In our second session, something began to happen that was both confusing and troubling to me. Whenever another dog in the class was doing anything, he went crazy. He lunged to the end of his leash, bounced up and down, and barked. His eyes were wild, he panted, and he completely lost his head. Not only that, but once it was his turn to go out on the floor, he was too hyped up to learn much of anything.
I had no idea what this was. I had no idea how to handle it. And my instructors at the club where I was training had no idea what to do to help him. My first response was to tell him over and over "settle, settle, settle". That did nothing. For one thing, I had never actually taught him the meaning of "settle", so it was a meaningless word to him. Also, he was too far over his stimulation threshold to be able to comply, even if he had known the word. On the advice of one of the instructors, I also tried to bring along a ball to engage him as the other dogs took their turns. It was too much, and he could pay no mind to the ball at all.
At first my approach to the issue really wasn't one of trying to help him. I was embarrassed by his behavior. I was disappointed because I wanted him to enjoy Agility and he couldn't when he was riled up so. I was also rather ticked off because I was paying for these classes and I wanted to be able to take part fully, and because of this "problem", I couldn't.
I know now that he was highly motion triggered and that the environment was far too overstimulating for him at that point in his development and training. I have come to understand that when he saw the motion of the other dogs and heard their excited movement, something tripped in his brain, on a chemical level, and he had no control whatsoever over his response.
This was not happening because (as some told me at the time) he was having "too much fun", nor that he thought it was time to have a "party", nor that he had too much pent up energy (of course, I tried stopping on my way to class to let him run before class which did nothing to change the situation), nor that he was "blowing me off" or ignoring me in some way. But I did not know that at the time and I found the explanations that people were trying to provide as confusing as the behavior itself. Even then I knew that those explanations just didn't add up.
One of the best descriptions of overstimulation that I have heard is this:
- Imagine that you are on the initial down drop of a roller coaster. It's one of those super high roller coasters, and the drop is almost straight down.
- Your emotions kick into high gear, your adrenaline is rushing as fast as it can, you have the sensation of dropping at top speed, and you are screaming your head off.
- You didn't choose to get on this roller coaster. You didn't even know this drop was coming, but now you are in the midst of it.
- Now, as this is happening, someone tells you to focus on something that taks concentration. You are told to solve a math problem, or read the directions to a complicated project and pay no attention whatsoever to the fact that you are on this roller coaster.
But when a motion triggered dog is in the presence of other dogs running, jumping, or doing something super exciting, and the dog has gone over threshold (which happens before the barking, lunging, leaping, etc. begins), we are asking the dog to do something exactly like that. The dog is experiencing a chemical rush in the brain that he or she has no control over, and calm and focus is out of the question as that is happening.
At that time, nobody that I worked with really understood what was happening with Speedy, or why, and there was very little help for us. I did my best because I promised Speedy that I would.
The main approach that I was taught to use at that time was to teach Speedy to "watch me" whenever he was in the presence of a dog running, jumping, or doing anything that would trigger this response. Often I had to remove him from a room altogether if a dog was going to jump through hoops or something, but to some extent "watch me" kept him calm enough to remain in the room. We got to the point, eventually, where I could distract him with tricks or simple behaviors, as long as I saw what was going to happen before he did. But "watch me" did nothing to help him learn a new response to those triggers. That would come several years later.
Although I was unable to help Speedy raise that motion trigger to any extent at that time, I did learn some things. I learned that his responses were not his fault, and they were not my fault. I learned that this happened because of the way his brain was wired. I learned that I needed to be more concerned with Speedy and his well being than I was about myself and what I wanted. I learned how to manage the problem, and we did go on to do quite a lot more than we would have had I failed to recognize the issue for what it was and actively sought ways to help him learn to work around it.
Speedy and I did drop out of Agility permanently. We got involved in Rally, which he could handle much better. Of course, Speedy and I found our niche in Freestyle, where we could eliminate jumping altogether. In retrospect, given the degree of arthritis that he has, and probably had his entire life, it was a blessing that we did not invest much time into Agility and that we landed in a sport that he could enjoy throughout his entire life.
In spite of that, I still had quite a lot to learn about accepting a dog for who he and when we adopted Dean, I was bound and determined that he was going to be the perfect sport dog. And when I first took him into a room where dogs were doing Agility, my heart sank like a rock when he was triggered by the motion. He ran to the end of his leash and lunged, and barked.
Oh NO! I was not giving up Agility again for this problem!!
I set out to teach Dean to be calm while he was in a room with other dogs running Agility. I tried "watch me". That didn't work for Dean like it did for Speedy! He was too far over threshold to "watch me". I tried, following conventional wisdom on the subject, having him tug, tug, tug, and tug while other dogs were running. When I could get him to tug at all, tugging left him even more revved and unable to focus than he was before.
I started to search and search for a way to handle this that I did not know about. And I was committed to find a way that was reinforcement based. My reasons for that would be the subject of an entirely separate post! But I was certain that there had to be a way to use reinforcement to help Dean. I knew that there were trainers out there doing things with reinforcement that I had not yet heard about. What I did not know was how to find them.
I'll admit, I was tempted to consider punishment. It seemed, at times, that I was not going to find a reinforcement based solution, and that I was going to have to resort to punishment. I am very, very glad that I did not because in the end I did find a reinforcement based approach that worked.
I turned to the internet and I kept an eye out on message boards to see if I could find resources that might help. The first that I tried, Shaping Success, by Susan Garrett, did not really pan out. It was an enjoyable book, but there was nothing in there that helped Dean be more calm around dogs who were doing Agility.
Finally, one day in the summer of 2007, I found it. I saw a recommendation for Control Unleashed. I went to Amazon, read the description, and immediately ordered it. The day it arrived, I went out in my yard and began to read.
I was astonished by quite a lot of it. There was so much that rang true. Here, at last, was an author who understood that focus issues are not a result of the handler not being "interesting enough". Here at last was an author who understood that the dog's brain chemistry is not the handler's fault. Leslie McDevitt won my trust immediately as I read these things. That trust was soon tested when I found the solution to the problem with which I was dealing - the Look at That game.
I will admit that I was reluctant to click as my dog looked at a trigger. I was certain that this was going to teach the dog to look away from me, rather than focus on me.
But the approach was reinforcement based, and I had nothing to lose. I decided to try.
I pulled Dean out of all classes where dogs were running, jumping, etc., and I enrolled Dean in a beginner Agility class where the dogs would not be moving around very much at first.
I brought along a mat, and I fed Dean treats for lying on the mat during class. Since dogs weren't running, this was a piece of cake. Once he understood that lying on the mat was a good thing, I waited for him to look at another dog (as he was just looking around naturally), and I clicked and then gave him a treat when he turned back to me to look for it. So far so good.
We continued with that througout the class. As dogs started to run, just a few steps at a time, he could play LAT. The stimulation level raised in that class right at the rate that Dean needed - enough to keep the game a challenge, but not so much that he reached threshold.
By the fifth week of class, Dean could be on the floor with another dog running a very short sequence, and he didn't care.
Dean is never triggered by dogs running Agility anymore. He is also no longer triggered by the motion of cars, a very nice side-effect of the LAT training that we did for sports.
This may sound like it was an easy-peasy "fix", and for Dean it was. Dean isn't really a dog who is prone to extreme overstimulation. Once he learned that he was to do something different in the face of those triggers (remain calm), he did exactly that.
The true test of this approach came when I went back to apply it to Speedy. As I said before "watch me" did not really change Speedy's response to the triggers. It was a band-aid, not a solution. After having such success with LAT with Dean, I started to work the exercise with Speedy.
It took more time, and more repetition, but LAT helped Speedy, too. These days I can actually put Speedy in a crate while I dance with Dean, even if I incorporate a prop or jump, and Speedy watches calmly and happily. I have also successfully used CU Offswitch Games with Speedy to help him learn to keep his stimulation levels in check when he is in motion himself.
Not all dogs are prone to overstimulation. Maddie was the opposite. I often needed to work to bring her "up" before and Agility run. Some of her best runs happened when she ran after a dog who barked through his or her entire run because that got her just excited enough to go out there and really fly! But I don't think Maddie was ever overstimulated in her entire life. Tessa loves to watch dogs do Agility and she gets excited, but doing so does not send her into a state that makes it impossible for her to focus or function. She can break herself away from the excitement in a second if I give her a cue or she just decides to stop watching and lie down.
For dogs like Speedy and Dean, I am grateful to have found a way to help them learn to deal with stimulation in a far more appropriate way. They are able to enjoy performance and sports and they don't have to deal with the super duper roller coaster brain trip.
I am grateful, too, for the education that working them through these issues has given me. It has been very helpful to understand that there are some behaviors that are not a conscious choice on the part of the dog, but an involuntary response to external triggers. It is good to know that these things are beyond the dog's control, and that I can only help the dog in these cases by change the dog's underlying response to the trigger. That when the dog's underlying response to the trigger changes, the behavior will change. That allows me to be proactive in formulating a training plan that can provide real solutions for my dogs.