The concepts of frustration and stress in our dogs lives and training is a conversation that can polarise dog training fraternities like the red sea parting, some avidly stating that both should be avoided at all cost, and efforts should be made all times to minimise them.
Whilst I don’t disagree with this statement, I also feel that there is a time and place for both. Let me explain and clarify.
In dog sports, frustration and stress are inevitable parts of the process to have a dog perform in a environment of extremes. At your average competitive event, there will be in excess of several hundred dogs and people in a relatively close proximity, there will be strange smells, strange people, strange sights and sounds.
This in itself can be a stressful situation for a dog to be in.
Combine this with the requirements to perform for a length of time, be it 30secs in agility or 45mins in a mondio ring trial, all without reinforcement from the handler as such and being required to listen to cues and signals, and ignore distractions and temptations. This can create a lot of frustration for a dog.
So it is a necessary evil to consider and incorporate both into your training and your preparation. However how do we do this and remain ‘positive’, maintain our relationship with our dog and not have them tip over the edge?
As a trainer who uses positive reinforcement to train my dogs, I run the risk of my dogs never experiencing the failure, frustration or stress in their training.. The aim is to reinforce the dog to encourage a behaviour to be repeated. However this is a big gap between reinforcing every behaviour or skill by dog does, and creating a performance dog or even a service dog, or police dog or any other active role.
Whilst they may have some experiences in ‘real life’ or have a natural tolerance to frustration and stress, I could risk them being fragile to exposure to either in a competitive situation, if not adequately prepared.
This was the challenge that I was faced with when I made the commitment to training with this methodology.
Shaping is my preferred approach to teaching my dogs any behaviour, and it allows me to develop their understanding of ‘concepts’ prior to actually commencing any formal training. There are so many perceived ‘qualities’ of purpose bred sports dogs, that can be trained, For example, I can strategically create a challenge for my dog, to build up their resilience, and tenacity. I teach my dog to ‘recover’ from mistakes, I can create perseverance in them, and create a high drive dog with a clear head that can think when aroused.
Teaching a simple base behaviour such as ‘get in a box’, is an easy way of doing this.
The dog is initially shaped to step into a large box, and progressively the box is reduced in size so that the dogs ability to manoeuvre into the box is challenged. This will create some frustration, and maybe even stress at not being able to complete the task. My role is to support this stage of learning. Equate this to learning any new skill, at first it is hard and even challenging. You think you’ll never get there. Its frustrating and you may even get stressed in the process. Say for example when you were learning to drive and you first went on a busy road, and had to pull out from a round about. Having to think of all the things you were advise in the formative stages when learning in the car park or quieter streets, in a contentious situation can cause you to feel stressed. Hopefully you’re instructor created an environment that was supportive, safe and allowed you to function. They helped and assisted if need me, but left you in the driving seat. Imagine how’d your driving would be, if every situation like this they jumped in and took over the wheel? You’d never succeed. In the same way allowing you to try and learn to drive on a formula one speed track wouldn’t be appropriate either.
Good teaching creates just the right amount of success vs challenge, to create confidence. Inoculate your dogs confidence and training against both frustration and stress, to ultimately create a dog that oozes confidence and clarity!