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Adrenaline… detrimental to thinking?

When we think about a system being flooded with adrenaline we generally think of super strength, hyper vigilance, jittery, energetic and possibly a crash as the adrenaline works its way out of the body.  What I failed to think about what the effect adrenaline had on the brain in terms of thinking, focus, and decision making ability of my dogs.  Over the last three weeks I was essentially slapped in the face with just how much an adrenaline rush effects Shayne.

Two weeks ago while at the agility building, Shayne was rushed by a very friendly (see: He Just Wants to say “Hi”) small dog.  The dog had been let off-leash as it entered the building (the owner didn’t see I was already there) and before I realized he was off-leash,  he had run into Shayne’s face (she was in a down while I filled my bait bag).  She displayed her fear with a brief noisy scuffle–I was holding her leash and quickly gained control of her and was able to maneuver her away.  No injuries or anything (which is generally par for the course).  The little dog was physically fine just scared and the owner was equally as shaken but honestly felt bad that it had happened.  Shayne was more edgy toward other dogs the rest of the class (no shock there) but she also struggled with the agility work.  She was tuning out, a little more “zoomie” (lacking control), not really working with me, miscuing on multiple obstacles, and generally having a difficult time working with me.  The “zoomies”and tuning me out were not shocking given how she started the day but it wasn’t until much later I saw the full scope of the effects of adrenaline.

Last week I was more prepared with treats and clicker at the ready when other dogs entered the room.  We played “Look at That,” “this way,” and some BAT training as everyone entered.  Once everyone was there, we were learning the course and vaguely walking the course.  There were two low-key dogs that Shayne had been fine with the last 5 weeks, one was off-leash (which was typical and generally not a problem).  The instructor invited Shayne over for some skritches and the off-leash dog came over and got literally into Shayne’s face.  Shayne gave a growl to say “back-off” and the other dog took exception to the growl and snarked back at Shayne who got scared and reacted.  Again, I had her leash but this time, although I could control her, the other dog wasn’t backing off.  It was all noise, no one was hurt but Shayne was even more on edge than last week (since this was a larger dog who was engaging with her not just backing off).  Again she displayed behavior that was not entirely typical for her–zoomie, disconnected, not making decisions, etc.

Cue this past weekend… Shayne finally survived an agility class without incident.  All dogs were on leash unless working and I was even more proactive (if that’s humanly possible) about working her.  Her behavior was so incredibly different than the last two weeks.  She was pretty in-tune with me (not quite normal but 90% better than the previous weeks), was controlling herself really well, making choices (not just running about half listening), and was working with me.  She actually had her head screwed on well for the first time in three weeks.  I was really shocked at the complete difference.  Now, I expected her to be less zoomie and a little more focused but those were just two pieces of the puzzle that were altered.

So what does that all mean?  Well, for me, it is a indicator that keeping her under threshold is so terribly important if I want her to think.  Once her system is flooded with adrenaline, she isn’t going to have her head screwed on correctly.  It is also serves as a reminder to lower my “expectations” after any incident… she may simply not be capable of thinking and responding the way she would normally.  This understanding will have implications for dogs in my classes in the future… the effect of adrenaline rush is much more wide spread than I ever expected.  I was quite shocked with the differences–I knew adrenaline would effect her behavior to an extent but I never realized the scope until I had these clear examples.

How many dogs have been punished for non-compliance after an incident that caused an adrenaline rush?  How many handlers have been completely frustrated by their dog “being stubborn” or “being dominant” after an incident?   I know I will forever be changed by seeing just how big of a difference that adrenaline rush made in Shayne… it’s something I will always keep in mind after any incidents and something I will always instruct clients to think about.

2 Comments
  1. Hi! I really enjoy reading your blog. I have awarded you with the Stylish blogger Award. Stop by my blog to pick up the “award”. All the best!

  2. Outstanding observation and entry. I know, with Risa, I expect less from her when she’s in a situation where I know she’s stressed out. But it took me a long time to realize that being stressed out makes a big difference in her performance.

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