I’m a huge fan of allowing a dog to take in an area before you begin to train. This is particularly true if your dog tends toward a more nervous temperament or if they are easily overwhelmed by the world.
So how, exactly, do you allow your dog to take in the training environment?
To start, figure out if your dog thrives on movement or stillness. Let me give you an example.
I had a dog in a workshop recently who was agitated by the other dogs, jumping up towards the handler, hitting the end of the leash, etc. I encouraged the handler to start moving at a modest pace through the area, keeping the leash reasonably short and watching the dog’s behavior.
Within 30 seconds, it became obvious that movement was making the dog more agitated rather than calmer, so we changed direction and focused on mat work! The handler rhythmically fed her dog treats while he lay on a mat, and within a minute you could see him visibly relax. After a few more minutes he was done taking in the environment and was looking to the handler for something to do. Lack of movement calmed his agitated behavior.
In this case, sitting on a mat grounded this dog, which in turn allowed him to work with both enthusiasm and focus within a short period of time.
I had another dog at this seminar who had a very different reaction to waiting on a mat! Rather than relaxing, this dog started to target any movement in the area and became tense and hyper-focused on distractions in other areas of the building. The longer she stayed on the mat the worse her behavior became.
For this dog, the handler moved with her through the environment, encouraging sniffing and looking at objects nearby. If she began to stare, the handler simply resumed walking and the dog would break from her focus. In this dog’s case, the movement seemed to clear the adrenaline out of her body and high quality, focused work soon followed.
While both dogs started out with the same issue, one benefited from not moving to calm his head and the other benefited from movement. That’s fine; they’re different dogs. It makes no sense to apply a technique that is making your dog worse, so if you see that you’re going nowhere (or going in the wrong direction) then change what you’re doing!
The goal with acclimation is to get the dog come comfortable with the area immediately around them. I want the dog to sniff, visually explore objects within the near ground, and get used to the energy in the area. Generally I try movement first, but if movement causes the dog to spiral higher or to become agitated then that’s not the ticket for THAT dog.
Which works better for your dog, movement or stillness? You should be able to answer this question easily. If you figure that out now then you’ll be much quicker to apply the correct solution if the need should arise.
If you’d like to learn more about how acclimation and engagement turn into very focused work under novel situations, check out my Engagement class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. At $65 the tuition for a bronze spot is extremely reasonable. Instruction started a couple of days ago, but you can catch up pretty easily. We have a very active group of golds for you to learn from in the classroom, and Teaching Assistants to guide the bronze and silver students in the discussion group on Facebook.
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My boy is very much in the “movement” category when he’s agitated – which is quite often in the big wide world. I’ve always found that standing still will make him fixate on the things he’s worried about whereas, as you say, the movement seems to help the anxiety flow out of him. However, I’ve also noticed more recently that what I’m seeing isn’t true relaxation, it’s simply giving him a focus for his nervous energy. He switches into work mode where he feels confident following the cues I’m giving him and blanks out the rest of the scary world. This is great when I need him to be in that stressful environment as it gives us a very practical management tool and gives me an incredibly engaged dog, but when I’m thinking therapeutically, I don’t think it brings a lot to the table for him.
Amy Cook’s “Dealing with the Bogeyman” class on FDSA has given me techniques I can use to practice being calmer and more still in gradually increasing environments, working out that those things aren’t scary at all through personal play and “Look And Dismiss”. I’m looking forward to taking it at gold when it comes around again.
So whilst I wholeheartedly agree that you have to look at your dog and do what works for him in that moment in that environment, it doesn’t mean that you can’t employ the opposite approach to work therapeutically. For my “go-go-go” dog, learning to slow down, to take in the environment rather than block it out when it gets a bit scary, and just “be” has given us the start of something that I really think will be pivotal for improving his mental health and ability to deal with these situations without having to entirely disconnect from them.
What is agitated and is that different than over aroused or overwhelmed? Is each state treated differently ? Lots of questions, but our progress is slow. Probably because I’m not reading my dog correctly.
the challenge with words is that they have different meanings to different people. I would say that agitated is aroused in an unpleasant fashion – arousal as a concept is not necessarily unpleasant.