If you’re an agility competitor you probably get a little bit (or very) high on the rush of running with your dog at an event. A lot of agility dogs seem to get high on it, too. This is actually what makes the game great; at it’s finest, it’s 30 seconds of sheer adrenaline for both teammates.
I like running agility with a dog that loves the sport as much as I do. I’ve run with both dogs that would die for it and dogs that could take or leave it, and I much prefer the former. I train for a high state of arousal, I intentionally build excitement into this game for my dogs from the start–and I coach others to do the same. I don’t think I am unique in this amongst agility trainers. However, there is something I do that I don’t see a lot of people doing; I take responsibility for my dog’s arousal within the agility context. In fact, a huge part of my work with private clients involves teaching people to recognize and take responsibility for their dog’s emotional state in sport-specific contexts; something that is seriously lacking in the agility world.
Adrenaline: The Stress Hormone Formally Known as Epinephrine
Adrenaline is a stress hormone, folks! It’s secreted when your body perceives something exciting OR threatening. Biologically, it prepares our body for fight or flight. When you’re driving down the highway and you suddenly have to slam on your breaks, narrowly avoiding a rear-end collision, you get a rush of this stuff, and it feels nasty. When you ride a roller coaster; same thing. We seek some experiences that make our body release this hormone, and we avoid others, but physiologically it’s the same stuff, and this stuff has side effects.
I am not a trainer who believes dogs should be kept calm at all times. I will not argue that agility should not be a source of that rush for dogs. What I do believe is that the human half of the team needs to both recognize how powerful stress hormones are, see that they are not benign, and take action to help their dog cope with the adrenaline they are experiencing.
Coping Mechanisms: The Good, The Bad, and the Barky
What do the sniffing dog, the barking dog, and the dog beating himself with a toy ringside have in common? They’re all engaging in coping mechanisms that help them process and deal with the stress hormones they are experiencing in the agility environment. Not all coping mechanisms are created equal; some of them are disruptive to the environment, some are damaging to the dog, and others irritate handlers. The point is not to force your dog into one coping mechanism or another, the point is to recognize that you have no right to take your dog’s coping mechanism away (collar popping for barking or sniffing anyone?) without providing him with an equally-soothing alternative. No matter how relaxed your dog seems he will require a coping mechanism ringside; that is a high-stress area. Here are some of my favorites:
- Cookie Search: Tell your dog “find it” and then scatter cookies along a wall (never in the middle of the crowd, always a safe area). Searching is soothing, and so is eating. Win-win. Before you say “my dog isn’t food motivated” (a phrase that makes a good trainer’s skin crawl) just don’t knock it till you try it. Many, many dogs that will not take treats from your hand near agility will engage in this game. And by the way, if your dog won’t take treats near agility, you might want to think about why that is. (Hint: it’s not about food drive or lack thereof).
- Slow Cookies: This only works for dogs that are all about food, but for those dogs, it works well. Feed your dog some very tasty morsels, very slowly. Shred that string cheese into tiny bits and feed your dog as you do so. Let him watch you shred it slowly and deliver. If he isn’t drooling you aren’t doing it right.
- Tug: I hesitated to include this because I genuinely think it is not soothing for a good number of the dogs whose handlers believe it to be. A good way to test is to tug a little bit, then let go. Does your dog bring it back to you, asking for more? Or does he hoard the toy, shredding it or slapping himself with it? If he does the latter, or if he just abandons the toy altogether, tug in the traditional sense may not be his best way of coping.
- Doing Stuff: Engaging in high-energy, highly-reinforced behaviors for a solid 1:1 reinforcement ratio (one behavior for one reinforcer) helps quite a few dogs. Think waiting in a restaurant for someone to show up, and you’re a little nervous (first date, solo meeting with the boss, friend you need to have a tough conversation with). You’re going to engage in a coping mechanism. If you’re me every piece of silverware will be perfectly straight and the salt and pepper shakers will sit in perfect symmetry at one end. That’s “doing stuff” and it helps.
- Balancing: A friend who is a dog enthusiast and occupational therapist brought this one to light for me. It can be helpful for dogs who are struggling with the agility environment OR task to balance–all four feet–on a piece of unstable equipment. I have applied this with several client dogs with success. Bring two FitBones to trials, and do a little balance work before heading into the ring. More information on helping kids with sensory processing issues that applies to our dogs.
- Stationing: One of the reasons our dogs get too worked up ringside is that they don’t understand the concept of a running order. To them, they know they are up soon, but they don’t have any idea when, and that can really contribute to some stress. Have you ever been in a full waiting room to see a doctor, and you were unsure of when you would be seen? That can be really stressful! Having your dog wait on a station until he is “next” helps a LOT of dogs to keep their stress hormones in check. I like to use a folding chair because as a bonus it helps keep other people’s dogs away, and so my dog can feel totally safe there. Now, if the anticipatory stress is not quite your dog’s issue, this may not help, and you will want to try the other mechanisms listed above.
- Chewing/Chomping: For those maniacal barkers, put a sock in it. Literally. They need to cope orally, and something soft to chew on (think a stress ball for you) is best. A ball they can bite down on (like this one), a stuffed animal that doesn’t squeak, is best.
When picking socially acceptable coping mechanisms to try out keep in mind the coping mechanisms your dog chooses on his own. Sniffing dogs will love the cookie search, barking dogs will often like chewing, and chronic visitors/greeters do best with doing stuff or stationing. Try out several.
The Big Questions
We ask our dogs to do agility; a totally unnatural thing that by some miracle of human-dog connection many of them enjoy. But in recognizing the adrenaline dump the game (and its environment) provides, we must always ask these three questions:
Have I given my dog a choice?
Be certain that your dog is choosing to play this game. When you get him out of the car, does he head over to the field to walk, or does he want to go to the building? Are you dragging him into the ring, or is it the other way around? At home or in class, do you have to beg or otherwise convince your dog to play agility? Dogs have very few actual choices in their lives. Be honest with yourself and ask, would he choose to do agility with me if given the chance to discuss his options?
Have I provided my dog the capacity to say no?
In the same vein as the first question, we must be sure we have provided our dogs with the opportunity to say no. I like to start with what I call a “yes button” whenever training my young dogs. This can vary from team to team, but for me and my dogs it looks like this: I give my dog his toy as we head out to the training field. I do not ask him to bring the toy back to me. If he brings it back, we train–I don’t reinforce the return of the toy with more toy play, I reinforce it with work (that then earns the toy again). By definition if the dog finds the work reinforcing he will continue to give me that toy when we get to the field, and if he finds the work not reinforcing, he will stop. Simple as that. For dogs that don’t work with toys, I encourage my clients to ask for a simple nose target or some other behavior that is consistently followed by work in the training context (or the run, in the trial context). Again, by definition, the nose target will fade and cease to occur if the work is not reinforcing to the dog. In this, we provide the dog the capacity to tell us if they find the work enjoyable or not.
Is my dog ok?
Seems simple, but I find that a lot of people are not willing to truly ask this question. Getting real about your dog’s emotional state just might illuminate some uncomfortable truths for you, which is why so many avoid it. Still more competitors ignore certain types of “not ok” when they would never tolerate others. The same handler whose dog is shrieking and shaking with anticipation ringside would never drag a fearful dog to the ring–but neither dog is ok. Your measure of :ok” will be up to you to decide. For me, I ask “can you eat?” If the answer is yes, I ask, “can you play with me?” If the answer is still yes, and the play is high quality (this is why play is so vital; we can really assess comfort by examining the quality of play), I proceed to “can you respond to cues?” If my dog can eat, play, and perform sits, downs, stands, nose targets, and the like, we are ready to go. All of the above must be in place, and I consider this first order of business when teaching our young dogs to cope with the agility environment. Beyond that, connect. Look at your dog’s eyes. Ask yourself, truly, is my dog ok?
Play agility with your dogs; agility dogs are some of the luckiest on earth. Just be careful to take responsibility for the adrenaline that pumps through your dynamic partner’s veins; like most delicious things it is not without consequence.