Commonly in dog agility training (and training for a lot of other dog sports) it is recommended that we train our dogs in a high state of arousal. We use toys to incite this state and we work hard to keep our dogs in an adrenalized state while we train so that this state carries over into the competition setting. It is also believed that if we train in this high state our dogs will learn how to think in that state. This is a popular opinion.
I used to adhere to this belief. I don’t anymore. Hear me out.
The first part of this recommendation is that of conditioned arousal; the idea that if behaviors are trained in a high state of arousal they will always be done in that state. The emotional state will essentially be trained into the behavior. That’s not something I disagree with, classical conditioning is always taking place. The flip side of this idea is that if a dog is trained in a calm state he will never perform at speed; he will never reach the optimal arousal state for the game. In reality I believe what most trainers are doing is hyping their dogs into a state of dysfunction because they are afraid of thoughtful (read: slow) responses. Can we condition a state of high arousal in association with our game? Of course. In the case of highly exciting things like dog agility, I’d venture to say we don’t need to: the game itself will do that work. The environment alone induces a high arousal state in our dogs; sometimes manifesting in undesired ways. I’d argue instead to use valued reinforcers and play while avoiding aversives to condition a joyous response in relation to your chosen sport, leaving the business of “amping up” to the environment–it does a good enough job of it.
Cognitive Function and Arousal
The more interesting side of these recommendations (to me) is the suggestion that if we train dogs while in a high state of arousal they will learn to think in a high state of arousal. In reality cognitive functioning (thinking) and adrenaline are physiologically counter to one another. Did you think about slamming on the breaks to avoid a collision, or did your adrenal response make you do it? It is, in essence, harder to be thoughtful whilst highly aroused. But that’s the very point of this recommendation, isn’t it? We all know it’s harder for our dogs to think when they are highly aroused, so shouldn’t we teach them to do so? I’d argue that this is a backwards recommendation; rather than pumping our dogs into an adrenalized frenzy and THEN asking for thought, we should first as for thought and then slowly introduce that adrenaline to the picture. You’re able to navigate your car out of an accident because you first learned how to drive in a parking lot or some other safe space, not because you were thrown into downtown Seattle rush hour and expected to figure it out.
Take this video of Felix working on a simple takeoff exercise for agility. In it I compare his form when I use a toy reinforcer (incites MUCH adrenaline for him) versus a food reinforcer:
After this day, when Felix so clearly told me in order to practice clean jumping he needed me to use food (much harder to work with in a lot of agility scenarios!), I worked for several weeks on his jumping doing just that: rewarding with food. Recently I have begun adding that arousal back in by using toys, motion, and new locations. Here he is making some really smart (though not perfect) jumping choices in a new place, on a new surface, and working for a favorite toy:
When I first learned competitive obedience I was taught “food for precision, and toys for drive” as a rule of thumb. This meant that when I was looking to polish up behaviors I should use food, and when I meant to increase speed or urgency I should use toys. There aren’t many things I learned in my early days of competitive obedience that still hold true for me, but this one does. I’m so glad Felix showed up and reminded me about it!