crave ‘work’, but provided outlets where they can expel mental and physical energy is a important part of creating contentment. It doesn’t have to always be about ‘work’, some things in life are free!

9. Don’t ignore the details. These type of dogs have a knack of masking anxiety, nerve, apprehension, misunderstandings…. they just keep trying! The spectrum for behavioural traits are all over lapping, fear and aggression, excitement and anxiety….The dog that is over aroused, may be hiding something else. It can be their way of ‘coping’. Pay attention… seeing ‘over arousal’ for what it is, is crucial, to identifying a solution.

10. The pursuit of ‘calmness’ is a long term goal, for dogs that live on the edge. Trying to ‘force’ it will only add to their frustration. Contentment is fair easier to attain. Start there, and move to calmness.

Aroused much?

There is a epidemic sweeping across dogs sports globally and into the houses of innocent dog owners across the world.

And that is over arousal…. 

In this scenario I am talking about your dogs, however it may apply to spouses, and teens too 😉

More and more, I am being asked to consult on cases of dogs that are worryingly over aroused, be it in the context of dog sports or within a domestic setting.

More and more I am seeing dogs that are living life in an unhealthy state of frenzy and hysteria that often manifests itself into problematic behaviour, either to others or themselves. This could be a issue with ring side management with your agility dog, or ‘reactive’ behaviour on a walk.

There are several reasons why dogs are likely to be exhibiting such traits, and several ways to avoid this developing into an issue.

It is also possible to improve this behaviour retrospectively, if proactive actions are taken.

The causes can be put down to three key areas, and over the 3 days I shall elaborate on each one individually.

  1. Understanding 
  2. Genetics
  3. Physical

Understanding is a broad and far reaching umbrella under which falls everything from training, and education to misconceptions and misinterpretations.

Dogs that are over aroused can often lack understanding about how they are expected to behave and perform in environments that are potentially challenging, and this education must be proactive.

A dogs ability to remain passive and calm by ringside in the presence of full flight activity, needs to take as much priority (if not more), as s skill needed for competition. It should be perceived as a area that needs to be trained as systematically as anything else that you want your dog to rehearse.

This means patience, commitment and reinforcement. Creating distances away from anything that maycreate arousal is crucial to create opportunities to reinforce. 

The common misconception of what ‘drive’ is a huge contributing factor to why their is a mass of over stimulated and over aroused sports dogs.

Drive (and for the purpose of this explanation, I am referring to the desire and motivating factors we harness and channel into our training), is often misunderstood.

When I trained martial art, my teacher had a simple phrase that articulates what ‘true drive’ is.

‘Empty vessels make the most noise’.

It is a common sight to see frenzied, hysterical behaviour exhibited in over aroused dogs, which is perceived as equating to more speed and better performance. Let me clear, I am not referring to a dog showing enthusiasm and interest, but rather when the response is extreme. 

However this type of over aroused state is one that is not only unhealthy, but counterproductive. If we look at the arousal curve, in relation to peak performance, we know that the optimum point is somewhere in the middle. The dog should be engaged, but able to ‘think’ and ultimately listen in that state.

Is is very cultural in a lot of dog sports, to train and teach with a dog in a heightened state of arousal. Whilst is is smart training to engaged the dog prior to commencing, and build desire into each component part, it is a very traditional in certain sports to permit, allow or encourage over arousal. The fall out of this is far reaching. 

When dogs are in that heightened state or arousal, their cortisol levels are dangerously high, which can lead to health implications. Additionally, this can also lead to behaviour issues, such as re-directed aggression, stress related behaviours and much more. Not to mention, the stringent processes that people implement to deal with this over arousal. This can in itself, be stressful and further perpetuate the cycle of anxiety.

Key areas where you can create understanding, and help remove this mindset, are as follows:

  1. Consistency. Be truthful, how consistent are you?? I mean really….. I know every time he breaks his start line you put him back, but how about when you said sit this morning before he had his breakfast, or when you called him on a dog walk? See, if you own a dog, you are a dog trainer…. and criteria and consistency are two major parts of being effective! And dog training occurs 24/7/365, and not just at weekends… 
  2. We all have been are guilty of ‘sacrificing what we want, for what we want right now’s… Testing rather then training, or for convenience having our dog be in an environment that could be overwhelming or arousing because of wanting to participate. But does this serve YOU and YOUR end goal?
  3. Clear Criteria is crucial. Dogs operate best when they have black and white, rather then grey. Grey criteria will also lead to confusion and in highly driven dogs, then can appear as ‘arousal’. This applies to cues too. Giving clear information will reduce anxiety and therefore frenzied over arousal. 
  4. Cultural influences. If the culture of your sport, that more is better? More speed, more aggression, more chase, more more more…. yes that can create dynamic responses and can even create the illusion of ‘confidence’, but ultimately who has to suffer the fall out when more becomes too much. Always be your dogs advocate and take ownership of your dogs learning and experience. Is this misconception that over arousal is drive? Think of a sheepdog trial… you rarely if ever see these dogs behaving in a way that is frenzied or hysterical. Their behaviour is quiet and ‘patient’, waiting to be called upon, and then ready to run at full speed up a steep hill. This is the true illustration of ‘drive’ working for you, rather then against you.
  5. Asking too much too soon, without enough reinforcement can also create ‘holes’ in your dogs understanding. Splitting vs lumping, will mean your dogs training is more likely to withstand the rigorous testing life and competition throws at them. Are you really sure your dog understands? If so write a cheque to say they do…. Still sure? Thats the level of confidence you want. Anything less, and you’re potentially contributing to the dogs over aroused state.
  6. Is your dog ‘keen’ or ‘anxious’? Is your dog worried or ‘being naughty’? Over arousal can appear to be a ‘good thing’ but is the dog really in an emotional state that is productive? Have you built confidence without the bells and whistles? Have you worked on indifference? Being able to conclude your dog is over aroused because of the stimulus, rather then anxiety, is a hard one to judge in the moment, so divide and conquer! Work on all aspects, to create confidence and clarity.
  7. Have you prepared yourself and your dog for stress and frustration? Do you feel anxious in that situation, when your dog is over aroused? Are you working on your confidence levels? Dogs that are over aroused because of an understanding issue, may be responding to your tension. Are you doing work on yourself? Your mind is like a muscle, to build it, you need to work at it and exercise it. Being able to think in a stressful situation creates a feeling of calmness, which leads to calmer behaviour. The same applies to your dog, frustration and stress tolerance is crucial for dogs being able to process information, but it needs to be done systematically and strategically. Take your time and incorporate elements of both to teach your dog how to function when either stressed or frustrated.
  8. Reinforcement specific markers are a concept I have incorporated into my training for approximately 6yrs, and been aware of them for approximately 10yrs. They have revolutionised my dogs understanding, reduced stress and frustration, and create clarity. A mark to indicate how and where your reinforcement is coming from, or what the reinforcement is can prevent the over aroused state that can be created with a generic mark. Sometimes you want a casino slot machine, other times you want a cash dispenser…
  9. Preparation is key. Your dog needs to understand there isn’t always a cookie and thats ok. Reinforcement can come in other ways and thats fine too. And sometimes there is no reinforcement, and its ok. If your dog needs to learn that behaviours don’t always receive reinforcement, as the instant they don’t receive one, they make get frustrated and ‘over aroused’. This is a necessary part of having a dog that truly understands. It isn’t BECAUSE of the cookie, it’s FOR the cookie.
  10. Have you taught your dog to think in an aroused state, and have you taught your dog to self regulate themselves? Shaping is an effective way to illustrate both concepts, and allow the dog to ‘figure’ stuff out and then increase the arousal, and see if they can repeat behaviours. Teaching your dog to get in a box, and decreasing its size, and adding excitement or increasing arousal are practical ways to ask your dog to combine the two things, thinking and arousal. And also allow them to learn how to self regulate. 

These 10 points could he expanded further, but are the key issues that affect over aroused dogs. 

Over the next 3 days, I shall share insight into other determining factors.