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When to Add Pressure?

Most of my blog posts are meant to inform and educate. In this post I confess that I'm still learning all the time too.

Something that you learn as a dog trainer is that the world consists of pressure (I mean this mostly in regard to dogs, but it's true for humans too). There's lot of different types of pressure some of which we can harness, some of which we shouldn't.

Types of pressure:

Social- the dog sees another dog or person doing something and is more inclined to follow the leader. Pretty much peer pressure for dogs. Examples:

  • I go to investigate a statue and my dog that had previously been nervous follows.

  • My four older dogs sit, so my puppy sits.

  • An off leash dog runs up to your dog barking and growling and your dog is intimidated

  • You have a play date with your friend's dog. Their dog is curvy and calm and play bows to yours. Your dog is interested in engaging in play.

  • A person approaches you and wants to pet your dog.

Tactile- the dog feels something physically and responds to it. This is where opposition reflex comes into play (which is much of the reason dogs pull on leash). Examples:

  • Dog feels the leash pulling a direction (and has been properly conditioned to the leash) so the dog goes with the pressure.

  • Owner places a hand on their dog's rear end to remind them to sit (not my favorite method, but a common example).

  • Owner uses low level e-collar pressure to metaphorically tap their dog on the shoulder and get them to return.

  • Owner grabs collar to lead a dog from one competition obedience exercise to the next.

Spatial-the owner uses body language cues (or enviornmental cues) to indicate to a dog how they would like the dog to behave. Stepping back is inviting your dog into your space. Stepping toward them should stop them if they're moving or encourage (pressure) them to move backwards. Examples:

  • The owner is working on a dog's sit duration ("stay"). The dog starts to break out of position and the owner steps back towards them, which causes them to sit again

  • The owner is working recall ("come here") and runs the opposite direction inviting their dog to chase and follow them

  • The dog is trying to bolt through a door and the owner closes the door before the dog can get through

  • The owner wants the dog to turn more collected when turning towards the dog (turn in place as oppose to making a big looping arc). The owner steps into (not on) the dog's space by their shoulders. This encourages the dog to back up while turning instead of forging ahead.

  • The owner is working fetch in an enclosed space- there's chairs and other objects scattered around. The ball rolls under a chair and the dog is nervous to retrieve it

  • The owner is working scent detection. The hide is in a tight corner behind a shelf. The dog is hesitant to approach.

  • In agility the owner steps toward a jump to push the dog in the jump's direction or away from it to pull the dog toward them and bypass the jump.

Environmental- a noise, smell, or sight elicits a response (or emotion) in the dog. Many of these can also be examples of other types of pressure. Many examples of environmental pressure are hard to harness and beyond our control. Examples:

  • A car zooms past while you're on your walk and your dog flinches away

  • Your dog walks on a metal grate and it suddenly moves under them and they jump off

  • Your dog dips a foot in a creek on a hot day and realizes that the water is pleasant and cools them down

  • Your dog chases a ball into a creek on a winter day and realizes the water is freezing and unpleasant

Azawakh are extremely vigilant and thus particularly susceptible to pressure in my experience. That is why socializing them well is so especially important.

There is a significant trend in some schools of dog training these days to train without any form of aversive pressure. That means that the dog has complete control whether they opt into training or not and it's the trainer/owner's responsibility to get the dog to opt in. This is excellent for engagement (getting your dog to focus on you). It's perfect for dog sports where you don't want your dog to have any anxiety about their sport so that they'll perform better (and be a happier dog overall).

Where this philosophy breaks down (especially for your average pet owner/handler who's timing is very different than a professional trainer) is that there are natural pressures on your dog every single day. Especially in regard to environmental pressures and some social pressures, we can't control all of those. To me it has always seemed the wiser path to expose my dogs to as many pressures as possible in a controlled way so that my dogs have a wide array of healthy coping strategies, including during training sessions.

When I got Anubi I knew relatively little about the dog world as a whole- I had some rally and competition obedience training experience and a fair bit of pet dog training experience. I had an italian greyhound/chihuahua mix and a smooth saluki, one from a shelter and one from a legit rescue situation. They were (and are) wonderful pets but I was getting my first show dog. This coincided beautifully in finally working a job that didn't require weekends, so I could finally attend shows.

I got Anubi into handling and puppy classes and he immediately proved he wanted to work...really honestly, he needed to work. So I started training for rally obedience and agility. Then we added barn hunt. Then coursing (that had been the plan all along). Then scentwork. Finally flyball. It was never too much and often it was rarely enough. Anubi has a work ethic like I've rarely seen (not a ton of drive in the traditional sense, but a strong desire to do the work). All of these were our first experiences in the sports for both of us.

Unfortunately, what happened in the middle of this training was that he became a teenager and entered a very long (9+ months), hard fear period. My very steady boy became skittish and flighty. He'd disengage and want out. This put me in a very difficult situation because I'd never had to deal with balancing these kinds of pressure on a performance dog before. When should I push him? When should I let him take it at his own pace? I'd dealt with plenty of fear periods before at work but never one quite like this, especially in my own dog. In agility, he completely lost the ability to do the teeter, which had been solid. In flyball we vacillated between being able to do restrained recalls or wall work and just wanting to leave the room. The tunnel in barn hunt, which had been fine, was suddenly too much spatial pressure. Any type of social pressure from anyone other than me or my husband made him flee.

I see a lot of myself in Anubi- driven, work oriented. This is largely a problem, but it's also why we mesh so well together. I often pushed him, pressured him, when I shouldn't have. I should have gone back to just playing around and having fun. But because two months ago he was able to do something and today he couldn't, I got frustrated. I applied all variety of pressure on him (in addition to doing my very very best to get him to opt in with lots of positive reinforcement) and in the end, he often ended up just shutting down.

It's probably a good thing I'm stubborn, otherwise I never would have stuck around to see the other side. Anubi's teeter is solid, he can take the tunnel in barn hunt, he'll stand for exam and allow himself to be petted by most people. I slowly learned when to take breaks, when to have a day of just play, and when we were ready for a challenge.

The one piece that has remained dodgy has been box work (retrieving the ball from the box) in flyball. Back in November we were doing full runs with another dog in the other lane. I could taste his debut in February. And then something spooked him. I'm not honestly sure what, but if I had to guess, it's that I put too much pressure on him anticipating his debut. Suddenly I couldn't even get him to do a turn on a board, let alone the box. Much of his problem has always been confidence. I suspect he feels vulnerable when he's turning, doubly so when he has a ball in his mouth. In flyball practice we steadily worked him back to being able to do a turn on the box, but he still wouldn't retrieve his ball like he had been, but at home I hadn't been able to even get him to touch a wall board (we practice turns on a wall first before transferring the turn to a box).

After about three months of being completely stalled and about ready to give up training for flyball with Anubi I took a deep breath, brought Anubi into the training room, took out the equipment and watched as he predictably bolted the other way and then paced by the door. Every time I would call him back and reward him. Eventually he stopped fleeing. We did target work flat on the ground, which looked tentative but fine. As soon as I moved the wall board to any type of angle he would bolt again. I tried different set ups, different equipment to take away or add pressure with zero change. He wouldn't even put two feet on the board. The difference this time was mostly that I wasn't frustrated, just committed to solving the problem no matter how long it took.

We were in that room for an hour. I really did almost decide to give up then and there and maybe revist the sport with him in a year or so. I finally leashed Anu up and took him over to the board added a little bit of leash pressure toward the board and he hit it with beautiful form. When he landed he turned back to me (the first time he hadn't run the other way in ages) and had the most excited, proud look on his face and proceeded to do two more turns without me asking for them. This Sunday at flyball practice, Anubi was like a changed dog. He couldn't do enough box hits. He was retrieving his ball for the first time in months.

A year ago I could never have pressured him like that. He would have been done, likely permanently, but at the very least he would have been shut down. It has taken me 2.5 years but slowly I am starting to understand when I can add pressure and when to let my dog kickback and relax. However, after seeing the happiness on his face when if finally clicked, I don't regret helping guide him through the process, I only regret not having the ability to read my dog as well as I read him now. Right now Ami's in a fear period (a similar but less pronounced one to what Anubi was in at a similar age). We're taking it easy, doing what she likes and sneaking in just a bit of pressure in between snacks.

You learn more with every dog you work and sometimes your own dogs can present the hardest challenges because you're so emotionally invested.

In conclusion- Anubi running a fantastic agility course last week after a year of learning how to read each other and today's flyball practice. He's so happy!

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