Building blocks of stress in behaviour modification and training

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http://www.glasgowdogtrainer.co.uk

When working with dogs, either in training or behaviour modification, we will often notice that there is a level at which a dog will respond or not respond to our request or to something in the environment. You may have heard this referred to as “threshold” and I’ll discuss it a little further here.

For dogs who react to other dogs, I often like to think in terms of building blocks. Say, for the purposes of this illustration, your dog needs to get to a value of 20 before he barks, lunges, pulls aggressively on the lead etc when he sees another dog. The other dog might need to be thirty feet away before your dog reacts, this 30 feet would have a value of 20, so your dog reacts. So you increase your distance to 50 feet, this may cause the dog’s reaction threshold to drop to 15 but another dog arrives. This other dog might represent 10 points to your dog, which puts him up at 25, so he reacts again.

Each time your dog reacts, stress hormones are released into his body. It takes time for these stress hormones to return to their normal level. So, your dog, with a normal threshold from a calm state, takes 20 points before he reacts. He sees another dog at a distance of 50 feet, which only represents 5 points, and appears to handle the situation very well. The other dog disappears from view and you continue on your walk. A few minutes later, another dog appears. This dog is 35 feet away (close to your dogs normal reaction distance of 30 feet). In this case your dog is already at 5 points from the previous dog from a few minutes ago. The dog at 35 feet represents 17 points, so your dog is now at 22 points and he reacts.

Examples of factors which add point are

1. distance decreasing between your dog and the other dog

2. the other dog staring or looking directly at your dog

3.the other dog standing square on to your dog

4. more than one dog

5. the other dog moving as opposed to standing still – faster movement from the other dog usually means more points

6. your dog being in a higher state of arousal from previous interactions with dogs within a short space of time

Conversely, examples of factors which reduce points are

1. greater distance between your dog and the other dog

2. the other dog offering more social body language such as averting his gaze or turning side on

3. the other dog moving more slowly or standing still

4. the dog moving away

The above are examples and are not an exhaustive list and every dog is different. Another application of this, this time for training, is when training a recall. The three Ds of dog training enter here (distance, duration and distraction) Distance from you adds points, distance from the distraction such as play time with another dog will influence it, the amount of time since you last recalled your dog may be a factor as may the number of distractions in the environment or how the dog is feeling (tired, ill etc)

When working with your dog, whether in behaviour modification or training, and your dog does not perform to the level you would expect, this point system will usually be a big part of the reason. Examine what changed and see if you can play with the points to make it easier.

Until next time, happy dog training

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2 thoughts on “Building blocks of stress in behaviour modification and training

  1. http://www.patriciamcconnell.com/theotherendoftheleash/self-control-depletion-dogs

    The above blog thread is a fascinating discussion which discusses self control depletion in dogs. A tired dog isn’t necessarily a happy dog. More a well exercised dog will be better behaved, but a physically and mentally exhausted dog won’t be. And of course, they won’t learn anything when they’ve reached the tipping point.To my mind, what is nice about the research in self control depletion in dogs is that we can all relate to it on a human level too. If we have had a stressful day and have had to be on our best behaviour, the straw that braks the camel’s back also relates to our dogstoo. I guess, know your dog and understand the signs when they have clearly had enough.

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