CASE STUDY: THE ZOOMING
by Deborah Jones, Ph.D.
Kafka is a 2 1/2 year old unneutered male Italian
During agility training Kafka will exhibit the
'stress zoomies' and race around the training area out of control.
According to his owner "I think he's stressed because right
before he starts zooming, his ears are pinned back tight to his
head and his body is very taut and rigid. He always comes to a
dead stop right before running off, and usually turns his head
to one side. There's always that moment of hesitation when he's
heard me give a command, thinks about it for a second, and then
Kafka came to his current owner at about 18
months old. Prior to that he had lived with his breeder. He was
shown in conformation and did a bit of lure coursing (but preferred
chasing the other dogs to chasing the lure).
Since coming to his current home Kafka has been
training in obedience and agility. Kafka's owner has been training
mostly on her own. She reports that she has used a "semi-clicker
approach to training". Kafka has earned one leg towards his
Companion Dog title.
More recently Kafka and his owner have been
training at an agility club. She reports that she fits his training
in between advanced classes with her other dogs.
Kafka's owner reports that this behavior was
first exhibited while training in her backyard. She was working
on having him walk on a slightly raised board when he took off
and raced around the back yard. This behavior now occurs two to
three times during a training session.
His owner reports that the "zoomies"
are most likely to occur in connection with the dog walk, broad
jump, and (most recently) tunnels. At a recent trial Kafka's owner
noticed that he kept refusing tunnels. Working later at home she
discovered that when she would hesitate at a tunnel he would stop.
If she insisted he complete the tunnel, he would start zooming.
She also reports that this behavior is more likely to occur towards
the end of a course or sequence.
Unfortunately, it seems likely that this behavior
will increase in frequency and generalize to other obstacles.
More on this below.
Kafka's owner has tried a variety of techniques
to deal with this problem.
She states that he comes back faster is she
doesn't call him, but instead turns her back to him and ignores
him. When he returns she has him finish the obstacle he ran away
from, then rewards him and stops.
If she wants to continue working and Kafka is
still not concentrating she puts the leash on him. He seems to
relax and works better with the leash on than without it.
She works with Kafka in short training sessions
(5 minutes) and obstacle sequences (4-5) in order to minimize
Kafka is exhibiting behaviors that would be
considered 'positive stress' reactions. In this case the term
positive refers to adding something. Kafka is becoming more active
(adding behaviors) when under pressure.
When feeling unsure, pressured, or overwhelmed
Kafka uses unfocused activity (running laps wildly) as a way to
decrease his stress level. This technique works as it releases
the stress that has built up and allows him to relax and regroup.
It is a self-reinforcing behavior that operates on the principle
of negative reinforcement.
The behavioral definition of negative reinforcement
is the removal of an unpleasant stimulus that increases the probability
of the behavior it follows. Negative means taking something away,
in this case the stress, and reinforcement refers to something
designed to increase a behavior, in this case the "zoomies".
For Kafka, performing the "stress zoomies" relieves
an unpleasant emotional state and is very reinforcing. It is a
coping strategy that he has discovered on his own.
Because engaging in this type of behavior is
reinforcing and stress-reducing, it is very likely to increase
in frequency and to generalize to other situations as well. If
it works in one situation, Kafka is smart enough to try it out
and see if it works in other tense situations as well. Pretty
soon, even in only slightly tense situations, zooming will become
a default (automatic) behavior.
We all engage in stress-relieving activities
and, if they work, we continue to perform them. Humans have a
number of options for releasing stress through actions such as
eating, drinking, smoking, exercising, cleaning house, etc. While
any of these activities, taken to excess, have the potential for
harm, some are more inherently dangerous than others. Dogs don't
have as many behavioral options. Typical positive stress reactions
in dogs involve running, jumping, lunging, spinning, and chewing.
They are all ways of releasing tension and energy.
*In another column I will present a case that
deals with negative stress reactions. These are often seen as
'shutting down' and absence of behavior, rather than an increase
1. Being aware of the warning signs is an important
first step in managing this behavior. Kafka's owner has mentioned
that there are certain signs that she has noticed prior to the
zoomies. She has stated that he tenses his body, pins back his
ears, hesitates, turns his head to one side, looks at her, and
then takes off. These early warning signals are useful as they
will give her a chance to interrupt him before he goes into full
2. It's very important to try to manage situations
so that the zooming does not have a chance to occur. Once it happens,
two undesirable things have happened. First, Kafka has had another
opportunity to practice an unwanted behavior and make it a stronger
habit. Second, Kafka's owner has moved from training mode to crisis
management mode. The best she can do at that point is damage control,
but she has not taken proactive steps to solve the problem.
As soon as she notices the first warning sign
Kafka's owner needs to change the flow of events. She can do this
by training and practicing some more acceptable stress-relieving
exercises (described below). Before Kafka has made the decision
to run, she can divert his attention with these exercises and
activities. Once Kafka's tension has been released through these
exercises, he can be asked to work again. She can also avoid the
build-up of stress by changing the nature of the exercises that
Kafka is asked to perform and moving him from more stressful to
less stressful activities as appropriate (more on this below).
3. STRESS-RELIEVING EXERCISES.
It takes some experimentation to discover exercises
and activities that will help any particular dog to release stress.
While one dog may respond well to calming activities like stretching
and massage; another may benefit from active games that involve
jumping and tugging. Also, be aware that asking for compliance
to obedience commands when the dog is in this overexcited state
could be counterproductive. A dog who is overly stressed will
not respond in the usual manner, which then frustrates the handler
and may lead to more problems. Instead, engaging in mutually enjoyable
activities can be helpful here. Below is a list of possible exercises
to try out and observe their effect.
*Stretching. Stretching exercises can allow
for some focused activity that will help to release stress. These
are not obedience exercises and can be done with a food or toy
lure if desired. Lead your dog through a series of sit/down push-ups,
stand/down accordian style movements, and sit/stand on hind legs
jumping jacks. You can also teach and practice spins in both directions
(most dogs have a preferred direction). This can also be developed
into a cute 'chase your tail' trick. A play bow type stretch and
a stretch of the hindquarters can all be taught.
*Massage. You don't have to be a masseuse in
order to provide relaxation for your dog through touch. However,
there are a number of books and videos available for those interested
in learning specific techniques. Just remember to keep a close
eye on your dog's reactions to massage. Dogs will move away from
uncomfortable sensations or give small signals such as pinning
back their ears and quickly turning to look when you hit a sore
spot. Keep the massage calm, slow, and quiet. The purpose is to
relax, not to energize.
*Tricks. Tricks can serve the purpose of giving
the dog an outlet for his physical energy while keeping him focused
on the handler. Roll over, crawl, sit up, and high 5 are all fun
possibilities. Once the trick has been taught, it can be used
BEFORE Kafka has become overly stressed as a way to defuse his
tension. A 'quick trick break' randomly in the middle of an agility
run would be a great way to keep Kafka's interest and enthusiasm
high. An example sequence combining tricks and agility might be
jump, tunnel, spin, A-frame, roll over, high 5, jump, teeter,
sit up, etc.
*Games. Kafka's owner might play some games with him to defuse
his tension. Again, it is very important that the games are played
BEFORE Kafka becomes overly stressed, not after. Different dogs
enjoy different games. Some like tug and can play it nicely; others
love to be chased. Some like a wrestling type game; others like
to bounce and jump. Kafka's owner should work at finding out what
his favorite games are and play them with him before, during,
and after agility.
4. STRESS LEVEL MANAGEMENT.
Kafka's owner has been observing his behavior
and has noticed cues in his body language that suggest that "zooming"
is about to begin. She has also noticed that Kafka is more likely
to be stressed by certain obstacles, including the dogwalk and
broad jump. These are very important and useful observations.
In addition, it is important for Kafka's owner
to start monitoring his stress level (based on his body language
and behavior) at various points during agility training and showing.
Imagine a stress level of 10 being the most intense stress reactions
that Kafka could exhibit. With a stress level that high Kafka
would be in the midst of an incredible zooming session and would
be unable to control his reactions. On the other extreme, a stress
level of 1 would be a very, very relaxed dog (probably lying quietly
at your feet). Either extreme would not be conducive to learning
or performing in agility. What we would like is an 'optimal level
of arousal'. An ideal level is one that has enough excitement
to motivate activity, but not so much that it induces overactivity
Kafka's owner should practice rating his stress
level (from a low of 1 to a high of 10) at different times in
training and trialing. For example, when they are warming up and
just starting out, she might note that his stress level seems
to be about a 3 (low average). However, as he approaches the end
of a difficult sequence and comes upon the dogwalk, she might
note that his stress level is around a 9 (very high). It takes
keen observation skills to make accurate ratings, but this is
very important to closely monitor stress levels with dogs who
are easily overwhelmed. The average scores of 4, 5, and 6 would
be ideal to observe while working. For the present time, a stress
level score higher than 6 is hitting the danger level for Kafka.
When his level seems higher than that, it's time to introduce
a stress-reliever, an easier or preferred exercise, or a short
break. Continued attempts to train or show will be counter-productive
when the stress level increases.
In addition to monitoring and rating Kafka's
stress levels, his owner should also observe and rate the obstacles
and exercises on the amount of stress they seem to induce. The
obstacles that cause the highest stress reaction earn a 10; while
easy ones earn a 2 or 3. It is important not to overwhelm Kafka
with lots of high stress obstacles in a single training session.
Kafka's owner should also think very carefully
about how she plans her training sessions and how she structures
the exercises within them. Taking the time to sit down and draw
up a training plan will be immensely helpful. Rather than jumping
in and running a couple of sequences here or there, Kafka's owner
should seriously consider what she is training and how she will
go about reaching her goals for him. A training plan that slowly
and carefully introduces new techniques and challenges can help
to relieve stress in both Kafka and his owner. The training plan
doesn't have to be complex and comprehensive to be helpful. For
example, Kafka's owner may decide to work on 3-4 obstacle sequences
that include at least one contact obstacle. When he is able to
run a variety of these sequences smoothly, she might then add
an additional challenge such as a simple discrimination or a blind
cross. In addition, she might decide that at least once in the
sequence (randomly) she will take a 'stress break'. The key is
to be proactive in planning her training sessions rather than
going out to 'see what happens' and 'hoping for the best'.
By introducing mild to moderate training challenges
slowly and carefully, Kafka's owner will slowly raise his tolerance
for stress. She can then add bigger challenges or more challenges
within a training session.
One way to approach this problem is to use zooming
as a reinforcer. Since Kafka has shown that he finds it to be
a good stress reliever, his owner could use it to reinforce good
performances and to keep his stress levels low. To take control
of zooming and put it on a cue, Kafka's owner can start by playing
with him until he gets very revved up and excited. When she sees
him about ready to burst, give him a "go zoom!" cue
and run as fast as possible with him for a short distance, verbally
encouraging him to run. Then call him back and reinforce him (with
a very high value reward) for returning. Use this release cue
regularly during play and training. Instead of trying to avoid
zooming at all costs, this technique allows the owner to take
control by deciding when it occurs and by giving permission for
Becoming more creative in her application of
reinforcers may also help Kafka's owner keep him focused on her
and on the work. One possibility is the use of jackpots during
training. A jackpot can be either a large amount of a reinforcer
or a very special reinforcer. For example, rather than giving
a dog one treat for his efforts, you might give him a whole handful.
For some dogs, having a chance to eat the treats right out of
the container is special and makes a big impression. Others enjoy
being fed a large number of treats one right after the other.
Another way to jackpot a dog is to give a very special and rare
reinforcer. I use salmon and have found that a few small bits
of this delicacy makes a huge impression on my dogs. The jackpot
should be used BEFORE the dog gives signs of being overly stressed.
The owner should just stop suddenly and unexpectedly in the middle
of a sequence and give the jackpot.
Using a number of different types of reinforcers
during training sessions will also help keep Kafka's interest
high and his stress level low. In addition to a variety of food
treats, Kafka's owner should also use toys and play as rewards.
She needs to keep him guessing about what wonderful thing she
may have in store for good performances. It's very easy to get
into a rut and offer the same old reinforcer time after time.
When this happens our dogs get bored and we are no longer very
interesting to them. It takes a bit of creativity and planning
prior to each training session, but it is well worth the effort.
This is a situation in which many owners, trainers,
and instructors would say that "the dog is blowing you off".
This statement suggests intentional misbehavior on the part of
the dog. It suggests that the dog completely understands your
request, that he is physically and mentally capable of performing
it, and that he consciously chooses not to. Underlying this statement
is the suggestion that the dog is deliberately defying the owner's
authority. This type of statement is damaging to the dog/owner
relationship and shows a clear lack of understanding of learning
theory and canine behavior.
The "blowing you off" explanation
for training/performance errors often occurs when the trainer
cannot identify an obvious explanation for the mistake. Instead
of objectively analyzing the situation for causes, the trainer
resorts to making an unsupportable assumption about the dog's
motivation. Good trainers know that errors occur due to insufficient
experience and training and due to environmental changes and causes.
The dog's behavior is a reflection of the training history and
the current situation.
An explanation of canine behavior based on assumptions
about the internal emotional state of the dog, particularly when
that emotional state goes beyond basic emotions such as fear and
excitement, is ultimately not useful. Since dogs cannot tell us
how they feel or what they 'think' there is no way to objectively
test our theories about their internal states. We are only guessing,
and our guesses may be completely wrong. The entire science of
behaviorism is based on avoiding such errors by limiting ourselves
to observations of actual behavior rather than resorting to guesswork.
to Articles Index
© 2005 K9inFocus.com
Built and Maintained by Pet
| About | Books
& Videos | Reviews | Workshops
| Calendar | Seminar
Contact Form | Photos | Articles