I have talked about the importance of being crisp in training. Crispness provides clarity to our dogs which in turn reduces frustration and allows our dogs to feel confident in their situation. I want my dogs to know when they are working, when they are relaxing and about to work, and when they are not working at all -at which point I want to see them sleeping.
Sleeping in public? Yes, dogs sleep in public perfectly well – if they know that is expected! And how does one communicate when it is time to sleep? When dogs know nothing else is going to happen and when they are crated with reduced stimulation (covered) then sleep comes naturally, because that’s what dogs do when nothing is happening!
Crispness in training allows dogs to conserve their energy. It naturally teaches them to sleep when the time is right for sleeping.
But there’s more to it. In addition to giving you a crisper performance when you are working and helping dogs sleep when there’s no reason to be awake, crispness provides huge emotional benefits as well. Specifically, crispness allows a dog to be mentally calm – clarity provides that. And the opposite of mentally calm?
I believe we create anxious behavior in our dogs by feeding them randomly and not providing clarity about when they are or are not able to earn reinforcement. So how might this work?
Well, let’s say you want something. A lot. Money! And the person who has the money gives it to you on occasion. Sometimes you get money for clear and specific behaviors. It is obvious to you! Let’s say you are learning the task of filing. Every time you file something correctly, you are handed money. Yay! Your filing skills improve and everyone is happy.
But there’s another thing. Sometimes you get money when you are waiting at your desk for your turn to file. You look over at your instructor, she smiles, and then she walks over and hands you a dollar. Yay! So… does that mean that looking at the instructor gets you dollars?! Maybe, yes! or…maybe No? Because often, looking at your instructor does nothing at all.
Being a clever learner, you conclude that it’s more complicated than that. So you start trying stuff out to figure out what causes what.
What happens if you look at your instructor and shift in your chair? Does that earn you a dollar? No! How about if you look at your instructor and then look down at your desk? Does that get you a dollar? Yes! It did. On this occasion.
Okay fine, so now you think looking at the instructor and then down at your desk gets your a dollar. But it doesn’t. You try it out and this time, nothing happens. So you sigh in frustration, mostly because you haven’t decided what to do next and, voilà! A dollar shows up.
So is it looking at the instructor? Sighing? Something else? You really want those dollars – you are highly motivated to get them! And yet, you have absolutely no idea what to do and because you are so motivated, it doesn’t occur to you to take a nap. You have a puzzle to solve! And yet, the solution to the puzzle doesn’t exist. It’s random. But you don’t know that, so your brain works overtime trying to solve it.
The one thing you are not doing is relaxing. Resting. You can’t because you want those dollars and you do not have any clarity about how to get them. And anxious behavior? Motivation plus lack of clarity creates anxiety. Or at least contributes greatly in those who are already prone. Obviously, erratic behavior with our dogs does not always cause anxiety but it sure isn’t going to help in a fragile individual.
Does that describe your dog? If you have a dog that loves to work, never seems to know he’s “off”, demand barks and offers behaviors at all random times, cannot sleep in a working space and shows anxious behaviors like panting, circling, whining, demand barking, or throwing behaviors within the context of work (crating, working spaces, etc.) do your dog a kindness and figure out if you’re contributing. Fix it, and see if it allows your dog to relax.
So does this mean all anxiety is caused by our training choices? Of course not. Anxiety has many roots and in some cases, nothing short of medication and serious behavior modification will make a difference, presumably because the dog’s wiring is such that anxiety is the default. However, kind and supportive structure can be exactly what is needed to prevent problems from showing themselves altogether in an “at risk” individual.
Structure is a good thing. It tells your dog what to expect and when to expect it. It is a kindness and it is highly compatible with choice – which you choose depends on the time and the context and the needs of the dog.
But what if you don’t have a problem? Your dog works well when you want, rests nicely on a mat, and sleeps in a crate. Then you can ignore this. You’re doing great!
Give it a shot and let me know what happens.