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.
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:
- 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…
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.