A couple of weeks ago I came across a great article by Devin Wyatt (ref) about how we monitor fatigue in professional athletes and how as coaches and health care professionals we can optimise performance by using and understanding the principles surrounding fatigue. This got me thinking about fatigue in our dogs and how it is so important to recognise fatigue and act accordingly, especially in our young dogs. I have seen dogs, both at competition and at training days that are looking obviously fatigued, and yet they are asked to keep going, at the detriment of both performance and learning. Is this because we don’t recognise the signs of fatigue, is it because we put the signs down to something else, or is it we just don’t see them at all?
Let's discuss the physiology and science behind fatigue that will help us understand how this relates this to our dog’s behaviour and how it can impact on learning and performance. So what exactly is fatigue? Fatigue is a loss of performance that can be due to physiological factors or psychological factors or a combination of both. It is often thought that fatigue is purely physical, both in terms of cause and effect. Well interestingly this isn’t the case, fatigue can, in fact, be broken up into two main areas, exercise-induced fatigue and non-exercise induced fatigue.
Psychological fatigue is a very complex area in human sports medicine and is becoming much more understood as playing a significant part in performance. In a recent study, Coutts suggests that, with the exception of military combat, team sports can place more stress on the brain than any other activity. Coutts goes on to discuss the likely reasons behind this including the player's requirements to be vigilant often for long periods of time before and during matches; they need to be responsive to the opposition and their tactics as well as playing to their tactics and plans.
Young dogs are incredibly susceptible to psychological fatigue; learning new skills is incredibly challenging and takes a lot of energy. There is some evidence now that training into fatigue on a repetitive basis in people can lead to reduced skill acquisition long term, essentially this means that the ability to learn new skills is reduced, not just short term at the time of fatigue but for a long period of time afterwards. This is super important information to consider; we need to recognise the signs of fatigue with our young dogs and make sure we don’t work into them. The art is to finish on a positive just before the fatigue kicks in, often tricky as it can happen very quickly in young dogs. If it creeps up on us before we have managed to finish on a success, I would suggest changing the behaviour for something your dog finds easy and where there is a high chance of success, ask for this behaviour, reward and finish.
Let's consider physical fatigue for a minute; this can be split into two categories, central fatigue and peripheral fatigue. Central fatigue comes from the brain and is related to the transmission of messages from the brain to the muscles. Peripheral fatigue occurs within the muscles and relates to the depletion of glycogen and other substances related to energy and also the accumulation of lactate that is a waste product. I think this is an easier concept to understand and relate to our dogs, although often the signs are subtle, especially in high drive dogs that are running on adrenaline.
So what are the signs of fatigue, can you split them up in to psychological and physical, unfortunately not as they fall under the same set of signs and symptoms. Signs and symptoms can also be very unique to each dog; therefore learning the signs for your dog is important. Some examples of signs of fatigues are:
Switching off, loss of interest
A drop in motivation
Putting in extra strides
A change in movement patterning, for example, starting to pace or a specific limb looking fatigues
These signs can obviously be signs of other things, but let's try and have fatigue at the front of our minds when we are working with our young dogs and try to prevent working into high levels of fatigue. It seems that this approach will pay off in the long run with your young dog.