Public Access - Level 1Mental Training/Conditioning is TiringMental Training and Conditioning is Tiring
Using your brain affects the nervous system at a very base level. Even short periods of it can be tiring. If you have ever done some agility training with your dog, and wondered why your dog is tired after just a few minutes of it, yet he can run for miles on hikes, this is why. You are asking him to use his brain while he's using his body. That combination is much more mentally tiring than just running free.
When you start adding moving objects like carts, people, animals etc the brain work intensifies as your dog has to think about and maintain his position in relation to the other moving objects. He might get hurt or scared otherwise. The objects might move unpredictably.
Any time you add other environmental stressors things like heat, many people, loud sounds, it all takes a mental toll on your dog. And it also takes a toll on you too. We must gradually introduce out dogs to these changes and build the duration up gradually, using an intermitent pattern just like we do for each individual repetition. If we just keep doing longer and longer sessions, the process just gets harder and harder for our dog. That's when we start to see reluctance to go out. Follow a longer sessions with a short one. Do some intermediate length sessions. Use the mode method.
The overall idea is to gradually build up your dog's resistance to background sounds, movements, smells (habituation) and his ability to attend to you as part of his environment for longer periods. That takes mental focus at first until he gets accustomed to it as "just part of the environment".
Think of when you move to a new house. There are new sounds to get used to, new movements. New things to look at. You have to navigate around differently. The house smells different, etc. That is in addition to all the unpacking and mental organizing we must do the first few weeks. Your possessions, while familiar, are arranged differently in the new location.
Dogs have all of this to do and more. For dogs, a big part of their adjustment are the new smells. And since 40% of the brain is occupied with their nose, this can be very tiring for them. (This is also why learning and doing scent work is a great way to tire a dog and also condition him to be calm.)
How to Handle it
1. When you start training in less predictable environments with more things to worry about, offer water frequently during training sessions, even indoors, especially on hot days.
2. Take frequent breaks during training. Let your dog lead the way and sniff on leash, have a pee and just get away from the environment for a few minutes. These breaks also helps him to reduce the stress hormone levels in his body, and recover his blood sugar that helps with impulse control. Studies have shown that giving your dog unstructured down time (like being put in a crate or car) is better than controlled down time (where he is put in a down stay or asked to do some other behavior he has to focus on) allows a dog to recover his blood glucose levels to regain his self control.
3. After a longer or stressful training session, give your dog a long rest (take a nap with him if you need to) or let him run free in a safe location to do what he wants. That way he can process the information about the environment and the learning.
4. We don't want to bombard your dog with stimulation. Find out how much he had in his previous environment and also take a look at what you have been doing since you got him.
Have you trained mostly at home or out in the neighborhood?
How long was each session?
What percentage was active mental training?
What percentage was being put into new environments?
How well did he handle each session?
Which ones left him over-tired? Those are the ones you want to take more time to let him get comfortable in or train in.
How many different behaviors were trained? What were they? Which ones were harder for your dog?
Answering these questions should give you an idea of how long you can train, and what environments are hard for him. And where you need to more gradually increase the duration.
5. Alternate days of conditioning with days of mental training to give nervous system a chance to recover.
6. Make sure to build in true relaxation time for your dog each day. It needs to be a time where your dog can be a dog and not have to do anything else. This is very important for service dogs as long-term stress is cumulative and can result in burnout. This is usually seen as reluctance to want to train or work, being tired all the time, being depressed etc. Long term stress can lead to chronic health issues like allergies and cancer.
7. The same can be said about yourself as well. Taking care of yourself is also taking care of your dog. Make sure you have back-up team in place for times when you physically or emotionally can't train or get your dog out when he needs it. This is when your support team is needed. Hire a dog walker, and have a trainer work with your dog while you can't. That will keep him ready to work with you when you are able to again.
Remember that your dog is a dog first, family member second and service dog third. His emotional, mental, physical and social needs all have to be met for him to have a balanced life.
If you are planning to do dog sports or compete with him, that has to come last if his primary function for you is as a service dog.