Recently a friend posted this link on Facebook, to a study about how service dog candidates are selected:
The interesting part: “All of the dogs in the study underwent a battery of behavioral tests showing that they had a calm temperament before being selected for training. Despite calm exteriors, however, some of the dogs showed higher activity in the amygdala — an area of the brain associated with excitability. These dogs were more likely to fail the training program.”
I don’t think anyone would dispute the assertion that excitability in dogs is, in general, more common now than in the past; and in many scenarios, people are looking for that excitability, taking the view that it enhances the ability of a dog to perform in various dog sports and competitions. There’s a lot of discussion about what constitutes ‘drive’ and what is ‘arousal’ in dogs, and I don’t get the sense that there’s always a clear context for either term. In general, ‘drive’ is defined as ‘an instinctive desire or impulse’, which says nothing about whether that’s expressed calmly, or with great agitation. Presumably the need to express that desire or impulse quite frequently is what makes a dog ‘high drive’?
Probably more germane is the definition of arousal, courtesy of good old Wikipedia: “Arousal is a physiological and psychological state of being awake or reactive to stimuli. It involves the activation of the reticular activating system in the brain stem, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system, leading to increased heart rate and blood pressure and a condition of sensory alertness, mobility and readiness to respond.” It can also involve jumping on people, bark-screaming, and even biting, my observations have shown.
Unlike the program that screens candidates for the role of service dog, other programs look for dogs that have been deemed hyper-excitable and too easily aroused and discarded for that behavior: the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation combs the shelters of the states in the Western US for such dogs and enrolls likely candidates – who have usually spectacularly flunked Pet Dog 101 with one or more owners – in their training program, upon completion of which the dogs are transferred to first responders and spend their working lives searching for survivors of disasters, both natural and man-made.
If you aren’t familiar with NDSDF, you should check them out: https://searchdogfoundation.org/
And the topic of arousal leads inevitably to reactivity, since reactivity, as I would define it, is the inappropriate or excessive arousal in response to stimuli. If a dog barks and lunges at every other dog it sees on the street while on a leash walk, it’s reactive. There’s too much arousal there, and no ability to turn down the volume of that arousal (although that is something that can be trained, with greater or lesser degrees of success). One trainer I know says that she is seeing an unprecedented number of reactive dogs in her area, which is a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago; the reasons probably include breeding and the social world in which we expect our dogs to live. An urban environment isn’t easy for a canine to navigate – which is not to say that every dog living on 150 acres in a rural area is a paragon of balance and confidence.
I’ve been involved in some facet of dog sports since my first Shelties, way back in the early 1990s. In the 25 years of training a dog in agility, I’ve seen many changes in that sport, not the least of which is the propensity of people to get dogs with high levels of drive and/or high levels of arousal so that they can be trained to do agility courses faster and faster, with a greater degree of control by the handler. It’s an amazing thing to see, but it’s kind of like the one percent taking over — it changes the game for everyone else, invariably. When I ran Sander in agility in 1995, he might actually come home with a placement ribbon as well as a qualifying ribbon from his NADAC (or NCDA) trial; not a fast dog, he was responsive and fun to be with on an agility course. Today, placements go to the fast, intense dogs — if they don’t NQ by doing a fly-off on the teeter, that is. It’s less fun for those of us who don’t aim to complete the course in the blink of an eye and who aren’t in pursuit of advanced titles, but just want to have fun with our dogs. If it weren’t for CPE agility, I’d be entirely done with trialling in that sport — and I HAVE a fast dog!
Now I’m seeing something similar take place in Nosework, as that dog sport has become hugely popular. The dogs who get cited by judges with a ‘pronounced’ designation* are the flashy dogs who zip through the search area and identify the location of hides in almost the blink of an eye, not the dogs with the more methodical and considered search styles. I have one of those dogs, and he’s awesome, but most of the judges have never seen a Finnish Lapphund before, and their eyes are drawn by the German Shepherds and Border Collies.
(*In NACSW, where Alex and I trial, the judges may ‘Pronounce’ handler/dog teams demonstrating exceptional technique and/or teamwork at each trial. This is not part of the title, but rather an acknowledgement of exceptional teamwork on that particular trial day.)
I even know someone who’s done agility for years with her dogs, of a hound breed, and was given some ‘advice’ by an agility trainer, that in order to really do agility, she should get ‘an agility dog.’ You know she doesn’t mean a hound. Or a Lapphund. She means a JRT, or a BC, or — you get the idea.
It’s an interesting topic, and my personal tastes are firmly on one side: give me a dog who gets it done without drama. A dog who’s chill. I’m a baby boomer, we grew up striving for cool, seeking cool, worshiping cool, being cool. ‘Act like you’ve been there before’, the baseball players say about becoming a star. In the environment of the trading floors of the Chicago Board of Trade, where I spent the years from age 18 to age 40, cool was The Thing To Be. That was back when the markets were entirely open-outcry and human beings did the work that today is done by a variety of electronic devices, using algorithms and programming functions. We used our brains, and our voices. We did an enormous job, we who were not brokers or traders but members of the support system that each day wrote the scripts and set the stage for those brokers and traders. We processed orders from desk to broker, we relayed information from the pit to the desks, we made sure that every last five-lot was accounted for, and we did it all with an understated flourish that conveyed that we were COOL. We didn’t actually use the term ‘dude’ in every sentence, but it was certainly implied. This open outcry method of information dissemination was a highly efficient system, considering it predated cellphones by several decades, and a clerk who could do that for 4 to 6 hours every day – and do it accurately — was a god-like being, the essence of cool. Usually pretty well paid, too.
The strongest disparagement of another clerk was that he or she was in a ‘personal fast market’ – the assessment delivered in a tone of amusement verging on ironic, but with a deadly serious undertone that left no doubt about the incompetence of Mr/Ms PFM. It occurs to me that I should define ‘fast market’ here, since with electronic trading, it has ceased to exist. In the open outcry trading pits, members would shout the prices of their trades, as they made them, to a staff of pit reporters seated in the ‘pulpit’ at one end of the pit; those reporters would key the prices into the exchange’s price dissemination system, and the quotes would be streamed out to the world at large. (Hence, transparency of pricing.) When the markets got really rocking and rolling, and 200 voices might be shouting prices at once, the pit reporters couldn’t physically enter those prices in the order in which they heard them, so they concentrated on just getting the prices in and they put the letter F next to each one, which indicated that there were ‘fast market’ conditions and the sequence of prices recorded was not guaranteed to be impeccable. A fast market was the very definition of chaos, say, thirty seconds after the number was released on what the clerks called ‘Un-enjoyment Friday’.
So a clerk who was in a personal fast market was someone who couldn’t keep his (or her) shit together, who got in his own way, who fought the chaos instead of riding it like a surfer on a wave. The trading floors were a highly specialized environment, and not everybody belonged there. But now, thirty years after that time in my life, I find myself thinking ‘huh, personal fast market’ when I encounter a dog who is habitually over-aroused or aroused by things that are mundane parts of daily life. And even as I am wowed by the flash and style and speed and intensity of ‘high drive’ dogs in performance sports, I wonder if those dogs are as anxious and hyper-alert in their off-the-course lives as they often seem to be.
I think it would be tiring to live with such a dog. When Dee came to live with me, four years ago, she was pretty reactive to other dogs outside of her home. Walks became less fun than they had been. But when I have to find them, I can reach back for patience and consistency, and with training, Dee got past that and stopped becoming so aroused by the sight of other dogs. (Cats, now, that’s a different story with her. I think *that’s* prey drive.)
That’s also why when I got Rowley, my first Border Collie and certainly one of the smartest, quickest dogs I’ve ever owned, I didn’t train him to offer behaviors. I would find that annoying, I know; so Rowley knows that when I want him to do something, I will communicate that to him. He doesn’t have to guess, suggest, or try out. A friend used to spend hours with her Shelties as they offered behaviors that she then shaped, and it was remarkable what she could teach them, that way – but it’s not for me, thanks. It’d make both me and the dog neurotic in no time, I guarantee.
And then there’s Alex, my Finnish Lapphund, whose style of work has been a learning experience for me. He’s an excellent Nosework dog, but he will never be that dog who takes high in trial with a combined search time of 27.26 seconds (for six searches). Alex likes deliberate and thorough examinations of things. I think he’s searching for anything that might interest him, and the hide odor is only one of many things he finds. He alerts on it, though, because cheese interests him and he gets cheese for a correct alert. But as with so many other things in Lapphund Land, I feel that my objective is only one of several items on his agenda. Wow, he’s so different from my Border Collie and my Shelties that way! Viva la difference, I say.
But most of our days aren’t spent at training centers or in trial venues, anyway. Most of our days are spent in the back yard, or on the streets of our neighborhood, or at the off-leash places we frequent: the nature preserve, the fields at the Ag High School. One day last month the dogs and I were at the nature preserve in the late afternoon of a beautiful October day. It was sunny and the temperature was in the 50s, great dog weather. We had gone up through the woods and were coming back along the west shore trail, when a woman who frequently jogs on the trails there appeared, headed towards us. As she approached, Rowley went to meet her with some wags of his tail. Alex was doing Lappy Rolls on the path, Dee was looking for mice in the underbrush on the side of the path, and Beau watched the woman incuriously from his spot behind me. The woman and I customarily exchange greetings, so I said hello as she passed us; she gave me a big smile and said ‘I just love your dogs!’ and continued off down the trail. She’s never met my dogs, never stopped to pet them or learn their names; she just sees them enjoying the preserve and being dogs. And on that lovely afternoon, they were so in synch with their surroundings and themselves that she was moved to comment about them.
I would rather have had that perfect moment, I think, than any ribbon I’ve ever brought home from a competition with any of my dogs.
I love my dogs too. They’re cool.