The Competitive Edge

In last season’s edition of The Master Skier Annual Cross Country Ski Journal, I came across this information in an article by Dan Heil (Competitive Edge p. 55).

“The ability to physically perform and respond to stress (i.e., adapt and recover) can best be described as a moving target for the master athlete.”

I dare say it’s true for any athlete, not just the aging one (“master” is a nice way of saying you’re no spring chicken anymore). It’s also applicable to dogs who are training for sports or fearful dogs who are training for life. Heil goes on to say,

“There are two principles of exercise training that serve as the foundation for any type of formal training program: The Overload Principle (The body must be challenged at a level above what is “comfortable” before it will adapt), and The Specificity Principle (Adaptations are most specific to the type of overload experienced).

When beginners start training for any sport, however, there is almost no need for a formal training plan because the body is adapting to both the novelty of the activity (specificity is not needed) and the overload experienced by every system in the body. In short, every exercise performed by the beginner’s body is an overload.”

I could kiss this guy. Or at least thank him. When we are working with fearful dogs both the Overload and Specificity Principles can be applied, and they are, in some form by many people. I was accused of keeping Sunny “trapped” in his fear because some felt I was not challenging him enough for him to adapt to increasingly stressful conditions. However when using desensitization and counter conditioning to work with a fearful dog the process of desensitization incorporates this principle, so their claim was unfounded.

What they were reacting to was that I was not using the same degree of overload they routinely apply when working with dogs. A degree which I would label “flooding.” The Overload Principle has its limits. Push a body too physically hard and you can wind up with injuries, serious ones in some cases. Even if there is no physical damage it is possible to turn the activity into an aversive event. Take a beginner skier to the top of a black diamond trail and shove them down and you may find that in the future they resist your invitations to go skiing again. Frustration and fear can be the result when the overload taxes the system too much. Bodies and brains should and do enjoy challenges, exemplified by dogs who perform 3 minute uninterrupted freestyle dance routines in crowded stadiums and the space shuttle.

The Specificity Principle plays very nicely into the dog’s limited ability to “generalize.” My own fearful dog will behave one way with people under a specific set of conditions, outside with frisbees flying, for example, and another way under different conditions. It is best not to assume that a dog can positively adapt to levels of stress that were appropriate under one set of conditions, applied under another. You might faithfully run on the treadmill at the gym, and consider yourself to be in good physically condition but after an hour bicycling outside start dreaming of a hot bath and a couple of aspirin. You can use your big brain to understand that bicycles are not machines of pain and torture, and if there were aspects of the experience that you found pleasant, gladly hop on a bike again.cocker spaniel with a worried face

The goals we have for our dogs’ behavior are also “moving targets.” Achieve one goal and new goals suddenly appear. A dog learns to get into the car by himself but leaps to the floor when he sees people when out driving. It never ends and we can either find that exhausting or exhilarating, or more likely both depending on how much overload we are experiencing.

Perhaps the most insightful statement Heil makes for us is in regard to beginners experiencing everything as overload. When a fearful dog is captured, adopted, bought or relocated they are beginners and we can assume that they are experiencing overload. When studies are done this overload can be measured in their cortisol levels. Pet owners, foster care givers, shelter workers or rescue groups don’t need to run tests on blood or saliva to know this, it should be assumed and form the basis for how these animals will be handled and managed.


15 comments so far

  1. rangerskat on

    Excellent post and a brilliant way of explaining it. My Finna doesn’t experience everything as stressful the way she did when we first adopted her and in some areas we’re able to target the area she needs to work on. But, and this is a big but, just because she can cope with the incessant barking from the nasty pack of little rat dogs across the street when she’s playing ball with me doesn’t mean that she can when she’s playing ball with my daughter. Finna trusts me to keep her safe when the rat pack comes to the edge of their yard to call her names but she doesn’t have the same confidence in my daughter. For her the situations are different. Interestingly, while she believes that if she’s with me whether on leash or off the rat pack isn’t something she needs to worry about, she only believes she’s safe with my daughter if she’s on her leash. When they are playing off leash and the rat pack comes out Finna is charging the fence screaming canine obscenities back at them until my daughter attaches the leash and Finna immediately relaxes and walks away.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Behavior is endlessly interesting isn’t it?!

      On Sun, Jan 27, 2013 at 2:47 PM, Fearfuldogs' Blog

  2. Kay Liestman on

    You have a real gift for understanding fearful dogs. Thank you!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thank you for saying. Living with them has given me lots of experiential education!

      On Sun, Jan 27, 2013 at 4:24 PM, Fearfuldogs' Blog

  3. dogdaz on

    Good post of info. Thanks.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Glad you liked it!

      On Sun, Jan 27, 2013 at 4:57 PM, Fearfuldogs' Blog

  4. justthreadtwiddling on

    Not only do you have a gift for understanding the dogs, but a true gift for communicating that to the human companions. Ike and I have done so much better since I found your blog!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      That is exactly the kind of things I love to hear! Thanks for letting me know.

      On Sun, Jan 27, 2013 at 5:26 PM, Fearfuldogs' Blog

  5. Heather Hatt on

    This really hit me this morning – I’m now fascinated by the Overload Principle. I forwarded your post to all my Project Home Life volunteers!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks Heather. You are engaging it when you bring dogs into the new environment. You push their limits but enough to cause growth and change, not damage. By continuing to change the environment or duration of time in it, you keep “stretching” their capabilities.

      The challenge for many people working with these dogs is they push too hard, too fast, too soon, believing that that is all it’s going to take to get dogs “over” their fears. As though there is a fear “breaking point”. Break through it and vola no more fear. Doesn’t work that way. The fear, if it’s ever going to “go away” it’s because other responses to triggers have been created and emotional responses have been counter conditioned. In many cases the fear is always there it just takes more pressure to see it. For many dogs that’s enough to improve their quality of life because the instances of terror are reduced considerably and rewarding activities increase.

      On Mon, Jan 28, 2013 at 8:56 AM, Fearfuldogs' Blog

  6. Lynn on

    When I first brought Tulip home I mistook her response to being overloaded as “calm” instead of “shut down.” Poor girl. It’s still sometimes hard to know where challenge ends and torment kicks in, so I err on the safe side. Lately, she seems to have decided it’s less stressful to cope with certain problems on her own, which is to say, off leash. For instance, she still doesn’t like thresholds, especially in winter when we have to come in via the long, narrow mud-porch. She has to screw up her courage, too jumpy to take treats. But last week, when she refused to be put back on the leash after our run in the woods, I held the door open and to our amazement, she thought for a second and then barreled in, tail up, all pleased with herself. So now we routinely let her off the leash at the back entrance. You’re right: behavior is endlessly interesting.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Being given the opportunity to choose in and of itself can make a big difference for many dogs. Knowing that they can disengage from a trigger if/when they want helps lower stress levels compared to not knowing what they are going to be made to do. And if a dog has been forced to engage with triggers while on leash the leash can be an aversive condition for the dog. This is something we don’t want to have happen.

      Congrats to Tulip for tackling that doorway and to you for discovering how to help her do it!

      On Mon, Jan 28, 2013 at 6:04 PM, Fearfuldogs' Blog

  7. eleanoremacdonald on

    Thank you for this … our rescue and fearful dog (terrible abuse in her past) Lovie does not do well at all with ‘flooding’. I think that is a ridiculous way to try to desensitize a fearful dog … it just shuts them down. We are finding that her fear of strangers accelerates if she is not in a controlled situation. At the dog park, she is around happy dogs. Happy dogs to her = happy “good” people, and I am there for her to check in with whenever she needs to.Walking through town, on leash, is OK for her – she is almost comfortable with it now and won’t react in fear to people stopping to say hello. but it, too,is controlled as she is tethered to me, her safety zone – via the leash. Her biggest problem is here at home… it is not a safe, controlled environment for her if she is left to her own devices- even here where she is most ‘safe’- to figure out if people are ‘OK’ when they come to our property. Always,visitors are friends, usually dog people who understand her past and her brave climb to wellness. But it is simply too much for her. So – I’ve started to greet people who come,with Lovie on-leash. She feels so much more safe and because she doesn’t have to sort her fears out on her own, she quickly is able to suss out the situation and feel comfortable and in a short time, she is asking the visitors for a tickle, or to throw the ball. The leash is like an umbilical cord for her …. I am thankful for that! Flooding her with things she must become accustomed to only serves to shut her down and set her back several steps. She is a courageous, lovely girl that I am blessed to have as my companion. I will be sure to see her through her challenges as consciously and carefully as possible so that one day her fear won’t even be a distant memory.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Lovie is a lucky dog to have ended up with you. All the best to you both.

  8. Mariana Haney on

    Ironically, I have yet to meet one aggressive dog that has not been through some kind of aversive training, whether initiated by the owner or at the hands of a professional trainer. “Dominance” training, shock collars, and other painful techniques often lead to fearful dogs; and fear is one of the leading causes of aggressive behavior. So, you can see the vicious circle.

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