We know that our own stress can greatly affect our performance and ability to function, but do you ever consider how your dog's stress level might affect his/her performance? Not only your dog's stress level, but your own stress level can affect his performance as well.
My Sunday afternoon Basic Training Class graduated yesterday (April 2011). Our last session is focused on “Distractions” – we discuss and work on how to start achieving reliability with increasing distractions. We tend to think of distractions as the exciting distractions, such as squirrels, bunnies, other dogs, other people and interesting smells. These are the distractions that our dogs WANT to get to, play with, eat, bark at, jump on. . . But we don't usually think about the other distractions. The distractions that stress our dogs – perhaps other dogs or strangers if our dogs are a bit shy or fearful, scary noises, unusual things that they are not sure about. . . The things that cause our dogs some stress or worry are also distractions.
Sometimes we expect our dogs to respond reliably to us even when they are stressed about something else. Think about how difficult it can be to concentrate on work or a conversation with a friend or some other task at hand when you are stressed about something else entirely. Is it difficult to focus? Are you more likely to make mistakes or miss something that some just said to you? Of course. And why would it be any different for our dogs?
Romeo and I went to our Friday morning Rally Drop-in Class last week. Since it's a drop-in class, we never know how many dogs will be there. Last Friday, it happened to be a large group – at least 15 dogs. For Romeo -and for me – it was more stressful having so many dogs there. I really noticed that it was more stressful for him trying to keep an eye on everything going on. I needed to be more alert as well to ensure Romeo's well-being.
Stress can manifest itself in many ways. Some of the typical signs you might see: lip licking, averting eyes, drooling, panting, pacing, whining, tension in the face and body, tucked tail, sweaty paws, ears pinned back, or barking. Romeo's signs of stress were primarily whining, climbing on me and licking my face. While climbing in my lap or on my shoulders and licking my face might seem more obnoxious than stressed, these are the same signs he shows when we go to the vet and he's trying to avoid getting a shot or being handled. For him, it is definitely stress.
Romeo actually did a great job. He stayed remarkably focused on me and working with me for the entire hour-and-a-half, which is a LONG time! Our first run-through was ok, and our second run was really good. We're both more relaxed during our second run and therefore work better as a team. In one-and-a-half hours, our total run-through time was probably about 5 minutes.
Most of the time is spent sitting around waiting for our turn. Most dogs hang out doing nothing during that time. Romeo and I work. With very little space, we work mostly on sits, downs, eye contact, shake, hand targets, stays, and other things that don't require much movement. But it's good practice and a way to help focus on doing something and not spend too much time worrying about everything else. Keeping him thinking about simple tasks helped him to be less stressed. I definitely am taking note to help him continue to relax and be less stressed the next time we go.