Working out causes stress on the body. If you exercise the right amount, you might feel a tiny bit sore, but your body will respond by building a stronger machine out of you. Even further, you can grow important cells that otherwise go dormant and cause the body to atrophy in age. If you go overboard, well, you tear yourself down instead. Such is true about the mental demands of training on your dog.

Some dogs don’t get much of a mental challenge in their daily life. Depending on that dog’s makeup, that dog may decide to create some fun to get the endorphin high. A lot of dogs will tend to rank interactions with other dogs as more exciting, as humans can bore a dog with our predictability coupled with our almost handicap ability to run (compared to how athletically a dog  moves). But you can drastically change this around if you train in a way that lets your dog learn to become a good thinker. Do enough of this and you’ll end up with a dog that wants to engage in your puzzles for the fun of it (but that conversation belongs under “work ethic”).

But teaching a dog to think, largely by employing shaping, can be very stressful on a dog. In that respect, I think that shaping (or agility) done poorly is best not pursued at all. My local beginner tricks course is 8 weeks long because I don’t want to give just enough information to make someone dangerous. You need to really understand how much pressure can benefit learning, and how much might detrimentally pressure a dog, particularly with certain dogs or dogs new to learning. Training sessions should be really short. Winning should be easy, and pay extremely well at times.

You don’t want your dog to “think too hard”. Even though you want your dog to be challenged and think, you don’t want them crazily spinning their wheels. Some dogs are more apt to have such tendencies, and when you find yourself in that situation, break it down. Or just stop. Take breaks. Training should involve starts and stops, stop a dog before she starts thinking too hard (do not pass the point of diminishing returns). While it’s fun for the dog to be challenged, it’s not fun to be confused. This is what happened to me following a certain training method for teaching my dogs to scent.

These days I don’t want a dog to take too long to begin to understand a new skill. This does not mean it will be taught anywhere close to completion in that time, but the understanding has started to take shape. You can sculpt a behavior from there, giving a dog lots of opportunities to learn to completion, taking prudent steps to get there. I think someone’s calling it: “the decision point”. That’s what you’re after. And while going after it, you can be very generous with rewards and forgiving with criteria, because the first big goal is to get that light bulb to turn on. Otherwise you mess around with doing the thinking for the dog, chanting a cue word you want them to comprehend, all the while not developing the behavior into something you can work with. When the dog actually understands what you want, even if it’s the most rudimentary version that looks little like your terminal behavior, that’s when you can start to get somewhere. And you want to hang out at this initial moment where you make sure your dog gets the game.

Following, though, you want to advance the behavior. Don’t stall out at an easy level. You’re looking for understanding, and evaluating what your dog is “telling” you by his responses. This is where I think a lot of “positive reinforcement” people get lost. When your dog gets it, and you’ve reinforced generously as that comprehension forms, the skill can be advanced pretty quickly, some times significantly so. But in order to do so, you’ve got to up the ante. You have to make demands and put pressure on the dog. The trick is to make sure you’re giving your dog good information about what’s right, and what’s not “it”. All the while, “paying” well for leaps in understanding, keeping it as long (or short) as is constructive, dicing it down if you’re asking for more difficult versions, and PAY REALLY WELL.

It can be hard to tell exactly how much you can stress your dog. One of my dogs is really difficult to gauge. He stresses out easily because I’ve trained too many behaviors at once without completing the process with each individually, he gets confused under pressure, and he’s highly distractable with an incredible prey drive (a former stray that probably hunted his food). However, I don’t think the answer is to never push, or stress, him in training. This is getting long so let me tell that story in another post.

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