So, over the last few posts we’ve looked at the common ways our training can shoot us in the foot, how we can deceive ourselves into thinking we have something we don’t – a performance ready dog.
But what if there have been no mistakes made?
We’ve polished and proofed, we’ve tested and tried to find holes – nothing missing. No gaps, no omissions, we both know the job and the payment agreement. Great!
And then we get to the trial and despite our best preparations the wheels STILL fall off!
What’s that all about then?
We forgot one vital bit of the puzzle: dogs are animals and they have flexible arousal levels. We are animals and we have flexible arousal levels too. These fluctuations can cause absolute havoc with performance, both yours and your dog’s.
The problem is the Yerkes-Dodson Law. (If you’re feeling geeky, here’s a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes–Dodson_law)
Basically, what it says is that as arousal goes up so does performance – to a point. If arousal goes too high then performance suffers.
What do we mean by arousal?
In a nut shell, how active and awake the brain is at the time. Chilled out and nearly asleep? Arousal low. Bouncing off the walls excited, scared witless or stressed? Arousal high. Usually. Stress can be confusing as an animal can go either way when responding to stress: some individuals stress ‘up’ (physical and behavioural signs of high arousal) and some stress ‘down’ or ‘shut down’ (psychological withdrawal from the environment and the source of the stress – sometimes called ‘sulking’ by less enlightened dog trainers.)
Here is my representation of the Yerkes-Dodson Law for a dog called Spot:
So, as we can see, if Spot is in the ‘sweet Spot’ so to speak, his performance will be fab! If he’s asleep on his feet or ‘stresses down’ under pressure he will be flat as a pancake; disconnected, vague, unresponsive and generally not engaged. If he is high as a kite he’ll be over the top, probably barking, biting, spinning and unresponsive because he can no longer process the information you are giving him. Neither extreme is pretty.
Dealing with the Flat Spot.
If your problem is that your dog is asleep on his feet then you most likely have a training issue or a management issue. Dogs do get tired, especially on the second day of trials so don’t discount that as a reason for poor performance. Change your management routine to allow your dog plenty of quality rest.
If the picture you have at a show is the same as you have in training – disengaged, uninterested dog, then the problem is not the show. Go back to square one. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Start again and this time help your dog enjoy your silly games!
If your dog is NOT tired and seems to love his training in normal situations then it is likely you have a stress problem. That might be a response to the environment but, if he only seems to flatten in the ring, it could be that he is picking up on your nerves.
There are a few ways to deal with this – try to change how you feel about performing, or get your dog used to the picture of a stressed out, hyperventilating you. I have found the latter approach to work best for me and I routinely drink caffeine laden drinks before training! The caffeine replicates that ‘buzz’ of nerves, the faster movements and speech and fast pulse rate of the real thing. So far none of my competition dogs have responded to my ring nerves. That approach might not work for everyone tho!
If your dog is worried by the environment of a trial then the obvious answer is to work on how he feels about the situation. Don’t try to compete while you are undertaking this process – you will just fail at both goals. Ideally, we take our pups to trials right from an early age so they always feel happy and relaxed in those places – prevention is so much easier than cure when it comes to emotional problems.
What about the High (as a kite) Spot?
These dogs can be seen at any agility trial you care to attend. You do see them in other venues too but not as frequently. These dogs are fast: fast twitch, fast response, fast explode. So how do we deal with all that ‘fast’? For many of these dogs there are two parts to the problem.
The solution to over arousal is obvious: Bring the arousal down! Simple. Use calming strategies such as predictable routines, food scatters and calm walking to help bring your dog back to that sweet spot again.
Additionally, teach your dog to be able to think when he’s high. This takes a slow, systematic approach to training; you can’t just rev ‘em up and let ‘em go….and expect anything other than nut case! Build the arousal into your skills training in increments, gradually turning up the heat but never over cooking your dog in the process.
Frustration and confusion.
Not surprisingly, fast dogs need fast information flow. If the timing of your handling or cues is off, the high-as-a-kite dog is likely to get pretty mad at you. HE WANTS TO PLAY THE GAME!!
“Just get on with it – slow human idiot!!!”
Do you have screaming and spinning? Bruises from biting? Dog doing zoomies? Then your handling needs to sharpen up. Frustration is a horrible feeling, just ask anyone who has tried to check FB only to have the internet curl up its toes just as the page was loading.
Confusion is just as bad. How do you feel when you’re driving in a new place and your navigator isn’t clear with their instructions? Stressed? Confused? You bet!
Having your dog experience either of these while competing will cause performance to erode quickly. The only fix is to clean up YOUR act!
So, there you have it.
Some of the most common causes of dying on stage in dog sports. I hope you have enjoyed this blog series, I certainly enjoyed writing it. If you would like help with any of the issues mentioned please get in touch using the contact form here. I’d love to be able to improve your competition experience!
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