I’m happy to say that Memoirs of a Novice Dog Trainer is now for sale! If you are interested in purchasing the full version of this book, click the button to be taken to the purchase page!
Stress is actually a useful thing. Our fight or flight mechanism is supposed to kick in when there’s danger, when we need a burst of energy to catch prey or when we need a little bit extra to fight for our lives. The problem is because dogs live such sedentary lives, their body is putting them into fight or flight when these things aren’t present. The result is dogs who require minute to minute stimulation. They walk around the house without ever settling down, or sometimes they run, they stare out windows waiting for something to walk by so they can bark at it, they pace and whine as if they want something or are in some type of distress and they do it all against their own biology. This is not natural. In fact, when uneducated dog lovers see a dog who rips around the house frantically, jumping on the couch and then zooming to the other side of the house and back again, they think “awww, look at the happy dog”. But if that were a child, everybody that witnessed that would turn to the parents and ask “Have you considered Rydolyn?”. When I see that type of behaviour from a dog, my first instinct is to bring him out of that state because it makes me uneasy, which is why when a dog does that around a group of stable dogs they will bring him out of that state instead of allowing him to exist like that.
Make no mistake, there’s time for fun and running. You must recognize the difference between doing things energetically and doing things excitedly. Excitement we all think is a good thing, but it affects the body much the same way that fear does. It knots our stomach, pumps our heart stronger, increases our respiration rate and pumps blood away from the digestive track towards major muscle groups to prepare for fight or flight. Compare that to a seasoned sports athlete. They’re doing the same things, and they might feel nerves from the game but it’s all under the control of the player.
If we look at how silly this would be as a strategy for wild dogs we start to see why it’s silly for our dogs to do it. In the wild, a wolf doing zoomies and burning off precious calories for no real reason doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Sure, wolves play and run and chase but they also naturally understand moderation. If you drain yourself of energy, what’s left if a predator comes around the corner? You’ll have very little energy supplies to exercise your fight or flight mechanism. Also, calories come at a high expense in the wild. Just like cave men, wild animals live a Feast or Famine type life where when they aren’t hunting for big prey they might just be scavenging and filling up on other things like berries or the remains of rodents.
So if calories come at a high cost and you need to save at least some energy for fight or flight, why is it acceptable for our domestic dogs to be awake and alert for hours and hours without laying down to chill out? Most of this is because we assume a moving dog is a happy dog. The example I like to give is my own dog. Outside of training sessions and exercise, my dog is at rest for 80% of the day and he is a Border Collie Mix. Within the 20% he is moving, he’s moving hard and working a lot because of his breed. At some point, most dogs do have to “let loose” for a little bit, but not all day long—certainly not for an hour at a time.
These dogs who pace and whine and are constantly looking for something to amuze their minds are referred to as “adrenalized” or “in adrenaline”. In simple terms, these dogs live their life in a mild state of fight or flight because they are under stimulated, unfulfilled and bored. Their lives are boring, so they create drama and conflict like teenagers who don’t have any fun activities to participate in. We all remember high school, right? This is bad for more than just the fact that it’s annoying to the humans. It’s bad because a body in a constant state of low stress can have many different issues such as shedding, loose stools, other health issues and it can manifest in dozens of different ways from a behavioral standpoint.
So what’s the solution? Get them out of it! This can be tricky to explain, but the easy answer is do anything! Doing anything is better than doing nothing. Just keep your pressure subtle. Don’t yell at a dog who enjoys conflict because guess what you’re doing… creating conflict! He’ll love it! We’re going to go over some things a little later that I love using to teach a dog how to come out of adrenaline and stay there.
The good news is, the body only makes a finite supply of adrenaline. Eventually, the supply will deplete and there will be a mandatory rest period so the body can replenish it’s supply. The thing is adrenaline is a good thing in short bursts, but to exist in this state for dogs is exhausting and stressful even if they don’t perceive it’s stressful.
I quit smoking in the summer of 2013 after my wife told me she was pregnant. Not only did I not want to smoke around my son, the money I would save from quitting would be substantial. I learned many things about smoking and the habitual and addiction side of it—this was not my first attempt at quitting. Truthfully it was about my 10th but now I had a much stronger motivation that was bigger than me. One of the things I learned was the average smoker has 20 cigarettes a day because it takes nicotine (the prime addictive agent in cigarettes) about 45 minutes to 1 hour to leave the body. When a smoker says “I need a cigarette” they’re actually saying “My body feels itself running out of nicotine so it wants more”.
When we’re working dogs out of adrenaline, it’s important to understand that most dogs love their little drug! Much like smokers, they can get right stubborn when it comes to getting their fix. It’s important for you to know this because it’s going to be your job to be The Sponsor your dog needs to kick his addiction. When your dog starts looking for his fix, you’re going to bring him back to earth and keep him from adrenalizing. If he does, it’s your job to bring him out of it. I’ve watched dogs go through the same stress and panic I did when I couldn’t have a smoke… the body starts to rebel and every synaps of your body is screaming “Give me my drug!!!”. This passes for both smokers and dogs. As I’m writing this I just passed my 2 year anniversary of quitting smoking.
Getting them out of it is not enough. We must fulfill the needs that are currently going unfulfilled that create the desire and requirement for adrenaline. We’ll talk about that when we discuss my Five Pillars of Fulfillment.
The Good and Bad of Being Adrenalized
Being in adrenaline isn’t always a bad thing. The bad thing is when a dog looses control over his or her ability to modulate their adrenaline levels. Competition dogs and even sport dogs are in mild states of adrenaline when they compete. Agility dogs are in adrenaline when they run the course. My own dog is in a mild state of adrenaline when he is working his obedience or chasing a ball. The problem isn’t being in adrenaline, the problem is not being able to control where on the spectrum you are.
It’s not “You’re in adrenaline or your not”. There’s a flexible spectrum a dog can be existing on. Let’s take a closer look at how it affects the dog:
So if we look at our dog’s activity on a scale of 1-20… the first 1-10 is existing without adrenaline and 11-20 is adrenalized. From 1-10 our dogs can be doing anything from sleeping (1 and 2), moseying around the yard sniffing (3-5), happily greeting us when we’re home from work (6-8 and at this level our dog isn’t doing bad things like jumping up or whining and screeching) or going for a nice walk with us (9 and 10). From 11 to 20, things start to change. from 11-13 is where Rocky might be if we’re playing fetch, from 14 to 16 might be where a leash reactive dog is going off on another dog and from 18 to 20 is where many dangerous behaviours like aggression can occur. These are not hard and fast numbers but are just used to illustrate how adrenaline functions.
The higher up in the scale the dog goes, the less of a “thinking dog” he is and the more “instinctual dog” he becomes. What I mean by that is the dog’s ability to make choices is harder and harder the more is Adrenaline Levels rise. It’s much like us when we’re in stressful situations it’s harder to be creative, think about things or react logically. Have you ever had someone say something to you but you couldn’t think of anything to say back? And then 30 minutes later you think of the perfect come back but it’s to late by that point—texting it to them just doesn’t have the same affect. You were in adrenaline, so your create and cognitive (thinking) part of your brain was less active than your emotional part (instinctual). This makes it hard to be creative BUT when you came out of adrenaline 30 minutes later, that thinking part started working again and VOILA! You think of the perfect thing you should have said!
Our dogs are capable of thinking things through and making choices. This is one of the cornerstones of my approach to dog training. Some people don’t want their dogs making choices and would rather they be under command or always seeking guidance. That’s OK… it’s just not for me. I want a dog I can trust without having to tell him anything. In order for our dogs to make the right choices, they must be in a state of mind where they can make choices to begin with. This means they have to be between a 1 and a 10 on the spectrum. After 10, they are more instinctual and it is harder for them to make choices at all let alone “smart choices”. At levels 11, 12 and 13 is about where Rocky exists while he’s playing fetch with me and working on his precision obedience. He’s adrenalized, but at a level where he can still think cognitively about what I’m asking him. I can see when he starts getting higher than that because I’ll have to repeat commands or help him understand what I’m asking for. This is the same as a kid who’s all jazzed up because you told him “we’re going to Bob’s Funland for dinner” and then you asked “Can you clean up your toys”… he’s all excited and didn’t hear that last part! You might have to ask him again. You might even have to stop his motion as he runs around the room and say “Hey, I asked you to clean up your toys”.
For dogs above a level 13, thinking becomes really tricky. This is a survival mechanism and is not to be taken personally. When you see a mountain lion running at you, you don’t have time to think through the most logical approach to the situation. You think emotionally—crap! Run! No thought required and that might have just saved your life… if you’re a fast runner and that’s a slow mountain lion. For a great read on the idea of emotional split second thought and trusting your gut, read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.
As your dog’s adrenaline gets higher and higher, thought goes away and instinct kicks in. Aggression and chasing prey is instinctual, so if we want our dogs to stop exhibiting these behaviours we must get them thinking so we can influence their behaviour. This is why telling an excited dog to sit is so ineffective in most cases (like when you just get home from work and Fluffy is off the wall excited). The dog isn’t thinking, so it’s very hard for them to respond to something that requires cognitive thought, such as, remembering an obedience command.
Is Your Dog Adrenalized?
This becomes a feel thing as you progress with dogs, but the things I look for when I’m looking at a dog are as follows:
- The eyes are big ones. If you can, try and see if the pupils are dilated. Dilated pupils mean a state of fight or flight… they’re dilated to take in as much information as possible. Our pupils dilate when we look at someone or something that is attractive to us like a beautiful person, painting or nice car.
- Twitchy movements is another indicator. If you bring your dog out on leash and he’s darting his head and eyes all over the place at every little noise, this is a good indication that he’s on edge.
- How your dog walks can be a big one. Dogs are supposed to move fluidly, so if his movements are stiff and ridged that could be a indication.
- Whining or Whimpering. Many people think this is because their dog is sad or in pain (don’t rule out pain, they might be. Have them checked). Most of the time when a dog is whining for no apparent reason it’s because they’re in a state of adrenaline. This is much like a human biting their nails or engaging in other subconscious behaviours when they’re stressed. I think some dogs don’t even know that they’re doing it.
The list can go on! One of the ways I identify dogs who don’t know how to manage their adrenaline levels is they are always looking for something to do and if asked to sit still they will protest with whining, barking or some type or resistance. If your dog can’t sit still, constantly paces, whines or looks for reasons to amp up… you have an adrenaline addict. This dog is unfulfilled and requires some mental stimulation and activities that work his head. We’ll get into that later.
What Is Normal
Peaceful is natural to me. I’m a very laid back and calm person by nature. I have a high threshold for stress so it takes a while for it to affect me. I’m the guy in the panic telling everybody to calm down and let’s think this through. My wife, not so much. I love her to death, but even she’ll tell you stress can be hard to manage sometimes. I’m at peace when I’m calm and when I start to feel stressed I find some way to mitigate it—I look for a productive outlet to solve that stress so I can get back to peace. For some people that’s hard and I think it has a lot to do with their life and circumstances up until this point.
You see, people that have grown up surrounded by stress become accustom to it. Instead of calm, stress feels normal. They do the exact opposite as I do—when they start to feel calmness, it brings them a sensation of unease because it’s unnatural to them, so they must create more perceived stress to feel “normal”. To them, normal is stress. To me, normal is calm. This has a lot to do with my life up until this point. I used to belong to that camp where I always felt stressed. It took a long time of pushing calmness on myself to feel at ease with no stress. It’s weird to think of it this way but I’ve observed this in both humans and dogs. I’m certain there’s people reading this right now that are being very reflective of their life at this moment.
Some dogs during their early years live their lives in a mild state of stress for so long that calmness feels very strange and foreign to them. When they feel it, it feels bizarre and they try whatever they can to find that adrenaline again. For these dogs, stress is normal; calmness is strange. For well bred and well trained dogs, it’s the other way around. Calm is normal, stress is strange. When these dogs start to feel stress they manage it—you might not have even known they were getting into a state of adrenaline because they understand the concept of Self Regulation.
In my early 20’s I was suffering from pretty bad anxiety, I was forever stressed out about the next thing, I had gone through bouts with depression and was a slave to my mind and the never ending chatter that occurred inside it. I had a number of panic attacks—and if you have never experienced a panic attack it can be truly horrifying. It took me years of studying mindfulness, practicing sitting mediation and getting my mind right to feel at peace with calmness. Most dogs are much quicker to let things go than humans, so we have that working for us.
If you enjoyed this snippet and are interesting in purchasing the complete book, click the button and be taken to the purchase page to get your copy!