by Barbara J. Andrews


Show Training and Dreadlock

Everyone has had a puppy or young dog "freeze" during training, especially at a dog show! But most often it happens when training begins and the puppy's brain and sensory receptors go on overload. If you understand what happens and how to prevent it, you can be the world's greatest trainer! People will marvel at your training skill when in fact, it is your understanding of basic physiology and how a dog "thinks" and how even his muscles and reflexes learn.

A pitcher's arm knows exactly how to wind up and deliver the ball without conscious thought. The eyes, brain, muscles, ligaments, and nerve endings carry out a memorized sequence that sends the ball across the plate. Perfect synchronization can be affected by stress, fatigue, or other external factors but when cellular memory works, a miracle occurs and a strike is delivered. 

That's why practice makes perfect. The muscles actually have their own memory and can perform repetitive motion with very little input from the conscious brain. Your eye, brain, arms, leg, and control-foot know just how to slow the car and make a left turn without conscious direction from your brain. 

A puppy that has been repeatedly and correctly trained to gait, bait, self-stack is a puppy whose little legs can carry on even when his brain is saturated with stressful input. In fact, a mentally conditioned youngster is actually comforted by performing what he knows brings praise and reassurance. 

Conversely, when something unfamiliar interferes with the brain's ability to recall and transmit information, signals to the rest of the body are interrupted. If the brain suddenly becomes inefficient in processing data, Puppy freezes. If the brain remains "stumped" it rejects the situation and Puppy withdraws, appearing to sulk. Remember this term. Dreadlock. When an owner becomes annoyed and rebukes a puppy in this state of mind, it causes even more withdrawal. 

Make no mistake at this point!!! DO NOT PRAISE HIM in order to coax him into recovering his ability to walk on a lead. Reinforcement of such behavior may cause the brain to catalog it as a solution when faced with future over-stimulation. There is a tenuous line between reassurance and praise. To properly cope with such a delicate and often unexpected problem, you must understand the mechanics involved. 

Imagine answering a knock at your door and being confronted by a Martian. Your cognitive process is startled and may shut down. Similarly, your pup can be so over­whelmed by that first dog show that his nervous system goes into what I call "Dreadlock." The brain is receiving overwhelming sensory input and like a little computer, it races to attach those signals to memory cells. Finding "no matches" it rejects "dog show" just as your brain would refuse to deal with the green space man. Given a few seconds to search memory cells, the human subconscious might say "ah ha, this looks like something I've seen on TV" and it begins to transmit that data to the conscious brain. Depending on your past experience and stored perceptions, you will either invite the creature in for tea - or run like hell! 

So think about it. If your dog's memory cells fail when he gets that first glimpse of a "dog show" he's likely to have the same reaction you would have upon being dropped in the middle of a frenetic sporting event on Mars. Since neither of you can run away but adrenaline is being pumped into the body, either earth-animal may go into a shocky shut-down. Dreadlock!

To carry on with this stupid analogy since I seem stuck with it now, if assured that this is a wonderful place to be and that all those creatures are really having fun, the sensory devices report to the brain that all is ok. It will then allow the body (heart rate, respiration, adrenaline levels, etc) to return to normal. That isn't to say the legs will work just right or that you will have Puppy's full attention in the ring, but he'll be firing on six cylinders instead of two.

If however, the initial experience was really bad, you've seen pups being dragged, choking, around the grounds, the brain may behave the same way as when we experience a traumatic situation. Injured in an accident, you are unlikely to remember details because your brain thoughtfully protects you from the details but anything that subconsciously suggests a similar impending situation is enough to make you nervous and apprehensive.

Ok, you've got it. If that first show is recorded as a torturous experience, a long weekend of confinement, rumbling gut, full bladder, and reprimands, well, now you understand why a promising youngster becomes hopelessly turned off on shows.

On the other hand, if Puppy's memory cells link shows with pleasant associations of people laughing, attention, petting, and happy anticipation, the experience becomes imbedded programming. 

So make sure Puppy gets to explore the show grounds the night before or early in the morning before there are too many people and too much tension so that he can absorb the scary surroundings but escape unscathed. The next scouting trip will be even easier because it's a happy walk that ends with a calm stroll back to the security of his crate. The wise trainer will take him back and forth repeatedly, using bait and praise after the pup is comfortable. During relaxed, fun trips to ringside, Puppy's brain imprints layer upon layer of pleasant data which will reassure him when he's rushed to the same ringside by a nervous handler.

Repetition. Practice. Conditioning the brain so that it passes correct messages to the body. Only then can Puppy begin to automatically shift weight, straighten a leg, and assume the show pose you've spent hours teaching him. If he's bunched up tight, adrenaline pumping, the brain having signalled muscles into the flight mode, then he sure can't extend the legs into that effortless gait that makes you proud. Of course he'll refuse bait. He can't eat when he may have to flee at any minute! 

Now you understand. Isn't it amazing that in spite of all that's going on, he looks up at you and manages to wag his tail? If your car had so many things malfunctioning at once, the engine would quit. Your puppy's system may be misfiring but if he's been practiced by an owner who understands the Practice Makes Perfect method, he'll keep firing on all cylinders and having fun doing it!

Aren't dogs wonderful?

"Bill & BJ" Andrews were married forty nine years, during which time they bred over 240 AKC Champion Rottweilers, Mini-Bull Terriers, Chihuahuas, Akita's and Toy Fox Terriers including Group and Specialty winners in four breeds. BJ breeder-owner-handled the Top Winning Akita of All Time and they bred more than half of the All Time Top Winners and Register Of Merit Akita's. She authored the Miniature Bull Terrier, Chihuahua, Giant Schnauzer and Akita breed books including World Of The Akita, Book Of The Year nominee. Since 1972 Mrs. Andrews has been a feature columnist for major all-breed magazines and currently writes for ShowSight. Widowed in 2005, BJ continues as Editor for two major dog sites and lives with eight Toy Fox Terrier housedogs and a big dog fittingly named "Caution."


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