After having listened to the talk by Robert Dougherty & Alena C. Heyer at the IWDC 2021 on how to decrease arousal and increase motivation I would like to make some comments.
I see arousal as the level of sympathetic activity. Increased sympathetic activity means increased heart rate and blood pressure with increased mental awareness. Baseline arousal differ among dogs. Those with low baseline arousal are mostly described as low tempered, phlegmatic and those with a high base line arousal as lively and energetic.
Increased arousal means increased sympathetic activity caused by an emotional response (fear or aggression, flight/fight) or by expectation of physical activity. Decreased arousal can be caused either by increased parasympathetic activity, or by expectations of passivity. Changes in arousal can hence be conditioned. Stimuli causing expectation of low physical activity decreases arousal and stimuli causing expectation of physical activity increases arousal. Intense tug of war with a rag or letting the dog run after balls or other objects will condition an increase in arousal as when these types of objects are seen. Objects having this effect are sometimes called “stressors” where stress in this sentence is similar as arousal.
Increasing arousal may have a positive impact on training with increased speed and focus however only up to a certain level. When arousal exceeds a certain level the ability to discriminate decreases, the dog has problem concentrating and becomes impulsive (see Yerks – Dodson law). Increasing arousal is also often followed by increasing lack of impulse control. In general, we can say that less physically challenging work, demanding high concentration, like more advanced nose work, are performed best at a low level of arousal, like mine detection dogs working in a mine field or tracking dogs working in an urban environment. Guide dogs are also an example of working dogs performing best at a low level of arousal since mistakes can have serious consequences.
Physically challenging work, demanding less concentration, on the other hand are best performed at a relatively high level of arousal, like sled dogs used in sprint distances or patrol dog pursuing a criminal.
For dogs with a high baseline arousal, highly energetic and lively dogs and dogs working on a high arousal level there is a need to control arousal. This is primarily achieved by applying obedience. To sit and lie down on command means the dog is physically passive. By training these commands with the intention to condition a relaxing response (each training session starts when the dog have relaxed) two things are achieved. First a decrease in arousal is following the command is conditioned. Second the relation to the trainer demanding the response is changed, normally described as an improved handler contact. It should be pointed out that this type of training differ from what is normally seen in sports dog were training is speed and precision focused. Once the dog is unconditionally obedient the passive commands can be used to decrease arousal when needed.
Historically all working dogs were obedience trained due to the positive effects it gave on work was well known. This is probably why obedience is a mandatory part in many sport dogs’ disciplines having evolved from working dog disciplines. However once obedience became a competitive thing the focus changed from control to speed and precision. This have made most people misinterpret the meaning of obedience training. The primary goal is to achieve unconditionally obedience followed by improved contact with the trainer. How fast and exact the dog respond is of less important.
Arousal and motivation
Motivation can be described as the will to engage in activities of fundamental meaning for the animal like; food motivation, sex motivation, social motivation or hunting motivation. Sometimes the word “drive” is used with a synonym meaning however since it is often misused, it is rarely used by scientist today.
The state of motivation can change. The dog’s behaviour often reflects its present state of motivation where its interest is focused on what it is most highly motivated for. A hungry dog is searching for food, a male dog smelling a bitch in heat will search for mates, a hunting dog sent out in the hunting grounds will search for prey etc. We call this search for “appetitive behaviour” shown the present highest motivation. The appetitive behaviour is aiming to a certain goal which differ depending on the type of motivation. The goal can be finding food, mounting, killing the prey, or being praised by the trainer/handler. This is a crucial point for all dog training, the reward needs to be adapted in relation to type of motivation.
Can the dog be motivated without increasing arousal?
The short answer to his is in most cases yes. Just avoid intense physical activity in relation to training. Do not start goal-oriented training before the dog is properly socialised. Fear (like gun shyness) increases arousal and decreases motivation. Never start training before the dog is in the desired mood or arousal level, never increase interest in objects by allowing the dog run or chase. Instead, interest in an object can be achieved by creating a sort of mystery related to the object with little physical activity. In training where a relatively high arousal is desired increased motivation can be achieved with more physical activity, like an intense tug of war exercise. But this type of exercise should never be performed without control. Control needs to follow increase in motivation and arousal (impulse control) and hence the dog needs to be obedient before this type of training starts. The same could be said about all training, obedience need to preside other type of training. This is important for energetic so called “high drive” dogs.
Working dogs are kept in different ways. In most countries patrol dogs are kennelled when not in duty, in other countries they are kept as family dogs when not in duty. In Sweden all working dogs follow their handler home and live their life as companion dogs when not in duty. This sets a certain standard not only on the dogs but also on training, the dog needs to be properly socialized and obedient to function as a family dog. Dogs that can not be taught impulse control will never pass. I strongly believe that this is an advantage for multipurpose dogs. An obedient dog can more easily switch from one mood to another, performing concentrated training and search work at one time and pursuing a criminal in another and then shutting down becoming a good family dogs when out of duty.
Breeding better working dogs is an important goal for many programs. For most working dogs this means selecting for energetic and highly motivated dogs, a type of dog that more demanding in a handler’s perspective. So, if we want to succeed in this, we also have to accept that this type of dogs is more demanding when it comes to control, and this control can only be achieved via obedience training.
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