Training From an Athlete’s Perspective -What is Rest?
Heather Ross, CPDT-KA, BS
Some stress IS good. This type of stress is called eustress - pressure in life that we can grow from; or physical training from which we recover and become stronger. When your dog is working hard training, it is stressful. They are trying to focus, ignore distractions, decipher English and read your body language. If you reward them well, give them the rest that they need and keep things interesting - the stress becomes beneficial. Your dog learns not only the training skills, but resilience and confidence. Long term this makes for a dog that is easier to work with, more excited to work with you and with the ability to push for better accuracy.
In the next few blog posts, we’re going to take a look at how to train smarter, not harder. What is rest, when should we apply it, what are the differences between individual dogs and how it can benefit our pups/selves? This is a look at training dogs from the perspective of an athlete, where we work in lots of different types of training and rest to get peak performance for race day.
Why dog our dogs need rest? Simply put, because rest allows for recovery. Recovery from both physical and mental stress. Without rest at the right time, performance begins to suffer and we’re then digging further into hole from which we need even more rest to get out of. Certainly none of this means that our dogs need to just rest all day. Most of their problems stem from not enough exercise and mental stimulation. The idea is to keep up with the amount of training and exercise they need, while being sure to dole it out in appropriate doses for maximum success.
The mistake we too often make when training our dogs is to try to go the entire session without rest. Can you go out for a run, and sprint the whole time? Especially in the beginning of a new training regimen we alternate running and walking, catching our breath in between. Out on a bike ride, climbing uphill is stressful, slow, hard - but rewarded with a high speed descent we can coast through.
Rest, just like work, comes in both mental and physical forms. When your dogs is out playing fetch, they need a break between a few throws to get a drink, cool off, and catch their breath. Physically, our dog’s bodies need to recover after exercise. Its easy to picture what this is - less movement. However, there can also be different types of exercise. While some dogs get fully obsessed with playing fetch or agility, the hard stops and turns can put a lot of stress on their joints. For them, mixing in some days of hiking or long walks/jogs will help their bodies recover from higher impact activities
Dogs can have a few ways of getting mental rest as well. The most obvious one is a full break. After a training session, your dog might benefit from a some quiet time in their crate. Dogs can get overloaded just like toddlers, and will benefit from a nap.
Play is another wonderful way to take a break, and probably my favorite one that is most underutilized. Between a few reps in training, try playing fetch for a throw or two, tug for a minute, or play directly with your pup. This reinforces that they did a good job training, gives them a mental break, and a way to let out any stress that has built up. When you come back to training your dog will not only be more mentally rested, but be more engaged with you so ready to work harder. Plus, this works in your dog’s physical exercise while keeping it under control. Those of us with high energy, ball crazy dogs know how an extended game of fetch can just make our dogs more crazy! They need a break from the high level of excitement.
A less obvious form of rest is simply to do an easier rep. For example: if you are working on stays and walk 20ft away and wait 30 seconds before going back to give your dog a treat, the next time only go a few feet away and come back immediately to reward. By mixing it up our dogs stay interested. No one likes to go hard, harder, hardest. By being random in the duration of a behavior, you build confidence and make it more fun when an easy one comes along that your dog can feel super successful with.
This same type of mixing it up with something easier as a break can apply day to day as well. Heeling or stays can be difficult, requiring lots of self control and precise movements, or stillness. Doing this everyday would certainly get stressful! Try spending days between hard, focus intense sessions by working on tricks, scent work such as tracking or nosework, or agility for fun.
Granted, some of these alternative options can be just as difficult for some dogs. It all comes down to knowing your individual dog and trying different things. Pay attention to when they are doing their best training work or when they seem most content during day to day life. What were they doing the day before? Earlier that day? Over time, finding what your dog finds as a rest will make training and living together easier. The difficulty of training will be eustress, and your dog will be able to grow and improve from each session.