The type of exercise we practice with our dogs affects their state of mind

A lot of dogs, it seems, have some sort of tendency for reactivity.  Whether it’s towards other dogs, people, objects, sights, or sounds.  And these dogs have brains that have become conditioned to fixation/exploding/fighting/over-excitement/etc. by practicing reactivity.  This need for a reactivity outlet partly comes from the dog’s body craving chemicals like dopamine that are produced in excess by the brain during an intense physical reaction.  Among its many amazing, versatile, and even necessary functions, dopamine also plays a role in addiction, motivation, attention, and psychosis.  And an increases or excess of dopamine has been linked to causing an excess in these behaviours.  So, attention becomes fixation, motivation becomes paranoia, and addiction becomes obsession.   You see, when the dog goes for a period of time without feeling the excess of the chemicals that he’s become accustomed to or the reactivity behaviours that he has practiced, he starts to go into withdrawal… the same way I get a headache in the morning if I don’t get my coffee or the way a smoker feels jittery when they’ve been without a cigarette for too long.  Your body is having a physical reaction to the lack of chemical and consciously or unconsciously we find a way to ‘get our fix’.  For me, it’s a large coffee with milk every morning.  Without it I would have a terrible day.  However, if I had the will power to kick the caffeine habit and stopped drinking coffee my body would eventually get over the cravings and stop giving me a headache.  I would in effect be ‘detoxing’.  But I will also always be prone to the coffee cravings…. Mmmmmm coffee:) I want you to try thinking about your dogs from this perspective.  These dogs have a physical craving for the excess of chemicals that their brains produce when they practice fixation/exploding/over-excitement/fighting/etc.  So, what can we do about this?  Well, there is a list of contributing factors.  Last week in group class, Ted spoke about how the high sugar/high carbohydrate kibble that we feed our dogs is basically rocket fuel for the reactivity machine (our dogs).  Another element is the type of exercise that we practice with our dogs.  Most of our dogs have over developed the parts of their brains that seek and crave intensity.  So, we do not need to keep working this group of ‘mental intensity’ muscles by allowing our dogs to practice being in an aroused (intense/fixated/aggressive/over excited) state of mind.  For some dogs, this aroused state of mind is triggered by a wild game of fetch, some like to get strung out at dog parks, and some just like the high of anything causing over excitement, fighting and unbalance because these games/environments carry the potential for some dogs to ‘get their intensity fix’.   Now just to clarify, I’m not talking about all dogs.  I’m not saying that a lively game of fetch will turn all dogs into fixating, exploding, reactivity machines.  That would be like saying all people who try cigarettes become heroin addicts.  No, LOL!  Not true!  A lot of people who tried smoking don’t even become smokers; they just aren’t wired that way.  BUT some people do have the potential to become smokers if the circumstances are right.  Some of us are naturally more inclined towards addiction than others.  So, what these types of dogs DO need is the regular mental exercise and conditioning required for existing in a calm state of mind.  The mental effort it takes for a dog to heel calmly and to ignore everything in the environment except for the handler is far more exhausting than an hour of wild fetch or a crazy off leash dog park.  Try to MENTALLY exhaust your dog every day through ‘calm on command’ training instead of physically draining their energy with intense ‘Chuck Norris’ calibre activities that leave their bodies craving the intensity high.  So, let’s go deeper and define ‘calm on command’.  What does that term mean to you? The way I explain ‘calm on command’ is that every dog should have an off switch in every situation.  You should always have the control and influence over your dog’s state of mind so that you can bring them down into a calm state no matter what activity they are engaging.  Easier said than done, right?  Well yes and no… sure, it takes daily effort on your part but all you really need to achieve this type of Vulcan mind control is practice and consistency.  You get good at the things you consistently practice… and eventually these things become easy (the same is true for dogs!).  So, hours of calm place command every day… and not just lying on the place cot while fixating on the environment.  I mean full on relaxation, hit the snooze button cuz “I’m at the spa with cucumbers on my eyes” type of calm.  When I send my dogs to place, they stay there until they are in their calmest most relaxed state before they are released.  Often, they are so chill that they don’t even get up when I release them… they just fall back asleep:) If you practice this often and long enough, this drill becomes instant ‘calm on command’.  Instead of taking 2 hours for the dog to calm down, they soon chill out in 3 minutes.  Then we can start transferring the calm state of mind to other areas… the down/stay, the heel, chill while out in public, care free around increasing distractions, you can even condition like minded dogs in the play yard to just stroll around together or stretch out on the grass and snooze in the sun.  This kind of mental training certainly takes dedication on our part, but it’s so worth it because this truly is the most harmonious way to exist and communicate with a dog.  Happy Training my friends! :)

Kristen Cameron