We all have seen it, even though we might not have realized it at the time. A dog that doesn’t out a toy when asked, one that takes a victory lap instead of returning to his handler after catching a frisbee or perhaps one that habitually sniffs the ground between drill repetitions. These are all forms of displacement behaviors, our dog’s solution to a problem we’ve unknowingly created during training sessions. If we’re not careful, these behaviors become ingrained and can become extremely difficult to eliminate. However, if we’re observant and use these behaviors as information, we can adapt our training to better suit our dog’s needs and become a better partner.
I began calling these behaviors that pop up in training sessions “breather behaviors”, because to me they are a separate category within the displacement behavior subject. The majority of the time, these problem behaviors develop when we push our dogs past their optimal working ability. It’s our dog’s attempt to take a break, either mentally or physically, to prepare for the next repetition. Think about a typical training session: the handler asks the dog for a behavior to which the dog complies and is rewarded. What happens immediately after the reward? We ask for another behavior and repeat the cycle. Now what happens towards the end of that session when our dog is mentally and perhaps, physically, tired? The process stays the same. We don’t give our dog an opportunity to catch a breath or to destress mentally after a particularly difficult behavior, so they take it upon themselves to take a quick break. They might take an extra couple seconds before letting go of that toy or an extra couple of strides before returning to their handler.
Big deal right? Who cares if my dog takes a few extra seconds to reset for the next rep. The problem lies when we as handlers fail to acknowledge these behaviors and let them develop into habits. Dogs do what works for them, if chomping a frisbee or clamping down on a toy works to get them the break they need, they will continue doing so. Pretty soon it’ll become a habit that will be present in the entire session, not just at the end. It’s much easier to prevent a problem than eliminate it once it’s developed.
Prevention is the best medicine in this case. Watch for potential breather behaviors and use them as information to change the structure of your training sessions. If you notice that your dog is slow to return to you after a reward, start to think how you can incorporate a break for them. Maybe allow them to disconnect for a minute or two by sniffing or grabbing a drink of water. Perhaps just pull them into your lap and tell them how wonderful they are while they regain their breath. Maybe all you have to do with your dog is switch behaviors for a couple repetitions to allow them to de-stress. Adapt your session to allow your dog to work at their optimal level for the entirety, not just a portion.
Here are a few more examples of breather behaviors from my own dogs and observations. Anybody who has seen my dogs work in our shows at Purina Farms have noticed that they run through the agility tunnels during their frisbee routines. Yes, they do love their tunnels, however, going those extra strides allows them to take a few additional seconds before returning to me for more work. One of my dogs is trained to lay on a mat at the end of the dock for the diving portion, best part is that I don’t have to walk down the dock with her, I can just send her to it. However, every time she prepares to dive, she goes the long way around the sign behind the dock, taking an extra second or two to gather herself between jumps. One particularly troublesome behavior that develops in shows are dogs that don’t want to leave the pool after a jump. They let go of the toy, push it under water and or just swim around. It’s an excellent way for them to delay the next repetition. These are just a few examples of breather behaviors that have developed into habits because of my inability to change the session to suit the dogs better.
What breather behaviors do you notice with your own dogs? Is there potential for those to develop into problems later on? How can you adapt your sessions to provide your dog with the breaks they need?