Just this past weekend I was trialing Brava. I was running low on treats and she started to bark at me. Incessantly. She wanted her turn and she wanted it NOW! I do admit to not being at the top of my game that run and her AKC Excellent Containers search went down in flames. She just couldn’t focus! She was like a crazed six year old on Halloween Candy. Fortunately I recognized the issue for the next run. I managed her arousal and she earned her first Master level Q (in Exteriors!). What was the difference? Impulse Control.
Just this morning I read a fantastic blog by Dr. Deborah Jones on Impulse Control called, “Baby, Meet Bathwater“. In it, Deb describes how typical ways of teaching impulse control are unpleasant to our dogs. From her blog:
A key point about typical impulse control training is that it relies heavily on negative punishment (removing something to decrease behavior) and extinction (removing access to the expected reinforcer) in order to work. This is a problem because these techniques can be unpleasant and stressful, especially if applied incorrectly. Here’s where I see an important point for discussion and adaptation, but also I don’t see the need to throw out techniques that can work well and quickly if applied appropriately.
In fact she’s teaching a class in February at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy on the topic!
So this brings me to Nosework and staging areas…
The staging area makes or breaks a search… Always. Why? Because we regulate the dog’s arousal state. According to Yerkes-Dodson Law, performance increases as we increase arousal…. to a point… then performance decreases as arousal increases. It looks like a bell curve.
Good News for the Low Arousal Dogs
This is good news for our low arousal dogs! Simply being in a new location will raise arousal and will thus increase performance (provided that the dog doesn’t careen over the top in anxiety due to a new environment of course!). Dogs that live just to the left on the curve simply pop into drive approaching the start line. It’s almost like they have just arrived, ready to be perfect. In some cases they have!
What about the Crazy Canines?
So what about the dogs like Brava who come in wired for sound and ready to tear up the search? How do we keep them from burning out their synapses? Impulse Control.
I have a couple of exercises that I like to do with Brava in the staging areas that really help. I use mostly Chin Rest and Offered Eye Contact. I also use Downs with a shaped chin on the floor (I call it “Put your head down”). All of these in combination work at keeping her from losing her Fruit Loops.
With the chin rest, I hold out my hand and have taught her to put her chin in my hand for a count of at least 3. Then she gets a reward. With offered eye contact, I hold a cookie out at shoulder height. When her eyes leave the cookie and catch and hold mine, she gets the cookie. With the Down, it’s less about the down and more about the stillness that occurs when she puts her chin on the floor. All of these exercises teach impulse control and they can all help to reduce and control arousal.
An example of some of my staging routine can be seen in this video:
With the Crazy Canines, barking only makes things worse… barking actually RAISES arousal. Yes, it disturbs the other competitors but it also shoots you in the foot. If you can replace the barking with other behaviors, your searches will become more successful!