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Getting the most from your sports dog!

There has been a paradigm shift in sports dog training over the past five years. This shift is significant, not only from the perspective of what can be achieved from sports, performance and  working dogs but the high welfare standards that can be maintained and even promoted and enhanced in these dogs as compared to companion dogs.

This shift is one from a focus on developing the specific behaviours involved in the sport, whether that is stopped contacts in agility or a send away in obedience, to harnessing the mental and emotional potential of the dog. This is achieved through:

  • balancing arousal and stress levels,
  • developing a bombproof dog
  • teaching the individual how to learn, and
  • arming the learner with foundation skills and concepts that will allow them to succeed later down the line when tackling sport-specific behaviours.

A term that I use a lot in my training and behaviour work is that of “peak learning and performance”. This is a fundamental concept to this shift in the way we train our dogs. This peak  learning and performance headspace should be a goal of every trainer, competitor and sportsperson, as this is where our dogs demonstrate optimum ability to learn and then perform what they have learnt, whether that be in training or in competition.

“If we get the headspace right, the rest is easy!” - Tom, absoluteDOGS & BEHAVET

It is a product of balancing arousal - too little arousal and the dog may be termed “unmotivated”, “disinterested”, “unresponsive”; too much arousal and the dog may again be termed similar things!

I like to look at arousal as a bucket that gets filled. At a certain point, the amount of arousal in the bucket is ideal and results in peak learning and performance. Any more and the dog enters overarousal, any less and the dog is learning or performing to the best of their ability. It’s important to note here that both good stress (like playing with you, doing an agility run, etc.) and bad stress (being worried by the dog barking over there, becoming scared of the tent flapping, etc.) pay into the bucket in the same way! In training and competition, maintaining the ideal amount of arousal in the bucket is challenging - these are exciting and complex environments! There may be dogs barking, people cheering, tannoys, mum or dad madly playing, agility runs going on, the noise of dogs running through tunnels, etc. To add to this dilemma there is also the journey to get to training and competition, where, again, your dog is presented with the exciting anticipation of arrival and the subsequent game but also potentially scary things like dogs out of the window, cars zooming past, motorbikes, etc.

With this new understanding in mind, you can see how the focus of training should shift from simply teaching contacts, weaves, etc., to focussing on achieving the peak learning and performance head space and the rest becomes so much easier and more consistent!

One thing that is invaluable in achieving this is working to reduce any stressors that could pay into the bucket. We should be looking to:

  1. Change the emotional response of our dogs to things in the environment. For example, training your dog a positive emotional response to separation can have a significant impact on how they perceive other things in their training and competition environment (Fig.). The same would apply to the car journey too!2. Generally reduce their stress levels by utilising tools that will bring the bucket down in a more general way. Key to both of these focus points is training and behaviour modification; however, when working with dogs, adopting an approach that considers the whole of the animal to enhance what we can achieve with them is seriously exciting. The use of Pet Remedy products facilitates the two key points above: altering the emotional response to the complex and often scary environments our dogs find themselves in, and generally reducing their stress levels (emptying some of the arousal from the bucket). Pet Remedy works alongside the brain’s natural ‘messengers’ called neurotransmitters, which work by telling the nerve receiving the message either to calm (via GABA pathway) or get ‘fired up’. sports-dogs In times of stress, wether positive (agility training or competition) or negative (reactivity, anxiety, fear) stress, the nerves get over stimulated; furthermore, once overstimulated they take time to calm down! Here are three key places where the concepts discussed are useful in training and competition:

    1. Travel. The use of a pet remedy atomiser in the vehicle, coupled with providing a calming positive experience in the way of training (for example, providing filled kongs for the dogs), will ensure your dogs do not arrive at a training or competition event with their arousal buckets already half full!

    2. Navigating a training or competition environment. Keep this to a minimum - there is no purpose of walking your dog around a busy training or show environment if not training or on the way to a ring other than to pour a huge amount of arousal into the arousal bucket and push them into overarousal and beyond the point of peak learning and performance. With this in mind, utilising pet remedy calming spray (can apply to harnesses, your clothing, crate bedding, the leash, etc.) and providing your dog with a positive calming activity to occupy them with, e.g. chin targets, shoulder targets, heelwork, leg wrapping, etc., is invaluable in achieving the most from your dog and your partnership.

    3. Finally, emptying some of the bucket after a run. The absolute goal to achieve success in competing with your dogs is, after a run, to bring them back down to calmness; otherwise, we find ourselves in an ever-spiralling, arousal-soaring mess where, as arousal becomes higher and higher, it becomes harder and harder to bring them back down. Returning your dog to a crate, utilising a pet remedy spray/diffuser/atomiser and working on calming games such as simply rewarding calmness with food will ensure that you and your dog don’t fall into the spiral and don’t have to wait a whole week between successful runs for the arousal levels to return to normal!

    This exciting shift in focus in developing sports and working dogs is seriously exciting. It has lead to a rethinking of just what can be achieved with our dogs, and, I suspect, we will be realising more and more just what our dogs are capable of over the next five years with this paradigm shift in mind.