Training is a challenging process for most dogs, while they learn new skills and in often challenging new environments. However, when intact female dogs go into a "Heat-Cycle" during training this can add some additional challenges to the learning process.
What is a "Heat Cycle"?
A dog in heat refers to the time in a female dog's life when she's fertile and ready to breed. It's the stage in a dog's reproductive cycle when she's ovulating, and therefore open to potential mates.
Most dogs come into heat twice per year, or about every six months, although the interval can vary between breeds and from dog to dog. Small breed dogs may cycle three times per year, while giant breed dogs may only cycle once every 12 months.
The earliest sign of estrus is swelling or engorgement of the vulva, but this swelling is not always obvious. In many cases, a bloody vaginal discharge is the first sign that a pet owner will notice when their dog comes into heat. In some cases, the discharge will not be apparent until several days after estrus has begun.
Behavioral Changes During Heat
Just like humans, when dogs go through their reproductive cycle they can experience many changes associated with fluctuating hormones. Some of these behavior changes can include lower energy levels, lower aggression thresholds, increased irritability, increases in dominance behaviors, and a desire to explore and stray away from their owners and their homes at times.
What does this have to do with Training?
One of the most important parts of dog training is developing your dog's engagement during activities. Engagement refers to how much your dog is paying attention to you over all of the other distractions in the environment, as well as competing motivators the dog may have. We do this using food rewards, as well as fun games and play.
During a female dog's heat, they are likely to lose much of their appetite and it may be more challenging to motivate them with food or treats. They also tend to have less energy and may not be very excited to play if they are tired or lethargic.
Dogs who are in training to address behavioral problems such as fear, anxiety, or aggression could see significant set-back during a heat cycle because these behavioral problems can be exacerbated when a dog experiences discomfort or pain that is often associated with going into heat.
What should you do with a dog that is in training during a heat cycle?
Training at Home
That really depends on what type of training your dog is working towards accomplishing. Helping dogs to feel comfortable and confident during training is an important factor in the success in the training. So if you are training at home, this can minimize the stress associated with training at a new location or in a challenging environment.
Keeping your sessions short and highly rewarding during your training sessions will help ensure that your training sessions stay positive and enjoyable, even during this stressful time.
Limit training sessions to avoid over exerting your dog. When your dog is exhausted, it is almost impossible to effectively learn new skills and behaviors. If you start to notice your dog is very uninterested or too tired to participate, then it's time to finish training.
Remember that your pup will likely have less of an appetite to plan your dog's training food for the day carefully. Your dog will also likely need to go to the bathroom more often and drink more water, which you can work into your training schedule as well.
Training with a Professional
At our training facility we occasionally have dogs that go into heat during our training program or arrive to training while in heat. We also inform the owners that we can still accomplish training during their heat cycle, but the impacts that we listed above for training at home will also effect the dog during their training at our facility.
The effect of heat on training could even be worsened by the stressful environment. It is often recommended to post-pone training until the dog has completed their heat cycle to resume training.
Taking breaks from training during heat
Taking time off from actively training our dogs on new or more challenging skills during stressful times can be beneficial for not only your dog but for you as well. While pausing your dog's training progression can be beneficial, it doesn't actually mean that training stops entirely.
During your dog's heat cycle, its important to still enforce all of the daily routine expectations that you've had for your dog up to this point.
This means that if you usually require your dog to sit before going through the doorway to go out to the back yard, then you should still require your dog to sit before going through that doorway. If your dog usually is not allowed on the furniture, then your dog should still not be allowed on the furniture.
The discomfort associated with going into heat will often make even these mundane takes more challenging for your dog, so you can still improve your dog's reliability during this stressful time by holding them to the same standards and expectations you had of them when they are not in heat.
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