WARNING: This is an extremely long article, one of those my webmaster bitterly complains about!
In a previous article I analyzed the general benefits of working with stress. As Fernando Silva commented then, if we are unable to teach our own dogs to work with little doses of stress and to manage them correctly, our hands will be tied for training other people’s dogs in commercial works, behavior modifications or, for that matter, to train high quality conducts for dog sports.
Bottom line: If we cannot handle the low level of stress caused by confining our dogs in the car for a couple of hours, as Mr. Silva explains, or the stress arising from a trip to a new location, as it happens to those who take part in sport competitions of any kind, or the stress deriving from the implementation of any of the available handling / safety protocols designed for the treatment of fearful dogs or some types of aggressive dogs, or even the stress caused by the learning of a difficult behavior, we will be unable to train most of the times. Thus we will have to renounce to work precisely with those dogs who would benefit the most through an improved quality of life in the medium term.
In sum, it is imperative to teach dogs to manage stress. As a matter of fact this learning produces two main benefits:
- Dogs will progressively become less stressed out when confronted with the same stimuli or with environments that formerly resulted in high levels of stress.
- Dogs will no longer appear to be insecure, unstable or nervous when something affects them. Their attitude will change progressively as they become capable of confronting problems in a confident manner.
The first point mentioned above contributes to improving the excessively emotional reactions so characteristic of sensitive dogs (e.g., Border collies or Malinois) when they are challenged with changes in the scenario. Very often these dogs exhibit worry, excessive surprise and even fear in the face of certain changes to the environment. I have witnessed how dogs impeccably trained with fully respectful methods reacted with fear in such circumstances. Facts that novel trainers misinterpreted as meaning that the dog had been mistreated and harshly trained. This was not the case. Simply put, these dogs can be compared to brilliant scientists who are unable to present their work publicly because the crowded atmosphere inhibits their communication skills and make them appear as intellectually clumsy. Thus we need to train their stress management abilities. In order to get there the most common mistake we should avoid is overprotection. As a matter of fact, trainers tend to avoid presenting stressful situations instead of teaching dogs the tools to sort out such situations.
The second point referred to above is even more important because it determines whether dogs will learn to enjoy themselves when confronted with levels of stress sensibly graduated. This effect can be compared to the case of persons growing in the face of adversity. We all agree that there are few feelings that beat the satisfaction stemming from successfully overcoming a difficult task that we perceived as a problem (e.g., the training of a particularly complex exercise, taking part in a tough competition and so on). This implies a dramatically important change in frame of mind for our dogs, from considering a situation as a source of worry to seeing it as a chance to have fun applying the skills they master. The shift depends on the acquisition of mastery in stress management. I think most of the great trainers I have come across do not emphasize their successes as much as how their dogs kept working and growing in the face of adversity, for there are few things as moving as taking part in a competition and, in the most difficult situation, noticing how your dog increases in implication and tenacity.
As a matter of fact, the benefits deriving from good stress management are so important that some researchers have devised ways to replicate stressful experiences while taking the associated risks away, so as to improve performance and learning punctually. These stress “simulators” are based on three main yardsticks:
- Arousal levels: Stress always implies an increase in the degree of physical activation. Thus if we manage to increase the level of arousal over the regular thresholds we will be able to rip improvements in attention, reaction times as well as in the skills to discriminate relevant information. The best part is that this can be achieved without any of the risks associated with actual stressful events. It suffices to start by exercising dogs a bit to speed their physiology up. This simple intervention substantially improves performance, self-satisfaction and welfare.
- Novelties in the environment: The introduction of anything new under the sky triggers a minimum amount of adaptive stress. By presenting novelties to dogs in an intentional and calculated manner we can improve their capacity to adapt, their attention skills, their sustained concentration and all of the benefits already commented in the first part of this article. And without risks. Thus researchers found that automatic improvements in the ability to analyze problems, better results and a decrease of distractions followed by simply changing the workplace of various workers.
- A break from routine: Routines calm and eliminate stress. When researchers changed the routines of several workers, thereby increasing their stress levels, a very interesting effect emerged. At the beginning all workers claimed that the change would be detrimental to their work and their performance, as it was bothering to change their customary way of doing things. However, after a period working out of the routine, the results achieved in terms of performance, time and quality of the work showed improvements. Even more surprising, the workers’ feelings of satisfaction had also increased. This can be a temporary effect aimed at eliminating the possibility of suffering residual stress. After a change of routine the return to the normal situation prevents the stress from building up residually and having negative effects.
By using these three principles we will set good foundations for stress management, something that will allow us to reap the benefits without incurring the losses of stress.
But watch out! These three simulators are so effective –remember the close link between stress and amusement- that those who rely on them on a frequent basis can become addicted (do not forget that stress leads to the production of endorphins) and may lose the motivation to work without stress. This explains cases of workaholism, persons who need a permanently high level of arousal, novelties and new challenges to feel good. They are on drugs!
It also explains why so many Agility dogs seem to show extremely high levels of stress during the events. Recently a friend of mine who competes in Agility commented the case of her Border collie with me. She did not understand why the stress levels were so high in the field. He was a couch potato at home and walked and played in the countryside several days per week, as a normal dog. The social structure at home was also normal, he got along well with the other dogs, and my friend had always trained and treated him with respect. The reason for this behavior is that Agility is an unintentional but brutal stress simulator: high level of physical activation, environmental changes (competitors often go to different fields in a matter of weeks) and changes in routines (each field differs from the rest). This is why Agility tends to generate addiction. In these cases the solution is not to prevent the dog from activating, something that cannot realistically be achieved, but to teach the dog to manage the stress from the beginning so that it does not start building up in the course of different competitions and training sessions. That kind of stress is similar to that exhibited by people who lose their heads for a hobby, as it is more closely related to excitement in anticipation of the amusing experience than to any negative experience!
How to manage stress in these peculiar exciting environments will be the topic of the last part of this trilogy. I hope you are enjoying this saga about the benefits of stress for dog training and their general quality of life, always provided it is adequately managed.