Energy Levels

Most people who show their dog in obedience have a specific picture in their head of how they want their dog to work. But, yet, when it comes to the amount of effort THEY put into their training, it does not seem to match what they expect from their dog.

I do not mean making sure you get up early most days of the week to beat the heat and take your dog out to train. (In Florida right now, this is about 5:00am!) I am talking about the amount of effort and energy you put into each and every minute you spend interacting with your dog during training. Personally, if I am not sweating (and sometimes bleeding!) at the end of a training session, I did not do my job. This does not mean I am running constantly or cheerleading my dog, but if I expect my dog to expend energy, I should be doing the same.

Some of my expectations from my dog include:

  1. “Engaged” attention (not just attention)
  2. Fast responses to commands
  3. Correct performance of behaviors…or more accurately, the performance of behaviors as they have been taught, which may or may not be “correct” in the handler’s opinion
  4. Speed moving away from me and speed returning to me

What should my dog expect from me in return?

  1. “Engaged” attention
  2. Rewards the dog desires – food, toys or personal play, delivered in a motivational manner
  3. Verbal praise when working through problems or in challenging situations, or for general encouragement for greener dogs
  4. Consistent training and handling, which does not change just because the dog makes an error
  5. An expectation of my properly teaching each step to a desired behavior
  6. A thoughtful and laid out plan for training sessions (which are always subject to change depending on training challenges!)
  7. Opportunities to rest – both physically and mentally

Not on the list, is energy. As a handler, I should be exuding energy to match the desired energy level I wish to see from my dog. I did not put this on my list above, because I feel it can easily be misconstrued and needs more explanation. And, as always, every dog is different. I know handlers who can not even touch their dogs during a competition because the dog is wound so tightly. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I never can make up my mind), this does not apply to the majority of us.

If I want my dog quivering with excitement at the mere thought of my throwing his dumbbell, if I started jumping around and squealing when I picked up his dumbbell, I will (more than likely) transfer the wrong type of energy to my dog. Personally, my dogs would stop thinking altogether, start barking and begin leaping into the air. If I proceeded to throw the dumbbell, they would likely break their sit-stay and fumble the dumbbell pickup in their excitement. This is NOT what I want to pattern to my dog when I pick up the dumbbell. So, instead, when I pick up their dumbbell, I start talking in a low tone, while I’m walking towards my set up. I will be giving the dog their (trained) cue words, to bring their energy level up. My older Springer, Gunner, will become tighter through his body and he will lower his body and close his mouth. In practice, these physical changes are rewarded, either by letting him jump up and grab the dumbbell (on command only) or by aborting the exercise for play or food. But, just because my energy is not as visible to others watching, my energy has changed. I have become more focused and intense to my dog. I’m looking him in the eyes as he is backing away from me. I am giving him his cue words in hushed tones. I am cueing him to bring up his energy level to match mine.

Now, think about what would be different if I walked over to pick up my dumbbell without being focused on my dog. After picking up the dumbbell, I walked to the setup spot without engaging with my dog and told him to get into position. I accept a less than speedy setup and throw the dumbbell. He waits for me to send him, then trots out to get his dumbbell, carefully picks it up, turns and trots back.

Is anything scoreable in the second scenario? Probably not. Maybe my dog actually lucked out and got a decent front and finish, so we even earned a decent score on the exercise. So, what is the problem? MY problem is that I want energy from my dog. I want my dog to have a super crisp set up, run back and forth after snatching his dumbbell and fly into front. Yet, in the second scenario, I did not want to put forth any more energy than absolutely necessary. So, what’s left? I correct the dog for being slow. I require him to do retrieve after retrieve, trying to obtain the picture in my head. Unfortunately, the picture will never change, unless I change.

If you are fighting an issue with your dog’s energy level, look at yourself first. Are you doing an adequate job of motivating him to perform a specific behavior? I am not saying that a lack of effort should never be corrected. If I have done my job and have worked all of the pieces and built up a behavior, I do require accuracy from my dog. But, things break. Exercises fall apart. Dogs get stressed and forget. Sh*t happens. Don’t be afraid to step backwards and retrain something.

Often, what I notice, is people exude energy during the training process, but this energy starts to wane after time. Young dogs are fun and accuracy is not quite as important, so we work on game play, drive building and pieces of future skills. But, as training progresses, our mentality changes…we think “My dog understands what is required, so I don’t have to work as hard anymore.” In some ways, yes, but in other ways, no. Maybe our timing does not have to be quite as crisp, since we are not marking complex pieces of behaviors. But, we still have to be alert, focused and engaged with our dog.

Filming your training sessions allows you to keep an eye on your energy levels. Watch the film when you get home (while the training session is still fresh in your mind) and turn off the sound. Watch your body language and how your dog responds. What is your dog’s energy level? What is your energy level? What could you do differently to bring up (or in some cases, bring down) your dog’s arousal? How does your dog’s body posture change at different times during training, especially after an error? Does he respond the way you want him to? Was the error an effort error or a lack of effort error?

If you are newer to the sport of obedience, try to find someone knowledgeable to watch you train or to review your filmed sessions. Listen to their advice and develop a plan to work on yourself, not just your dog. There are, after all, two parts to the team. And, if you expect your dog to uphold his end, you certainly should uphold yours.

Train hard. Play harder.

** Do not expect your dog to all of a sudden bring up his energy level to match your new, increased levels. This is a trained behavior, just like anything else. If you have an energy or motivation issue with your dog, so back and work on building drive and arousal outside of a training environment. Reward engaged attention during informal training sessions. Start teaching your dog cue words to turn on his arousal…two of mine are “reaaadddddyyyyy” and “wanna play?”. Break down exercises and reward speed. For example, if your dog has a slow (or non-existent) drop during signals, work this skill separately, releasing your dog AS SOON AS his elbows hit the ground. Then, gradually work the improved drop back into the exercise.

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