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Two Things We Need to Know About Our Dog’s Performance (and Ours), Part I

I admit it: I am a Behavior Geek.  My idea of a wildly exciting night is curling up with my cats, my dog, a glass of warm milk and a DVD of the latest dog training seminar from some brilliant expert in the field.  These wonderful seminars and amazing experts keep me fresh, learning, in touch with all the cutting edge stuff.  They also make me think.  About dogs, dog training and us.  Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about performance.


My handy (and rather old) New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second College Edition offers this definition:


per·formvt.1. To act on so as to accomplish or bring to completion; execute; do, as a task, process, etc. 2. To carry out; meet the requirements of; fulfill (a promise, command, etc.) 3. To give a performance of; render or enact (a piece of music, a dramatic role, etc.)


We ask dogs to perform all the time.  We ask them to perform behaviors like Sit, Down, Come and Stay.  Dogs in various canine sports are expected to give athletic or “artistic” performances that “meet the requirements” of the sport.  As pet owners and trainers, we also have to perform lots of behaviors related to teaching the dog to do the things we want or partnering them in their sport.   And in general, the better we are in the performance of our teaching tasks, the better the dog will perform in their learning tasks.  Like, duh.  We know this and have known this for a very long time.


So it’s always amazing to me to watch these amazing DVDs and realize how very much we—pet-owner and trainers—struggle with even the basics of good teaching and training.


In workshop formats, owner-handler-trainers can bring their dogs with them to practice the skills they learn under the eyes and guidance of a Renowned Expert.   The folks attending are mostly canine sports enthusiasts, serious training junkies, high-level amateur competitors or professional trainers like me.  They are passionate and committed.  They are often skilled and educated dog people.  Their dogs are also pretty amazing, as we’d expect from that level of handler-trainers:  they have lots of previous experience in training and performance, and the coping skills to manage the less-than-ideal workshop environments.  Of course, no one really expects the dogs to learn much in the challenging workshop setting—the demonstrations and exercises are mostly for the attendees to get hands-on practice.   These attendees have gathered around the Renowned Expert to soak up more knowledge and improve their training skills precisely because they are advanced handler-trainers—and highly motivated to become even more advanced. 



So here we are:  a group of experienced, dedicated and skilled handler-trainers, a group of experienced, well-trained dogs and our Renowned Expert.  “Sally” comes up to learn the new exercise with her utterly gorgeous (Golden, Malinois, Australian Shepherd, rescue dog) in front of the group with the Renowned Expert to guide her.  Sally is lovely, a wonderful handler and an extremely generous person to step up and allow all of us to learn from her.  What happens next is almost inevitable:  Sally freezes like a deer in the headlights and proceeds to do just about everything wrong.


She drops her treats.  She clutches the leash, tries to power steer her dog into position, either fails to reinforce her dog’s good behavior or starts delivering a steady stream of random-for-nothing treats in a desperate attempt to hold her dog’s attention.  She can’t follow the simplest verbal instructions from our Renowned Expert, “Keep your hand out of your bait bag until after the click,” “Turn a little more to the right,”  “Loosen up the leash,” “Mark that!  Reward that!”  Sally nods her head and her hand goes into the bait bag, she never moves her feet, the leash remains in a death grip and the treats never make it to the dog.  The Renowned Expert—and bless her heart, she’s a renowned expert for a reason—gently and patiently tries to coach Sally through the moves, but it’s fairly hopeless.  Sally’s mind and spirit are willing but the body isn’t cooperating: the required motor muscle movements just aren’t there.  She can’t perform. 


The performance challenges Sally faces are perfectly hideous, of course.  She’s getting on a stage in front of a group—a perfect recipe for brain-lock right there.  Worse, there is a sizable professional camera rig aimed right at her—she’s being filmed.  Because she’s a wonderful dog handler-trainer, she’s keenly aware that 1) the environment isn’t ideal for her dog and she’s anxious about his response and 2) she’s deeply, stupidly in love with her dog (if she’s like me) and wants desperately for everyone to see how amazing he really is.  She is putting more pressure on herself to do well, to showcase the amazing animal she’s worked with so very much and so very hard.  Finally, she’s most likely at the Renowned Expert’s seminar in the first place because the Renowned Expert is someone she admires, and she wouldn’t be human if, on some level, she didn’t crave approval or have a desire to impress.   Add to all this the purely physical challenges of having to multitask in a new environment—handle the dog, execute her training moves, keep the right position for the camera, pay a fraction of attention to another attendee’s dog that’s sitting in the front row making stink eye at her dog and listen to the Renowned Expert at the same time.  In front of a group of her peers.  With the camera rolling. 


In a nutshell:  Sally is stressed.  Stressed with a capital “S.”  And one of the things that happens when we human beings are stressed is—we automatically revert to our most familiar, most practiced and most tried-and-true motor muscle patterns.   No creature in their right mind would “decide” that a highly stressful situation is the perfect time and place to invent or try out a brand-new behavior we’ve never done before.  When the heat is on, reach for the fire extinguisher you know will work, not a fancy new gizmo you’ve never tested before.


So there’s our Renowned Expert trying to coach Sally through a brand-new training protocol; there’s highly stressed Sally clutching desperately to the comfort-food motor patterns she’s always done successfully—or successfully enough—before.   What would help Sally the most would be to be able to “surrender” to and follow the Expert’s verbal directions exactly—to take those verbal instructions and instantly translate them into meaningful physical actions.  But that, it turns out, is a skill-set of its own. 


Simply being able to take the verbal instructions and translate them into meaningful physical actions is a learned behavior.  And it isn’t by any means universally learned:  it takes some specialty training.   The military is famous for it: the whole point of Boot Camp is to take a bunch of young rowdies and teach them to automatically, reflexively obey orders without hesitation or thought while seriously scary and dangerous things are going Boom! all around them.  (Which may explain the expectations in certain old schools of dog training—the military handlers all learned the drill of unquestioning obedience to verbal commands no matter what before they ever applied the same thinking to their dogs—but that’s another post, perhaps.)


Sally, alas, was not a Marine before she got hooked on dog training, but there’s still hope.  There are a couple of civilian contexts where that kind of skill-set is commonly acquired.  In--you guessed it!—arenas of performance like athletics and the performing arts.   Athletes learn during endless practice to translate a coach’s verbal instructions into concrete changes in how they move their bodies.  Actors, singers and dancers learn how to adjust their physical movements to meet the director’s requirements, to execute a step correctly, hit a note or deliver a line.  In many of these arenas, the performers learn to do it together as a team or a troupe, to develop a seamless give-and-take of cues, to multitask on their feet by maintaining their own individual performance criteria while at the same time adjusting for the movements of the people around them.  Getting it to all come together is a careful, often structured process of:  each individual learns each fundamental move or skill separately, then learns how to put the fundamentals together into an action or sequence, then starts combining them into more complex behaviors, then adds in the rest of the company a bit at a time.  After many many hours of practice, practice, practice, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse the behaviors become ingrained in the motor memory.  Team-mates and cast members can communicate massive amounts of information with a flick of an eye.  The coach on the sidelines can change the entire flow of the game with a quickly shouted, “Thirty-two right!”  Only then—finally—do we have a fair shot at getting a properly executed football game, Swan Lake or Hamlet.


We still may not get it, though.  It’s one thing to be able to execute all the right moves in the familiar warm-and-fuzzy setting of practice or rehearsal; doing it in the Super Bowl or on Broadway is another story.  Once again, we’re adding stress to the mix—an ingredient that seriously messes with our minds and our ability to perform.  We will likely never know how many truly astounding athletes or artists with world-class talent never had careers because of performance anxieties and stage fright, but there have been a lot.  Many very fine athletes and artists struggle their entire careers with performance demons—some of them are driven clean off the stage.  They have the talent, the drive, the work-ethic, the skills—everything.  But they just can’t take the stress.


Of course, not everyone responds to stress the same way—and not everyone finds the same things stressful.  Some performers feel so entirely at home on the field, court or stage that it simply doesn’t occur in their world as stressful.  Others experience stress as a magic juice that amps them up and puts them in a state of heightened performance.  Still others feel sick-to-their-stomach horrible while waiting in the wings, but as soon as they step out and the curtain goes up, they’re able to channel those pre-performance jitters into more positive energy.  However they do it, people who are highly successful performers do it.  They do it consistently.  They find ways to cope with stress, or to exploit stress to their performance advantage.  If they don’t—if they “choke” under pressure or fall apart when in the spotlight—they tend not to last as performers very long.


Which brings me back to “Sally,” the workshop and the Renowned Expert.  Sally—and most workshop attendees struggle every bit as much as Sally—is a lovely dog trainer-handler who, depending on her unique personally history, may or may not have any background in sports or the performing arts.   Being able to follow instructions while in the midst of a highly stressful situation—to take the verbal instructions and translate them into meaningful physical actions—may not be a skill she has worked on.  Being on a stage in front of a group may be a novel experience for her.  She’s probably rehearsed her dog’s Front & Finish hundreds of times, but keeping herself correctly oriented for a camera not at all.   And the workshop setting is nothing like the warm-and-fuzzy familiarity of the classes and practices at her training club, or even the familiar stress of a dog sports competition.  For one thing, because she is a good handler, Sally knows better than to toss brand-new moves at her dog in a competition run—they’re thoroughly rehearsed before she tries the tune out on Broadway.  Yet there she is, trying to learn a brand-new move herself in a super-charged goldfish bowl with everyone watching her. 


What becomes obvious in watching video of “Sally” and everyone like Sally (that would be most human beings) is—our big fancy cognitive brains don’t come to our rescue when we’re stressed.  Our big fancy cognitive brains may understand “Switch the leash to your right hand and feed in position with your left,” but it doesn’t seem to help.  The leash stays in a death grip in the left hand and the treats go wherever.  It’s so very common, there ought to be a Shakespearean quote about it somewhere:


Alas, to every trainer’s day shall fall

That stress makes goofballs of us all…


You know where I’m going with this next, of course.  I’ve been talking about us—Us!—with our big fancy cognitive brains, our exceptional capacity for learning via abstract verbal language, our amazing ability to visualize our desired future outcomes and prepare—at least mentally—for the required performance in advance.   Us!—and our own performances falling apart.


Our poor dogs.  Bless their hearts, they don’t have our big fancy cognitive brains.  They don’t have our capacity for learning via abstract verbal language.  They can’t look out on an agility course, read the numbers on the cones, develop a mental picture in advance and visualize the run they’re supposed to make.  They can only look to us, here and now, for the cues and signals we give them:  this is what I want you to do.  We expect them to unquestioningly, unthinkingly obey our cues—to take our verbal instructions and translate them into meaningful physical actions—immediately,all the time, every time.  But we can’t do that ourselves most of the time.  Dang.

So many things we should think about, and be more thoughtful about in our training...


If our cues are wonky—if we’re unclear, inconsistent, late, sloppy, distracted, not paying attention or just plain not giving our dogs enough useful information—well, the Team can’t perform “Thirty-two right!” if they don’t get the message clearly and in time to respond.


If our dogs are stressed out—and oh boy, are they stressed out sometimes—they may “hear” us but they’re going to do what we do:  they’re going to revert under pressure to their most familiar, most practiced and most tried-and-true motor muscle patterns.    Stress—whether because something is scary or exciting or just unfamiliar—does the same thing to dogs as it does to us:  makes it difficult or impossible for them to follow even simple instructions.   Not because they don’t “know” how to Sit, but because the part of the brain that knows it is overwhelmed by signals from another, more emotional part of the brain that hasn’t got a clue.  Like Sally “knows” perfectly well what, “Keep your hand out of your bait bag…” means.  She can’t do it, though, not when she’s stressed, and neither can her dog. 


Our dogs can’t perform on “Broadway” if they haven’t been prepared for it.  We need to remember that exposure isn’t remotely the same as rehearsal and practice:  simply having 100 visitors come over to the house or walking by 100 dogs on leash isn’t going to teach the dog the performance we want.  Rehearsal and practice mean the dog is carefully coached to Sit for each of those 100 guests, or guided to keep a nice, loose-leash heel position while paying attention to us as the other dogs go by.  And as we place better, faster, harder and more complicated performance demands on our dogs, we need remember to include a plan to reduce the (often inevitable) Stress and increase the (often desperately needed) Cope.


Our dogs can’t perform behaviors they don’t know or haven’t learned.  Imagine yourself at a party with someone shoving you toward the karaoke machine and pressuring you to have a go at Over the Rainbow.  Of course you “know” Over the Rainbow—you’ve seen the movie often enough, right?  You might, if you’re a ham or an exceptionally good sport and the scenario is only mildly to moderately stressful to you, have a shot at a successful performance.  Provided, of course, that you do know Over the Rainbow.  And how to sing, or close enough.  It can be done.


If, on the other hand, I ask you to have a go at one of my favorite songs, the love duet between the Vixen and the Fox in Leos Janacek’s darling opera The Cunning Little Vixen—in the original Czechoslovakian, please—you will very likely hit a wall.  It’s very possible that you won’t know the tune I’m asking for:  you’ve never heard it before in your life and you won’t have a clue what I want.  If you have heard it once or twice, unless you’re a trained opera singer, you know Czechoslovakian and you have studied the score—you won’t be able to give a successful performance, you simply won’t.   You won’t know how.


Sometimes we ask our dogs to sing songs they really do know.  But we ask at parties, before we’ve taught the dog to 1) enjoy and be relaxed at parties--without performance demands, 2) enjoy and be relaxed performing easy, familiar songs at parties and/or 3) cope with performance stress or anxiety at parties.   We forget that dogs are like us:  just because they can sing it in the shower doesn’t mean they’re ready for Broadway.


Sometimes, though, we ask our dogs to sing complicated songs in a foreign language that they’re not remotely ready to perform:  they don’t know what we’re asking, or how to do what we’re asking.  Here, I think we forget that dogs aren’t like us:  we think something is as easy as Over the Rainbow when it’s really an unfamiliar Czechoslovakian aria to our dogs.


Too much Stress and not enough Cope is a wrecking ball to good learning and good performance, for us and for dogs.   And I think we underestimate how stressed our dogs are, how much we’re asking them to do in situations that they find difficult, confusing or even frightening.  Like us, dogs are individuals with unique combinations of personality, learning and performance ability:  we all have our Stress-O-Meters dialed to different set-points.   Just because one dog can do it, or ten dogs can do it, or our last dog of the same breed could do it, doesn’t mean the individual dog in front of us right now can do it.   Some people love singing karaoke at parties.  Some would rather have a root canal.  One dog’s party is another dog’s stress, just like us.  


So the next time your dog’s performance falls apart—whether it’s a competition run or sitting politely for guests at home or walking by another dog on the street--remember The Sally Rule of Performance:   


If it can make the handler/trainer fall apart, it can make the dog fall apart.


(Part Two—Soon to come!)

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