Breather Behaviors

No breather behavior here! Pony loves to tug for her reward.

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?

14 thoughts on “Breather Behaviors

  1. My dog just stops returning the Frisbee when playing, and ignores commands, usually looking away. I stop telling her to come, knowing it won’t work. I walk away myself, which really bugs her! She then comes running back, Frisbee clenched in teeth!
    As far as training, I keep sessions brief, interspersed with play, so we end on a successful note.
    Thanks for this post. Nice to put a name to a behavior that happens frequently.

  2. Great post! But, I always love your insight. I never had a name for this but, Drago’s breather behavior name is called ‘go to your pool’. Sometimes he will be on his way before I can get it out of my mouth but, I try to send him before he does it on his own. What is ‘go to your pool’ do you ask…it is heading down to a swimming hole in the creek apply named…Drago’s pool. 😊 He will do this 12 months out of the year, so in January when the water is frozen he will just go and lay on it. Ha! If we are working on stuff in the barn and I have the doors closed he will go stand in a bucket of water.

  3. Reblogged this on Clicker Chronicles and commented:
    I think horses do this, too. But it looks different. They wander off; they eat grass; they scratch an itch; they stare off into the distance. Their owners think they’re “bored”. I don’t think so. What do you think?

  4. My corgi loves “touch”–invitation to jump up and touch my hand. In other breeds this might be a high five, but for a corgi….low five?

  5. How do you differentiate between breather behaviors and those that are simply self rewarding for the dog ??

    1. Breather behaviors tend to show up at the end of a session at first, until they become habits that is. Self-rewarding behaviors typically happen whenever, no pattern. However, if I’m rewarding my dog properly within a session, they shouldn’t feel the need to self-reward. If they are, I’m going to re-evaluate my rewards and applications of them.

  6. We take our city dog (border collie) to sheep herding for fun and exercise. He will pee excessively at times. Just realised that he’s mentally tired! Thanks for this article. His behaviour makes sense now.

  7. This is a great article and you hit the nail on the head when you say we have pushed then “past their optimal working ability” I have noticed my young dog has started to do a lap with his toy and you are absolutely right -he is taking a lap to take a wee break . Not a habit we want to build in , thanks for sharing

  8. I have a dog who used to do ‘victory laps’ when fetching He is a Working Kelpie and the amount of exercise he got by just simply catching the toy and returning it was insufficient for him. He seemed to prefer it when we played with a friend’s Cattle Dog. Scott (Kelpie) would let Blue get the toy, and then round him up (aka run rings around him) as he brought it back to us. (16 years now and the best he can do it a slow trot)
    “Zoomies” are entirely different. You can recognise them from their frenetic nature. I wouldn’t really call them ‘breather behaviour’ either. Kids do the same excited out of control giddy behaviour when things have become too exciting for them. Behaviour that elicits, “Stop it now or there will be tears!”
    Blue never seemed to get tired, but got the ground sniffing at Agility Trials. We realised that is hips were not as good as they could be ad he found the height of the jumps that was required of him difficult (painful!!) So he retired to ‘back yard’ agility with lowered jumps and less of them 🙂
    When Scott got tired (never at a trial, they were far too short for him) he would simply take himself off to some nice soft grassy area and lie down on his tummy to cool off.
    Now it is mostly me who needs the breather — MY behaviour is “That’s enough, let me sit down for a while!” My dogs usually recognise that and let me go sit down — preferrably and give them extra treats while I’m sitting 🙂 I don’t think I’ve ever ‘tired’ the younger dogs, though sometimes at Club (with certain instructors) the dogs can get bored to tears 🙁

  9. I first learned the importance of giving a dog a break from Leslie McDevitt. I will give them many breaks during a session. I’ll reward a behavior then send them off to do what they need to do and wait for them to come back on their own. I have found when they ask to restart the game they are much more invested in it. Many times I can’t get them to take a break. Check out the “Give me a Break” game in Leslie’s excellent book “Control Unleashed”.

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