Ah, stress. We all know the condition. It is blamed for poor health, diet and performance, whether work-related or otherwise. When most people talk about stress in life, they mean distress, which is commonly referred to as 'negative' stress, it's what we feel when over-burdened, for example. While acute distress here and there won't kill you, chronic distress is linked to many physiological coping processes that culminate in a decrease in overall health and lifespan.
But stress isn't all bad. There is such thing as 'good' stress, which is called eustress, so rarely talked about, that my computer doesn't even recognize it as a word, and instead insists I mean 'stress' or 'estrus'. We need eustress in life, it prompts us to change and adapt, it motivates us. Eustress is healthy.
Okay, now that we've gotten the introductions out of the way, how does this apply to dog training? On a very superficial level, one can say that distress hurts training: it kills motivation and decreases the capacity to learn and perform (if you're one of those people, like me, who can't even manage basic arithmetic when put on the spot, you understand completely!)
Stress from fear leads to slow, hesitant movements in dog training, rather than the swift, confident sits, downs and recalls that you see with dogs who are certain of what is being asked. This is often why dogs trained with solely aversive methods, especially from the start, typically offer much slower movements. They aren't confident about what's being asked, and don't want to risk making a mistake that will lead to a correction, especially if particularly unpleasant.
Some dogs are more easily stressed than others, and this brings me to a special dog and his loving family, whom I am currently working with. A stocky rescue dog whose heritage is anyone's guess, with a bite history and an overly-vigilant, constantly-worried personality, belied by his calm and almost lumbering demeanor. He is a typical dog that is considered "stubborn" and "defiant" which are both terms that have been attributed to him: training was just starting to pick up, and all of a sudden, basically overnight, he became reluctant to comply, and even started to revert to unwanted behaviours. Having ruled out physical pain, he is the type of dog that many dog trainers I know would have dealt with using more forceful techniques, in an effort to achieve compliance from this stubborn animal (and I use both the terms 'dog trainer' and 'compliance' loosely in this case).
Unfortunately for many dogs, strongly aversive techniques work well, if all you're looking for is the correct response to a command. Fortunately for this dog, he has a family who can see beyond their frustration, and is working with what is a very distressed dog without letting their disappointment get in the way. Is his distress their fault? Of course not. While environmental factors can exacerbate stress, tolerance to it has a strong genetic component, and poor breeding is the main culprit here.
Well, that's all good and well, but now what? Are these dogs untrainable? Fortunately not at all! To put it simply, you need to eliminate the stressor. Identifying the cause of stress can sometimes be tricky, but in this case it was rather simple: overly-vigilant animals have very little stability, caused by a lack of confidence, which is another facet of temperament that has a very strong hereditary component. The solution was one of my favourite pastimes with my own dogs: mental stimulation games. In this case, the point was to get the dog to figure out how to get a piece of food all on his own from a bottle. No extraneous help; just a dog, his nose and his brain. The same evening after our afternoon training session, the dog was happily offering the sits and downs that he was so reluctant to offer before.
As the dog becomes adept at one game, he'll need new ones to keep building that confidence and predictability he so needs. The levels you can achieve with dog brain training games are a testament to just how clever dogs are if given half a chance.
This isn't magic, it's dog training. The next time you hit a plateau in your dog training, ask yourself if distress might be the culprit -- for both you and your dog. It doesn't necessarily have to come from the training itself, but because we have so much control over our dogs' environment, it's very likely that the cause is something you can alter.
Good luck, and happy training!
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