E202: Petra Ford -"Optimal States of Arousal for Training and Competition"

Arousal matters... in today's episode I talk to Petra Ford about how to find that perfect balance, where your dog is in the right state to train or compete at their best.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we'll be talking to Petra Ford.

Petra graduated from the Rutgers School of Health Related Professions over 20 years ago with a degree in physical therapy. She attended the Canine Rehabilitation Institute in 2007 and is a certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist.

She has written several articles on canine conditioning, canine injury prevention, competing with your dog, and more. She has been published in a number of magazines including Clean Run, Front and Finish, and Whole Dog Journal.

Petra trains and trials her Labrador Retrievers in obedience, agility and field. Her black Lab, Tyler, had the distinction of being the 2008 and 2009 National Obedience Champion and First Runner Up in 2010. In 2012, Petra and Tyler became the first American team to win the Obedience World Cup and then she also, most recently, won the National Obedience Championship with Zeal in 2020.

Hi Petra, welcome back to the podcast!

Petra Ford: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, can you quickly remind listeners who your current dogs are and what you're working on with them?

Petra Ford: I have Zaiden. He's going to be 10 in a few weeks. He's my retired agility dog. Zeal is my obedience dog. We'll see how much longer. He's going to be 9 in July. I don't want to push him too hard. I have Zaina. She's also my obedience competition dog. And I have my naughty little puppy, Pzesty, whose current job is terrorizing me.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to talk today about the new class you have on the schedule this term about optimal drive states. To start us out, do you want to explain what an optimal drive state is? Especially what we mean by the word "drive" here?

Petra Ford: That's a really good question, especially since I did a little research on it last week to prep for the class and I realized that that's a terrible word to use. It's a word that I guess we used traditionally. From my background, we called a drive state basically was how much energy the dog put into their work.

I really should be looking at arousal level, so how, chemically, the dog is feeling at this moment in time. It's just like humans: if it's a low arousal level, it's like you're sitting on the couch, hanging out watching TV or reading a book. If it's an optimal arousal level, you're alert, you're ready to go. You're focused, you're not too excited, you're in a nice sweet spot for learning and performing at your optimal level.

And then there's what typically we thought was optimal, which is tug, tug, tug at your dog, frenetic, crazy, tug a little more, get him even crazier. That was the answer to everything was tug more and get them crazier, not realizing that that was super-uncomfortable for the dog and a really hard place for the dog to work and learn.

Also when you're in that state, there's this tricky crossover between when is it excited and when does it become anxiety, which is not comfortable, as I think most people know. Did I answer your question?

Melissa Breau: Yeah. I wanted to know what an optimal drive state was. It sounds like you're using the words drive and arousal a little interchangeably.

Petra Ford: Yeah, I think I was. I don't think I'm going to anymore, because if you really look at the definition drive, it's more like talking about a dog's instinctive drives, like prey drive, sex drive, herding, that kind of thing, and that's really not what I'm referring to.

I'm referring to just a dog being under-aroused or over-aroused or in that perfect sweet spot, kind of in the middle. That coincides very much so with humans and how we are chemically and arousal states for humans. It's pretty much the same as with dogs.

I think if you think of it that way, then you can relate more to how your dog is feeling. When we used to say drive state, it was just I have a high drive dog because he's bred to work, and then I tug and I put him in higher drive. I think it's a pretty vague word. It's not as specific.

Melissa Breau: Makes you think of a race car and revving the engine.

Petra Ford: We love to rev that engine, and it's very addicting. It's kind of a problem.

Melissa Breau: With all of that in mind, how can you tell when a dog is in that optimal state, when they're not too high and they're not too low?

Petra Ford: I think two things. One is A, you just have to be aware that that's something we should be looking for, and then B, we have to really learn how to read our dogs. It can be a little tricky and a little deceptive, so I think you have to approach it with an open mind.

And then you have to learn the signs that your dog … because dogs will look different. But typically, if they're in a nice state, their body is relaxed, their ear set is high, their breathing is normal, they're not panting heavily, their eyes are very clear. When my dogs are too high, their eyes either get twitchy, or Zaina's eyes almost get squinty and a little cloudy. They're very clear. Their tail could be wagging or still, but it's not standing at attention. The dog is not twitchy. The dog is kind of energetic but relaxed. So those are some signs.

And then there's some variability among dogs, and it just becomes a matter of really observing your dog and being objective about what you're seeing.

Melissa Breau: Last time you were on, we talked quite a bit about Zeal and the journey the two of you have taken to figure out how to help him be his best. I was curious: how much did experimenting with what we're talking about now — arousal levels and whatnot — factor into that for him?

Petra Ford: Without that knowledge, and without learning what I learned and applying it in a way that it became practical and I could use it at a moment's notice, I wouldn't be anywhere with him.

The story started with Tyler, who I had over-adrenalized all the time. Didn't realize it. I didn't know what the heck I was doing. Tyler had one weakness, and that was when I heeled him he used to eye-flick all the time, and I wanted steady eye contact. We used to think it was because he wasn't paying attention a hundred percent and he wasn't fully engaged.

Fast-forward I'm training Zeal completely different. It's his son, but they couldn't be more different. Big surprise. I'm in my yard tugging with him like crazy, out, I put him into heel position, start heeling, his eyes start eye-flicking just like Tyler's, and I went, "Oh boy, this is a problem. I'm creating this." I had no idea why or how.

Fortunately, because my oldest dog, Zaiden, has a ton of massive chemical issues, I had consulted with Brenda Aloff, a behaviorist, and she had helped me with him tremendously. So I contacted her and she very patiently talked me off the adrenaline kick and taught me how to … just what I talked about — how to read dogs and how to manage them, how to manage their arousal level.

And then I took some stuff that I knew as a physical therapist from working with children with autism and some techniques we do to help them manage their chemical state. I played around with it and applied it to Zeal, and I do it with all my dogs now and all my students' dogs. I use deep pressure, which is very calming and integrating, which is something we do with children with autism.

And like I said, I messed around with it, and it's helped Zeal with his anxiety. When he gets very anxious, it looks on the outside like he's just very animated and high and energetic. But if you look very carefully, you can see that it's not. I have it on cue now, and so when I give him that cue, he can calm himself down. So I use that a lot with him. I used it at Nationals. I've used it with him for years.

Melissa Breau: I know you have quite the range of personalities in your own dogs. Can you talk a little more about the similarities and differences there, to give folks a little more of a picture of what we're talking about when we're talking about … I was originally going to say high drive or low drive, but based on our conversation, high arousal or low arousal.

Petra Ford: In terms of what my different dogs look like and how they present that … it all started with Zaiden because he presents like a child with autism. That's where I learned to really apply these deep pressure techniques, and it helped him. When he gets very aroused and he goes over the cliff, chemically he does not have the ability to pull himself back. So I have to help him do that.

When Zeal started to have issues with anxiety, I applied that with him. His nervous system is a little more intact, so it carries over more quickly with him. And I actually, like I said, put it on cue. So I use that with him.

Zaina is completely different. She's very confident, she's innately extremely energetic, so with her, I've used it a little more as calming. When she gets a little too edgy and twitchy, I use it to calm her down. I have a different cue for her, and I put deep pressure in a different way for her because she's different, so she doesn't like what he likes. So I had to change it around.

With Zaina, though, I got a little bit smarter and I worked super-hard. I knew as a little puppy that she could easily get over-aroused, so I was very careful about not getting her too aroused. I'm much more careful with that with her. And the puppy, so far, he seems pretty stable, pretty much in the middle. I can see he has it in him to get a little too high. But so far I've been able to keep it in check.

Part of what I do now is I'm also very aware and very mindful, and if I see something causes my dog to get very aroused, then I immediately back off and temper that.

Melissa Breau: We've been talking about this quite a bit, but why is this important? Why is this something that's worth thinking about, especially for those of us who maybe hope to compete with our dogs someday?

Petra Ford: The reality is that it doesn't matter how well we train our dogs, it doesn't matter how well we can manage our internal state, how good of a handler we are. When we go in the ring, the dogs are going to feel stress in some way, shape, or form. And so, if we have a tool that can help them manage that stress, then that's pretty awesome. That's something we've never had in the past.

You know that feeling when you go in the ring with your dog — everybody has it — and things start to happen and we're like, oh, we have no idea what to do when we feel like we just have no control and things are just happening and we're lost. And so being able to read my dogs is super helpful because now I can tell what's going on moment by moment.

And then, in the ring, I have tools that I can apply moment by moment. So if my dog goes in the ring and he starts getting a little too flat, a little worried and he gets a little flat, I can give him a cue that brings him up. If I feel like my dog is starting to get a little anxious and twitchy, I have a different cue that I can apply instantly that can help him calm down.

That's pretty amazing because it's empowering. You don't have that anymore where you're like, "Oh boy, this whole thing is slipping away from me and I have no way of reeling it back in." You actually do. It's a pretty cool tool to have.

And like I said, at the end of the day, my dogs have an up cue and they have a calming cue, and then the rest is just up to me. I need to be able to read my dog and give them what they need, like I said, moment by moment, because it can change within a class, it could change month to month, because they're living, breathing beings and they change.

Melissa Breau: Just like us. You mentioned earlier this idea that sometimes it's possible to mistake anxiety for excitement. I wanted to talk about that a little bit more. Why is that such a common problem? What can we really do about it?

Petra Ford: I think because nobody wants a dog that's kind of flat. People want the opposite. They want a dog that's animated, that's excited, that's fast, that looks like they're loving their job. Excitement and anxiety can look very similar, so I think that's where the problem lies. If a dog gets so aroused that it becomes uncomfortable, they're not going to tell us that we need to be able to read when the dog goes from being aroused to being what I would say over-aroused. And like I said, it can look very similar.

It's very clear the difference between when a dog is not very excited and when a dog is excited. That's pretty clear because they look very different. I do think that there are a lot of people that really believe, as I used to, that when their dog is in a state where the arousal has flipped over from excitement to anxiety, they don't recognize that. So they're like, "This is a picture of a happy, excited dog," and everyone looks at that picture and says, "Oh, well, I aspire to that then."

So I think it's just being able to read the subtle differences in their eyes and their mouth and their breathing and their body posture. I think reading dogs accurately is a weakness for sure in traditional dog obedience training. I see it a lot where people really don't know the difference. So just developing the skill of really reading your dog objectively.

I also think what happens is humans love to project and label. I'm very guilty of that. Zeal is a nervous, anxious dog. I label him that, and then I subconsciously reinforce that label all the time, and then I'm not just objectively reading what's in front of me.

I think that happens with that, too. We're like, "Oh, my dog's jumping up and down. Oh, good, he's excited and happy." You're just labeling that, and then you're not objectively saying, "Well, I don't know. Is he? Or is he screaming and maybe that's not so good."

Melissa Breau: Right. As we've talked about this, we've talked quite a bit about the "whats." I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about some of the "hows." If a dog tends to run high, how can we actually teach them to lower that?

Petra Ford: First off, like I said, the first thing is prevention. If you pay attention, you will start to see certain things that trigger and that will flip your dog up, and then I will avoid those.

If I take out Zaina's favorite toy and throw it across the room, instantly she's going to go into hyper-arousal. So instead of throwing it when I'm training, maybe I'll tug, and I'll only tug for a little bit, and then I'll out her and spit her a cookie, give her a second to compose herself, then move into work, and then it's functional. I didn't throw her over the cliff.

If we do throw the dogs over the cliff, or if the dog throws themselves over the cliff, I do something where … if you think about it like this. If you're super-nervous about something, and someone comes up to you and starts rubbing you or says, "It's OK, Melissa, don't worry about it," that's not going to be very comforting. But if someone you know walks up to you and gives you a big, deep, tight, squeezing hug, you're like, "Ah, that feels better."

So it's the same concept. Deep pressure, just steady, deep pressure on a dog is calming. I use it in my rehab all the time. Dog comes in super nervous, I need to work on the dog, I will literally lie on top of the dog and I'll take some deep breaths, and the dog comes down.

Now that's just a general … there's variations among that. Some dogs might not tolerate that right away. So with each dog, I play around with it, and again it's reading the dog, observing the dog. What does the dog find calming versus just a recipe "Do this," because there are a lot of variations. But the concept is give the dog deep pressure, take some slow, deep, calming breaths, and it integrates the dog and it calms the dog down. And then over time I have to apply less and less pressure, and over time the dog responds more and more quickly. Right now I could show you, I could take Zeal, I could give him a cue, he'll start throwing himself into high arousal, I'll give him another cue, he'll start offering calming signals and calm himself down.

Melissa Breau: If that's taking a dog that's maybe too high and helping them calm down, how do you teach the reverse? How do you teach a dog who runs low to actually come up a little bit?

Petra Ford: I do it using tricks because dogs tend to like tricks a lot. In part, that's really because of us. When we teach tricks, we're happy, we laugh or relax, tricks are very highly reinforced both with food and just with our attitude and the way we are. Then we get into obedience exercises and everything gets deadly serious. So I use tricks a lot.

I also use offering. Dogs love to offer. It's very empowering for them and it changes their state of mind, and it throws them into a higher arousal level. So I use tricks and offering and games.

But all my dogs … now I'm trying to go through the dogs I have and some of my students' dogs. Most of them we can bump up fairly quickly with some tricks and some offering.

Melissa Breau: Your syllabus mentions this idea of managing your energy to influence your dog's energy. I know that's something Denise has talked about in the past too. Can you talk about what you mean by that and how that works?

Petra Ford: Yeah, sure. Our dogs are not verbal. Our dogs read our body language, and our bodies can project calm, and our bodies can project frustration, and our bodies can project energy, and our bodies can be frenetic.

Some people, sometimes in an effort to jolly up their dogs, they get a little frantic: "OK, let's go, come on, come on, come on!" And some dogs are like, "All right, that's just way too much for me. I don't like that."

If I want my dog to be calm, I relax my whole body, I take deep breaths, I move in a very controlled and calm manner. If I want to my dog to give me some more energy, then I move with more energy, I push with more energy, my body just emits more energy.

Typically in the ring, most dogs — I would argue probably all dogs — just need you to be cool, calm, and collected, and convey that, "Everything is good. I got this. Don't worry. I'll give you your cues. Just do what I say. You know your job and it's all good." I work on that in training so that it becomes a habit.

I think humans tend not to be very self-aware. Especially when we're training, all our focus is on the dog and on our mechanics, and we're not thinking about our own emotions and our state of mind and what our body is doing and what our body is projecting. So I think it is important to be really self-aware.

I think what happens is, if you have a dog that's anxious, their anxiety tends to spill onto you, and then most people respond to that with anxiety. When a dog gets anxious, instantly I feel it and instantly I start to take deep breaths, and I'm like, no, I have to be calm, and then my calm will filter back. Just like the dog's anxiety filtered over to me, my calm will filter back to the dog.

The worst thing you can do with an anxious dog is to get anxious and frustrated. You need to get as calm as possible, and then you will also be more objective and thoughtful, because when you're anxious, you're in fight or flight and your brain is not working optimally.

Melissa Breau: To bring things full circle, I mentioned you have the class on the schedule for February. Who should really consider signing up? And are there any skills they need before they sign up to qualify for the class?

Petra Ford: It's probably helpful if your dog has some tricks. I think most dogs do. I think when people see that, obviously people with dogs that tend to be over-aroused, that will appeal to them.

I will argue that it's beneficial really for all dogs because all dogs are going to, as I mentioned, struggle at some level, and all dogs alternate between lower arousal and higher arousal. I think, for one, as a community, we can all benefit from really being experts at reading our dogs, and we're going to look at that a fair amount.

Obviously, if your dog does tend to get over-aroused or under-aroused, it's helpful. But like I said, I think all dogs … even Zaina, who's innately ridiculously confident, very independent, the environment doesn't bother her if you look at it from the outside, but I still use these techniques with her, because when she goes in the ring, she does get a little concerned. Sometimes she gets a little too excited. Sometimes she gets a little flat.

I think competition is just hard. It's hard for dogs. And I think to have these tools are super helpful. I found them invaluable for my dogs personally for sure.

Melissa Breau: Anything else you want to share about the class?

Petra Ford: I think someone asked me if it's relevant for agility. I think it is, and for me it will be super fun. I love problem solving, I love figuring things out, so it will be fun for me if people from different sports wanted to give it a try. I like making things up as we go along. I think that's really fun.

Obviously, obedience is my thing. I think it's a tremendous thing to have for obedience, because obedience involves a lot of pressure and it's just involved. It's stressful for the dogs, and this really helps them get through the classes in a much better state of mind and emotionally in a better place.

Melissa Breau: All right, one last question for you, the one that I've been rounding things out with that I'm sure you know is coming. What's something that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to training?

Petra Ford: I was reminded of, again, that it's super important to not label, not assume, and to just observe my dogs. One of my mentors many, many, many, many years ago said, "It is what it is." If the dog is doing it, it is what it is. Stop analyzing it and trying to put all your human thoughts and feelings on it. If the dog looks away, then the dog doesn't know not to look away. If the dog looks worried, the dog is worried. I was just reminded of that very recently. Don't label my dog. Just read what she's doing and adjust and just address it.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Petra.

Petra Ford: Thank you so much for having me. I always enjoy it. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Shade Whitesel to talk about training positions. Don't miss it! If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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