Monday, November 14, 2011

How stress affects us and our dogs...

Since Kathy Keats was here in November my students who attended have made so much progress. Her "Inner Power" seminar was very inspirational.  Several of my students had working spots and she did a great job of raising their stress level to simulate a trial setting and then give them a number of tools to help them gain confidence in remembering courses, recovering on course and in focusing on what matters most - having fun with your dog which in turn reduces their stress level at trials!

She was fantastic at focusing on each individual and she had great exercises which got the auditors involved too.  We all left with valuable tools, more self confidence and homework!  She truly was a great coach to all of us.

To be able to recreate stress and then work through it is a great skill to have as a presenter. It was also so evident how the human's stress was being conveyed to the dogs as I saw dogs recreating their behavior at trials in a training setting.  How cool is that! 

I've talked in other posts about stress and the signs of it in our dogs. I was told recently that I'm very good at seeing signs of stress in my dogs but I was cautioned that my acknowledging it and trying to sound happy to get them unstressed may actually be reinforcing it.  Interesting - I hadn't quite thought of it that way.  Like "It's Ok" in a happy tone can have the same tone as "good dog."  So I'm paying more attention to what I'm doing and when if I am working with a stressed dog.

IThe two places I see the most signs of stress in dogs are training the teeter and the weaves.  I work a lot with dogs afraid of the teeter because students often come to me for help with a teeter problem.  The one thing I have noticed is that in playing the "bang it" game with the teeter that dogs who are not totally comfortable pushing the board down will show it by not pushing the board very hard, by not wanting to keep their front feet on it after it is down and/or by gingerly putting one paw on it at a time.  Watching them closely it often seems to the student that the dog is fine but in reality the dog is still stressed about it.  So I keep dogs working on this stage until they are very confidently pushing the board down and it is making noise when it goes down.  This is another place where I see signs of stress that are often not realized or noticed by the student.  It is important to watch the dog's behavior carefully at these early stages.  The "bang it" game helps dogs learn that they control both the movement and sound of the board.  For really fearful dogs I will play a lot of games interacting with the teeter so they build a lot of positive associations being around the teeter.  However the dog wants to interact with the teeter for really fearful dogs is rewarded.  I encourage students to play games at home that involve shaping the dog to bang cupboards, bang cans, close lids - any thing that involves movement and noise.  Dogs have so many subtle ways they show stress and they will go through the motions but it is watching their body posture, ears, eyes and mouth that you can assess how they really feel.

I often see dogs licking their lips when doing weaves.  I see it in young dogs when they are in that early thinking hard stage before it has become muscle memory.  It usually goes away in these dogs as their confidence increases.  I saw it the other day in a student's dog the first few times doing the weaves. On the last repetition he was faster and didn't lick his lips at all!  That was a great learning moment and a great place to end that session!  Too often when training by ourselves we can't see these things.  I first saw it many years ago in a video of one of my dogs weaving and he was one who stressed about weaving in public.  Sure enough when I slowed the video down I was shocked to see him licking his lips at every pole!  So I have to say I love it now when my red girls bark their heads off in the weaves - I know they are barking for joy and not stressed!  Licking the lips can help a dog relieve stress and can be present in the learning stages and not be too much of a concern.  It is when signs of stress continue over many sessions or appear only in trial settings that I become concerned about how the stress is affecting the dog's performance.  I see a lot of dogs stressing in weave poles at trials.

When dogs go slowly on a course at a trial until the weaves, and/or do the weaves slowly and then speed up for the rest of the course, or when a dog is approaching the weaves and inexplicably veers off away from the weaves or runs right past them as if they are not there I suspect that the dog is very stressed about the weaves in a trial.  I have found that the handler's behavior toward the poles in the trial often creates the stress in a trial setting.  I have noticed that handlers will correct their dogs when the dog is actually in the act of weaving when a dog has missed a weave entry.  If a dog misses a weave entrance and continues in the act of weaving and you verbally correct and/or pull the dog out for missing the entrance your timing will never be able to actually correct the dog at the exact moment they missed the entrance.  By the time your brain processes the missed entry, you verbalize your correction and the dog hears it and processes it when the dog is weaving and now is feeling corrected for actually weaving.  For the vast majority of dogs out there who are sensitive this can be devastating to weave performance.  This was the huge lesson I learned with Sonic and I was in the process of trying to undo the damage I had done when he passed away.  Since him I never ever correct a dog when they are weaving regardless of the weave entry. If I'm in NADAC or ASCA or UKI I will repeat the sequence before the weaves and when the dog does the weaves correctly, I praise and probably leave to a jackpot.  If I'm in another organization it will depend on the dog whether I will fix it or just go on - that is a case by case basis.  Since I've adopted this with my own dogs I have seen significant improvement in weave performance in my dogs, especially sensitive ones who could easily shut down.  I also am careful about letting some dogs go on when they miss weave poles - some dogs will learn that is ok in a trial setting - others won't care.  Again I keep notes about these things and I want to address it as quickly as possible when I figure out how my dog is responding.  I also do a lot of proofing on weave poles in training to improve focus while weaving in training so that a trial is not that distracting compared to what I've done in training.

Since Kathy was here, a few of my students who actively participated and a few who audited have shared with me how much the seminar helped them.  I have one student who used to get lost on course every week in class and since the seminar she said she has a better idea of how to memorize a course so that her brain is no longer all filled up with just trying to remember the course.  She has now been able to focus more on handling and now I understand better why handling skills were so hard for her. This was exactly what Kathy said happens to many people is that they spend so much mental power remembering a course that they can't even comprehend handling or watching the dog on course.  Her exercises, while great at recreating trial type stress, were great for providing ways to remember courses and visualize them.  Now that the students can remember the courses much more easily they are able to learn about handling and it has been a liberating experience for everyone.  The dogs also are more relaxed now that the students are able to focus more on them in class and less on remembering a course. 

I think this also applies to dogs who are very sensitive to their environment at trials.  Their brains are "full" from trying to process their environment and deal with their concerns.  I have seen this in Feisty where her performance will almost feel in slow motion on a course and I know it is because something is distracting her mentally.  I am also seeing as her own self confidence continues to increase as I am taking her to different places to trial she is becoming better at working through this.  It is my job to help her in training to learn to cope with environmental distractions and keep working.  She is starting to learn that it is fun to keep running agility and that she is still safe.  So this is one of those things where it can be hard to find what is causing your dog to go slowly but if they are physically fine, consider overall environmental stressors/distractors.  With dogs like this I do a lot of short courses - 2-3 obstacles in a trial setting and leave to a party.  As they do those faster and faster then I will gradually build on that.  I don't like to do "flooding" and have them run most of a course slowly.  These dogs will often go faster at the end of the course and appear "happy" at the end.  Often that appearance of "happy" is that of relief that they are not longer stressed.  Think of how you feel about an amusement ride.  If you get in line to go on a ride that you are both excited to do but you have some anxiety/fear about doing it.  You are tense and you have a hard time focusing on other things.  You are on the ride and you go back and forth between anxiety and adrenaline rush depending on how fearful you are.  When you are done you feel a rush of relief and a sense of happiness.  Often if the ride was scary you may not want to get back on that ride right away.  Dogs can feel the same way about agility courses.  We can't make amusement rides shorter and build up our confidence but we can do that with agility courses at trials.  Leysha was the first dog I did this with and it was the best thing I could do for her.  I did it with Feisty, Sinco and Tay and it build their confidence in every case even though they may not have had extreme cases of stress - it is a way to start trialing and build confidence.

Thanks to Kathy I learned how to look for stress in my students in class (I could see it in trials but now I can start to see signs of it in class!) and I hope my students will be able to learn to see signs of stress in their dogs.