There’s a video going around (there always is, right?) of an agility dog getting the “zoomies” and taking off on her own, running and jumping all over the ring without her handler.
As usual, there is plenty of discussion about it. Is the zooming dog stressed out? Or is she expressing fun and joy?
I think these are good questions to ask. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen far more stressed dogs zooming. I think it’s rarer to see dogs who are suddenly possessed with an urge to run around joyfully by themselves on an agility course.
I’m going to talk just a little bit about what can prompt zooming behavior. But I will focus on an issue that I believe is much bigger than speculating about the dog’s inner state. Because in one important way, it doesn’t matter whether a dog is running from joy or stress.
How Zoomies Often Start
I have never seen, in a video or in person, a dog leave her handler to go running around by herself when the agility run is going well and the dog and handler are connected. I’m sure it happens—everything happens in agility. But the more typical time for it to happen is after a handler error. If you’re not familiar with agility, this can look like the dog is in error. After all, we spectators can usually tell what the next obstacle is supposed to be, and the dog is going somewhere else. But often when the dog “runs off,” she is going exactly where the handler (accidentally) sent her.
I can hear Gerry Brown, whom I was lucky enough to have a private lesson and a seminar spot with, saying, “Look at your feet!” When I looked down, they were pointing in the direction my dog was dutifully running—the “wrong” way. And I can hear my own teacher saying many times: “You sent her there.” For whatever reason, it’s hard for us beginning agility folks to grasp that the dog is often doing exactly what we indicated when they make this kind of “error.”
So zoomies often happen when we send the dog off into no man’s land. Our moves can result in the dog going off-course and then taking off like a rocket. Zoomies can also start when we ask too much of a dog. They can start when the dog is generally stressed out. They can start when we keep asking the dog to repeat an obstacle that was executed incorrectly or avoided the first time. Or sometimes they happen because we have not worked at transitioning to trial situations well enough. If the dog is not used to running without added reinforcement, she may already be suffering from lack of positive feedback and will seek alternative reinforcement.
It takes some experience, good instruction, and good observation skills to see when we made an error. We often don’t realize it in the middle of a run, especially in competition. We think the dog made a mistake.
Here’s what it looks like when a dog goes where the handler directs her instead of where the handler intended. In this photo sequence of some backyard practice, I accidentally send Zani into a clump of weave polls in the flowerbed instead of sending her over a second jump. Yes, this was a real practice.
I have marked on the first photo where I intended for her to go. Agility folks can see that I am not positioned well, there’s not enough room, and Zani is not facing the jump.
The subsequent photos show what happened when I didn’t turn tightly or soon enough to send her over the second jump. Miraculously, she made the first turn, no thanks to my handling. But what’s going to happen next?
Can you see that she now goes exactly where my gestures indicate she should go?
My turn is way too late!
Into the flowerbed!
I was trying to cue a hard right turn but didn’t turn quickly enough or sharply enough. Not to mention I would have been in her way. Being an honest and truehearted girl, Zani went exactly where I asked her to!
I offer these embarrassing photos to show how common it is for the dog to be doing exactly what we asked, whether we think so at the time or not. Once they learn the basic language of agility, they speak it better than we do. If there had been no flowerbed, I would have sent Zani off into the wild blue yonder. And if this were in a trial, depending on our connection and both of our stress levels, I could have had a heck of a time getting her back.
What’s Happening If the Dog Gets the Zoomies?
So, back to the latest zooming dog video. After some consideration, I decided not to link to it here. You can easily find several on YouTube that match what I’m discussing.
In the latest one I’ve seen, a possible handler error of judgment seems to prompt a disconnect between dog and handler. (The error was to repeatedly ask the dog to make another attempt at a failed obstacle.) You can see the connection starting to break. Then the dog takes off, circling the ring and doing these stupendous jumps over non-jump obstacles. Most discussions I have seen about the video are about whether the dog is zooming out of stress or just having a good time. It does appear that at times she is enjoying herself.
But I put it to you that “stressed-out versus having fun” is not the question we should be asking.
What if we look at what the dog is actually doing rather than trying to assess her demeanor? What if we operationalize the zooming, try to describe it exactly? In the videos I have in mind, there is something the dogs are very obviously doing while also running and jumping.
They are avoiding their handlers.
The handlers beckon and call, trying to get connected enough to resume the run together. In the video I saw recently, the handler either called or beckoned to the dog 10 times during 56 seconds of zooming by my count. Unsuccessfully.
I have all the empathy in the world for that handler. I’ve been there. But not being able to recall your dog who is running around at full speed is not a joke. It’s not cute. It doesn’t need to be published as a video with cute background music. It’s an issue of safety.
During part of that video, you can hear someone on the sidelines warning the stewards to watch the gate. That’s an excellent idea.
So as we discuss and play armchair quarterback about whether the dog is stressed or not, we are perhaps not perceiving the bigger issue. We are so comfortable speculating about a dog’s motivations. That’s familiar ground. But we are actually watching a video of an off-leash dog not responding to being called. We are seeing a failed recall cue. Repeatedly. In an environment that is not completely enclosed.
And that’s the problem with zoomies and zoomie videos. Trying unsuccessfully to get our dog’s attention in a public environment is no joke. The dog’s safety, that of other dogs, and even of people, are at risk.
Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson