Reducing Stress In Dog Training
The very nature of training can be stressful to a dog. Not all stress is bad. However, when a dog has many different stress-inducing factors piled on top of each other, this can become overwhelming and cause the dog to act out or shut down. When a dog is too stressed out, learning does not occur. For this very reason, we must try to minimize the amounts of environmental stress our dogs experience during training. Here are three ways you can reduce stress in dog training.
1. Clean Clicker Mechanics
If a teacher were asking you questions in class and then having to look up every answer you gave them to make sure they were right, you’d become incredibly frustrated after a while. The same thing can happen with our dogs. If our marker words or clicks are too slow, our treat delivery sloppy, or our attention is not completely on our training session, the dog is likely to get frustrated and may stop trying. Making sure your mechanics are clean and on time will do a lot for a dog’s confidence and stress level. It’s also our job, as the trainer, to make sure our client’s mechanics are clean. Playing some clicker mechanic games before introducing your client’s newly acquired training skills to their dog can go a long way for the stress level of their dog. You can find more about clicker mechanics here.
2. Appropriate Distraction Levels
When a dog is worked in an area where there are too many distractions for their level of training, they can become incredibly stressed for a few different reasons. If the dog is prone to being anxious, too many distractions can cause them to go through information overload and they can become stressed out. When a dog is stressed, they cannot provide their owners with the attention their owners want. When the owners see their dog’s attention elsewhere, the owner can become stressed with the training process. Feeding off the owner, the dog becomes even more stressed. It is a stressful cycle to get in. To make both the dog and owner successful, lowering the distractions around the session to a level the dog can be successful is key.
3. Small Steps
When we are working with clients and their dogs, we are generally helping them build behaviors for their dogs. We have to take small steps towards the big picture goal. When we expect dogs to take leaps in training, they can become lost and get stressed when they don’t know what we are asking for. Training will go quicker when we ask for smaller steps that they can build on quickly. Taking larger steps may slow us down as the dog has to guess and interpret what we are asking for.
Some level of frustration will always be present in training, however, we should always do our best to make sure the least amount of frustration is present when training. Showing our clients how to use a clicker and how to build behaviors appropriately is our duty as a trainer. When our dogs are happy, we will get cleaner, quicker, and better behaviors.
What other ways can we lower our dog’s stress during a training session?
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As a modern dog trainer, you’ve studied canine body language. You are confident in your ability to identify when a dog is experiencing stress. But now that you’ve identified that dog, how do you help it?
Increase Distance From Dog’s Stressors
If space permits, this can often be the easiest way to help a dog. If the dog is experiencing stress due to proximity to other dogs, move him away. Getting him away from his stressors can allow him to relax enough to benefit from counter-conditioning and desensitization and learn the material you are covering in class.
Put Up A Visual Barrier
Sometimes your space is limited and you can’t move the dog away from her stressors. At this time, consider a visual barrier. Even something as simple as a ring gate with a sheet tossed over it can help the dog relax. This can be especially beneficial if the dog is experiencing stress due to other dogs looking at her. Blocking eye contact is quick way to reduce stress in class.
Increase Rate Of Reinforcement
If the dog in your class is still eating but perhaps getting a bit “sharky,” there is a good possibility the dog is experiencing stress. These dogs might be looking around at their environment while doing the bare minimum required to get a treat from their owner. Encourage the owner to start rapid-firing treats, rewarding for each task. This can help dogs focus on the training instead of their environment.
Do Simple Tasks At Which The Dog Is Proficient
So often when dogs get to higher levels of obedience/skill, owners don’t reward the little things as much. However, when a dog is experiencing stress, it can be beneficial to have owners drop back to beginner-level skills and reward for those to help build the dog’s confidence up. Those behaviors have a strong history of reinforcement so the dog will be able to successfully complete those tasks and get heavily praised. Training should not always get increasingly difficult because that can be very discouraging for a dog.
Some dogs are very tactile-oriented and want to be by their owners when experiencing stress. If you have a dog like this in your class, encourage your clients to do some slow, steady massage on their dog. You might find that all the dogs in your classes benefit from short breaks from training with massage and perhaps relaxing music playing (check out “Through A Dog’s Ear”).
Being able to identify stressed dogs is just the first step. You need to have the skills to successfully help the clients ease their dog through the stressful event. Having many options in your toolbox can be of great benefit to both your clients and their dogs.
What is your recommendation for reducing a dog’s stress in class?
From puppy classed to reactive dog classes, judging the stress levels of the dogs is an important part of making the class successful. There are three optimal ways to quickly judge a dog’s level of stress during training. Reducing stress levels in a dog is important to the learning process. Learning is hard without all the environmental distractions in a group class or at a park so reducing the level of stress the dogs are in will improve your training success rate and increase the amount of time you can train them effectively by lowering the level of fatigue the dog will experience.
Observe Body Language
Excessive sniffing, yawning, lip licking, scratching, or other passive behaviors are a sign that the dog needs a break, more space between dogs, or more positive reinforcement. Ideally, training sessions shouldn’t last longer than 5 minutes at a time so make sure your client’s aren’t working their dogs too long.
When a dog’s stress levels increase, they will likely stop eating treats they were accepting just a few minutes before or they’ll take the treats more harshly than before. If you hear clients complain that their dog must be full or that the dog is hurting them when they take the treat, ask your clients to give their dogs a small sniffing break away from other dogs or people. This will help the dog “reset” and regroup in order to continue learning. We all take breaks while studying for exams, right?
Response To Known Behavior Cues
Considering that a dog knows that sit means sit at home, at the park, at the vet’s office, and everywhere else, if the dog does not sit when asked during class it could be a sign that the dog is too stressed to comply or understand what is needed of them. This is especially true when working with reactive dogs and their “fight or flight” response has been triggered. It isn’t that the dog is being stubborn, but rather that they dog cannot think straight because they are worried for their physical safety. If someone put you in your most feared situation and asked you to do math, how well do you think you would do?
Stress is an emotional roller coaster for everyone – people included. Being able to recognize it in dogs will help your training proceed more smoothly and efficiently. Implement management techniques to help dogs (and their people) feel more comfortable in group classes or lessons out and about.
What’s one of your favorite stress management techniques for dogs or people? Share it with us below in the comments!