Effects of Stress on Performance

Effects of Stress on Performance

I was reminded yesterday of a very important lesson that many handlers need to be reminded of–whether for dogs competing in events or for dogs in everyday life, stress (good or bad) can have a negative effect on their reliability.  Dogs who are over excited (eustress) about something may lack impulse control and may not respond to cues that are reliable in other situations.  Cuing a dog to sit before leashing up for a walk is a great example of this–the stress and excitement of the walk makes the normally reliable “sit” cue something extremely challenging.  This is just a training issue but other stressors will often effect normally reliable behaviors.

Yesterday at Rally-O class, Shayne had a super fun class.  The instructor had an Easter themed course with huge stuffed bunnies as distractions, baskets with eggs as distractions for the off-set figure 8, and some fun easter rally bonuses.  She also had a special prize for anyone whose dog could run the full course while wearing bunny ears!  After we did our first ‘for real’ run, I decided to try our second run with bunny ears!  I had actually spent a while counter conditioning Shayne to wear head-band pieces (ears, flowers, bouncy antena, etc) so I felt reasonably confident she would be able to handle it without totally freaking out.

I put the bunny ears on and she wasn’t bothered enough to shake or paw them off her head, or roll on the ground, or otherwise panic (yay counter conditioning) .  BUT there was definitely a drop in the reliability and precision of her behaviors.  For a dog who almost NEVER wanders (and by that I mean she never disengages and leaves heel position, she may put her nose down to sniff rarely, or break eye contact occasionally, but she stays where she should), she disengaged twice to sniff–once a pole/big stuffed bunny and the other was a big clump of fur. Her sits were slower, I had to cue a sit for one missed default sit, her fronts were less precise, and one of her left finishes was… comical–she actually got half way done before she decided to nose target the sign instead LOL!  Her tail kept wagging and at no time was she showing major stress signals (yawning, lip licking, look aways, or displacement sniffing) but her performance was clearly not as good as her first run.  It was like those CUTE bunny ears zapped some of her brain power because they were a bit stressful for her (though not overly stressful by any means).  She was such a good girl and smiled and worked the whole time beautifully but that bit of stress was enough to cause a drop in her precision and reliability.  (For the record, I was rewarding during the run in places we aren’t typically allowed to reward and I was paying out big with home-made chicken nuggets!)

This drop in precision and reliability due to stress was quite the reminder of the effects of stress, even low levels, on our dogs’ behavior. We have to consider stress levels (both eustress and distress) when we see a decline in precision or reliability.  Or, if we are in a stressful situation (eustress/distress), we may want to preemptively amend the criteria or rate of reinforcement–at the very least, we need to be aware of the effect stress has on a dog’s behavior.  Visits to vet offices, pet stores, canine sport trials, canine events, busy/loud public spaces, or new environments may be stressful enough to effect the reliability of behavior.  Wearing bunny ears, or clothes, or wraps, or head collars, or other strange things may effect the reliability of behavior.  Any type of pain, discomfort, concerns, or fears can have an effect on a dog’s behaviors.

I so frequently hear pet guardians say things like “oh, he’s just being stubborn” and them wanting to use punishment or physical means to get the behaviors from the dog. I have to coach them through the moment and remind them that it’s often not the dog being stubborn but the dog trying to work through some type of stress and it effecting their behavior.  Some of these things are simply training issues–learning to work with bunny ears on, learning to work in highly exciting environments, or learning to work under pressure. Others, however are just parts of life–dogs may be in pain, they may be fearful, they may be concerned about their safety, they may be getting ‘tired’ after a long session/class and the compounding stresses. It’s important to remember that stress–both eustress and distress–can effect a dog’s behavior.

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