June 3, 2015

Eureka! Stress and Zoomies

I’ve had several helpful light bulb moments in my dog training career. One of these moments came when a trainer made the off-handed remark that my high-drive Rottweiler was “stressing high” as she ran in a circle around the ring (also known as the zoomies) after missing a weave pole entrance. I had never heard of stressing high and understanding the concept helped me better evaluate dogs in training.

Stressing Up (or High) versus Stressing Down (or Low)

Different dogs exhibit signs of stress in different ways. Your dog may slow down, sniff the ground, or avoid obstacles–these behaviors are found in dogs who stress low. However, other dogs react to stress with greater speed and excitement which may culminate in racing around the ring while ignoring the handler, also known as the zoomies. Zoomies are a sign of stressing high.

Why Does it Matter?

Recognizing this behavior as stress is important because it helps us create a training plan to address the underlying issue! When beginner handlers see the zoomies, they immediately try to control their dog, failing to recognize it as a sign of stress. Thus, they will often focus on recalls and often incorporate various forms of punishment or bribing to prevent the zoomies, which can be very embarrassing when they occur at a trial. I eventually realized that my rottweiler was taking laps after stress related to missing the weave pole entry, and so I focused my training on weave entries and our zoomies went away. As I gained experience as a trainer, I was able to show my dog that a mistake is not a stressful event, and that another opportunity for reinforcement is right around the corner.

How does your dog react to stress?

This post was written as part of the Dog Agility Blog Action Day where the topic was “Stress”.

PS: Have a video of epic zoomies? Post in the comments!

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  • In my short trialing history, I see (as a veterinarian) lots of signs of stress at trials. People like to dismiss the “up” stressors as loving agility-zooming, barking,spinning. I see frustration and/or stress. My pup down stressed when he started- slowed down, sniffed ground, stopped or went around jumps. He loves agility at home but the trial environment takes a little getting used to. I throw a party at the end of each run no matter what and hopefully with time he will speed up more to match his at home speed. Zooming at trials is not stressing like sniffing in the ring is looking for food (lol) and not stressing. My pup zooms at home when he is excited and happy too so not all zoomies are stress. But look at the dog closely before the trial zoomies (I can usually predict ringside who is getting ready to “break down” before it even starts) and you can see the stress.

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  • What if your dog does both, stresses low AND high? Sometimes my dog gets the zoomies and sometimes he trots off to hunt squirrels when we work outside. Indoors, however, he does great.

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  • My Miniature Poodle will spin bi-directionally at the start line then settle down. She also spins when I’m late in my cue or if she misses a weave pole entrance. My first agility poodle showed both high and low signs of stress and I finally retired him. He loved class and hated competition. I know I put too much on him and he just turned and left the ring one day and I never brought him back.

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  • My 3yr old ckc is very keen on agility. Loves to train. Works well at home and in class. At a trial, she slows down and loses concentration. I’m thinking this is stress related. Ideas?

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  • My red girl dobie had amazing zoomies that were sometimes stress and sometimes joy of life-they got better but her alternate choice is biting at me-it used to happen in practice but now only at trials-it is excitement/stress/frenzy-sometimes it is when she has to collect, sometimes when she is unsure what i want, sometimes just over the top excitment-we stopped trialing to work on it but since nothing has energy of a trial biting doesnt show up then and never bites at me or anyone else ever any other time!

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  • No one could ever convince me ALL Zoomies are stress. Ever. Seems someone came up with this and everyone latched onto it and it’s been parroted and set in stone.

    My girl Zoomies every day at home. I watch her from the window. She zoomies at the park, after baths, etc. Every day.

    But if she Zoomies in class or a trial – it’s stress?

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    • I don’t think we ever said that ALL zoomies are stress! Absolutely, dogs get the zoomies during play. However, I think a lot of inexperienced trainers view ALL zoomies as play. And I don’t believe that’s true. When a dog is working well in the ring, then suddenly bursts into zoomies just after a repeated mistake (like missed weaves being attempted a few times in a row), I believe that more often than not, that dog is exhibiting stress.

      The larger idea here (for those who have never encountered the concept) is that not all stress looks like stress. Sometimes what appears as excitement or exuberance is actually a stress reaction.

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    • Ok – first – I love your dog 😉

      There is a fine line here between stress and sortof disconnecting. For sure, the semi-zoomies are occurring because of the mistakes. The mistakes break the connection and it takes a bit to get it back. In that sense – I would categorize it as a stress reaction. His reaction to stress is to break connection and blow off a little steam then get back on track.

      But boy – he looks like fun!

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  • I have 2 low stress dogs. Have been told they do this because they do not have enough value for me. One because she knows there is no rewards until the end, the other just stress. What does one do for that? More concerned about the dog that will not run with me at trial. Total avoidance.

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    • Your best option is to keep your reinforcement rate ridiculously high in practice. Keep things short and intense so your dog is always keen to work with you! Then take those short intense sessions to lots of different places. Different fields, surfaces, environments. When you see a relaxed, happy dog in those situations, then try some show and go type events.

      Concurrently, take your dogs to shows and just play nearby. No showing, no stress, just playing near that show environment.

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  • Our first trial my dog earned the name Dances in Circles. Two years of training and poof, just ran around everything on the course. The judge was awesome about it and just let us go. I realized that it was mostly my nervousness going right down the leash to the dog. Even now, two years later, if I am nervous about a course, he can pick it up and does the circle dance. It is up to me to remain calm and above all to have fun on the course.

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  • My BMD who is three is showing me both high and low stress. In the rally ring he shuts down and this is what happened when we tried CKC agility for the first time. I think my stress level and my expectations of him (he sparkles at home) aren’t helping us in the ring. We also live far away from matches and no facility to practice.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDjLv4FGRQQ

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    • Oh my gosh – those are some LARGE zoomies for a LARGE dog!! 😉 That is a perfect example of stressing high. I expect if he had made his weave entry the first time, there would have been no zoomies. I would concentrate on weave pole training, and perhaps going on after mistakes instead of correcting them.

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  • I agree with you. My dog shows both high and low stress reactions. Usually the high is at a trial and low occurs mostly in training.

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  • I definitely think that I have observed this problem. Your comments really helped me understand the issue and get started on how to correct it. You are correct – I was working on recalls to try and fix this issue, with no real results. Thank you. Robin and Mini

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    • Thank YOU Robin! I wrote the article hoping that I could recreate that light bulb moment for other competitors! I hope a different perspective helps you get through your current issues!

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  • Absolutely the zoomies can be puppy play. But in a trial environment, I think it is more often stress than playfullness. And if the zoomies occur just after a mistake, then I think it is highly likely to be stress!

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  • I’m so glad to know that there are other dogs who “zoom” (I didn’t know that term for it). I’m a beginner to both large dogs and agility (adopted a puppy found wandering the street at a vet-estimated 6-8 weeks). After reading this, I wonder how much of his zooming has to do with MY tension because I view this behavior as my failure to “control” him. I do think there is a certain element of puppy play as pointed out, but then my nerves have probably added to it as a stress response.

    You asked about other signs of stress – when my dog gets confused by what I’m trying to get him to do, he will often beginning jumping on/at me and may even mouth me (the mouthing is dying away). Boredom is evidenced by him flipping over onto his back and playing with his leash (yes, he definitely has more than a little boxer in him and yes, he is most decidedly the class clown).

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  • I’ll mention how Lucky Lucy began showing ring stress, since I haven’t heard it mentioned elsewhere. She was a solid red, very glossy short coated Southern Black Mouth Cur, and after leaving the ring she would suddenly become covered with what looked like snowflakes. A vet at the trial saw it and called it “blowing dandruff”, a sign of extreme stress. This is harder to detect in long haired dogs, but they do it too. Lucky never did this in class, only at trials, and only after she turned 4. We eventually quit competing because she just didn’t like the trialing environment.

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  • I have a dog that, when she was new to agility, stressed both high and low! At one trial, she didn’t want to leave the start line, and when I finally got her moving she walked around every obstacle. She has also done some “beautiful” zoomies. I never corrected her or acted upset, and she is doing great now.

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  • Good food for thought. Thank you Sarah. Yes Crystal it can be puppy play but I’ve also seen it come from stress, yet it makes the handlers more ‘stressed”. Learning to recognize it helps us to help them 🙂

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  • I’ve seen some pretty happy pups tearing up the dirt that makes me question if it is always a stress thing. I think some dogs just like to get wild and kick up their heels.

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