In all my years of sharing a home with dogs, and all my work with them, many times I’ve seen and experienced the impact of arousal on a dog’s ability to learn and problem solve what I am teaching.
I saw that again at a recent workshop of Suzanne Clothier. The demonstration dog was pulling on her owner’s leash from the moment she came out of her crate, barking, wagging her tail, moving quickly, jumping and bumping her handler. And when her owner/handler sat to talk with Suzanne, those behaviors continued. It was of no surprise then, that when her handler got up and asked her to sit, stay or jump over a hurdle, in that moment she was not able to focus and do what was asked. Her clear decision making ability was broken down.
On the other end of the spectrum, I was at a client’s home last week to train his labradoodle. The room wasn’t well lit and she was moving slowly and then layed down on the carpet. In that moment, she was not an active participant in learning controlled behaviors because she valued rest more than she valued movement. She was unmotivated. Continuing to try and teach her active behaviors at that time would have been counterproductive.
While very different and with very different motivations, both of these dogs shared the fact that they were not in their optimal learning zone. I first heard this spoken of in an online course I took from world champion agility trainer, Susan Garrett many years back. Susan (and I have since heard and seen many others since talk about it) told us about a bell curve of arousal for dog learning. A dog that is over stimulated has a difficult time with good decision making and self control. In simplified terms, inhibitory control refers to the process of altering one’s learned behavioral responses in a way that makes it easier to complete a particular goal. Self control is an important aspect of inhibitory control.
On the other hand, the dog that has too little arousal is distinterested and unmotivated in the lesson. There is a ‘just right’ place somewhere in the middle where a learner is at its optimal level for focusing.
So, back to those two examples. In Suzanne’s workshop, she worked with the handler in teaching her dog to lower her (the dog’s) arousal – meaning to lay at her feet, relaxing her muscles and lowering her heart rate – while she sat in a chair. When the woman got up to work with her dog after her dog was in a lower arousal state, her dog was able to focus and sit, stay, jump over the hurdle perfectly. With my client, when we walked out of the room and re-entered, his dog was standing wagging her tail, moving around and engaging with us. (Incorporating games like tugging into your training can also help to build arousal in your dog. Just use caution that you don’t play a game that will cause your dog to get over-aroused or you will run into the other problem.) The response we got from asking her to do behaviors was very different. She not only did the behaviors perfectly but with a tail wag too.
I want to note here that there are other considerations too. Not in this case but perhaps your dog is tired because it has had a lot of exercise, it is the end of the day, or you have already been training for a long time and your dog is mentally and physically fatigued.
What is the take away lesson for companion dog owners? Learning through experience your dog’s sweet spot on that arousal spectrum will go a long way toward helping you both build success. If your dog becomes over stimulated, work on lowering its arousal. You may want to use a more calming voice and slower body movements. Working in an environment with minimum distractions, only adding difficulty as you and your pet can continue to focus on the lesson, allows you to have better control of minimizing or eliminating competing reinforcers. If your dog is on