Sensitive dogs can be challenging to handle and train. They can be ok and then all of a sudden they just… aren’t! A lot of it comes down to Emotional Stamina. Searching in different environments is very taxing on the sensitive dog! But how we can tell how the dog is feeling and is there anything we can do to help? Absolutely!
MOOD is the key!
Think about your own Mood. When are you best able to work on something challenging? Let’s say you have a big, fairly tedious project at work, but right before you sit down, you have an argument with friend and it has you upset. Are you in the right frame of mind to really focus on your project? No way! Your mood is all wrong.
Let’s put this in your dog’s terms. You are in a staging area waiting for your turn. You are nervous and your dog isn’t settling. Maybe your dog showed no interest in the warmup boxes and you are stressing. Perhaps your dog isn’t comfortable in new places and each staging area is different with different smells! Now you take him to the search area and expect him to be brilliant! Wow, that’s hard!
Now I want you to smile. Right now. Do it. It’s ok, no one is looking! Ok. How do you feel? Feels good doesn’t it? That is your mood changing. Smiling for humans creates a good feeling and optimism. When you feel optimistic, it’s much easier to perform your best.
We want to be able to shift our dog’s MOOD!
Essentially we want our dogs to feel more optimistic when they search. This is easier than it sounds and there are a few things you can try. Your dog will tell you what works. Pay attention to your dog’s body language. Does your does seem disengaged and concerned or is he giving you a soft face and a lightly wagging tail?
The best time to shift your dog’s mood is BEFORE you search. When you search, the most impactful part to your search happens before you ever cross the start line! How you prepare has more impact on your success than how you search. Let that sink in!
So even if you are searching at home, pay attention to your dog’s MOOD before you search. You can do these same tactics at home as well as at a trial.
There are some things you can do to shift MOOD…
- SMILE at your dog. This is actually a big one. If you smile, you will feel good. That will transmit quickly to your dog. This is the one thing that you can do both in staging areas AND while you search. Your dog will mirror your good mood.
- Use a Snuffle Mat in your staging if it’s possible (in some staging areas in AKC it may not be practical because you don’t want to use a Snuffle Mat in close proximity to other dogs… in order to avoid resource guarding issues between dogs). If it’s practical, a Snuffle Mat is a great tool. It can help trigger the Seeking System which releases dopamine.
- Catching Cookies! I’ve used this a lot with my own sensitive dog, Why. When I’m trialing and I see his mood start to dip, I’ve found that catching cookies quickly lifts it!
- TOUCH! This only works if you have a dog who likes it. Some dogs don’t. Back scratches are usually very welcome.
- Remove pressure… this means no prompted behaviors. None. Even something like nose touches can add pressure in really sensitive dogs. Anything that the dog sees as a task can chip away at their emotional reserves.
In the end…
Pay attention to your dog! A happy and enthusiastic dog will want to continue working and trialing. A concerned dog will over time see a slip in performance. Your dog is unique and will tell you what his limits are. As a handler, you want to make sure that trial day is well within those limits! In the end, respect your dog’s emotions.
Interested in figuring out how to affect your dog’s emotions? I’m teaching a class on this right now at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy: NW340: The Four Cornerstones of Trial Preparation
Thank you for sharing this recipe that is often misunderstood. I now have a better option for my dog who exhibits the emotions described.
Thanks for this! My dog Barley is a wonderful therapy dog-she picks up on people’s (and my) emotional states which can definitely affect her performance. I’ll remember to smile.
Please check with the trialing organization and/or the host whether snuffle mats or other interactive food toys will be allowed at staging areas. The food you may be leaving behind at a staging area may be affecting the teams running after you in a negative way (scavenging) Or, there may be dogs with allergies that should NOT be eating the treats you are using and that you may be leaving behind!
It’s absolutely a good point! Whenever food is used in staging areas, you want to be extremely careful that you don’t leave any behind. This is the Snuffle Mat that I usually suggest to people to use.. I like it because it can be more of a BOWL… with very little chance of spillage… AND… the cool part is that it has drawstrings… so it’s easy to put it away and put it in a backpack or something. https://www.amazon.com/NEEDOON-Interactive-Encourages-Foraging-Dispenser/dp/B07N1JYYCW/ref=sr_1_2_sspa?crid=2ME99QL262MPS&keywords=snuffle+mat+for+dogs&qid=1571235937&sprefix=snuffle%2Caps%2C139&sr=8-2-spons&psc=1&spLa=ZW5jcnlwdGVkUXVhbGlmaWVyPUEyOEdZWENCSkkxMDZFJmVuY3J5cHRlZElkPUEwNjczMTQxMVI2VkxENUlNN0I0QyZlbmNyeXB0ZWRBZElkPUEwOTg4ODM5MktPUDFSQTU1UFZVQyZ3aWRnZXROYW1lPXNwX2F0ZiZhY3Rpb249Y2xpY2tSZWRpcmVjdCZkb05vdExvZ0NsaWNrPXRydWU=
This is super helpful! Just happened at a trial with my sensitive therapy dog. It took a couple of tries to find the right thing – we stopped mid-search for a quick play break and the difference was amazing. We restarted and he went right to work and finished confidently. We left with big smiles and a happily wagging tail.