Your dog’s bucket and how it affects training

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Every dog has a bucket. You may have heard people referring to a dog’s bucket. Or you might be reading this thinking I’ve gone a bit mad, and you’d probably be right. But keep with me on this, because your dog’s bucket can have a big influence on their training success. 

Imagine your dog has a bucket with a hole in the bottom. Every time they experience a negative or positive emotion, some liquid gets added to their bucket. If liquid is added faster than it can drain out of the hole, the overall level will rise until it overflows. And then we have a bit of a mess.

In this blog post we are going to explore your dog’s bucket in more detail, including how big it is, what causes liquid to be added to it, how to identify when it’s full and how this impacts on your training.

What actually is the bucket?

The bucket is just a way to think about the level of stress hormones running through your dog’s system at any one time. 

The bucket symbolises how much stress your dog can cope with, the liquid relates to the amount of stress hormones that are currently in your dog’s system and the hole equates to how quickly your dog is able to calm down.

How big is your dog’s bucket?

Your dog’s bucket doesn’t relate to their physical size. You could have a chihuahua with a giant bucket or a great dane with a thimble sized bucket. Instead, the size relates to how much stress or excitement your dog can cope with before they find it all too much.

Your dog may have a large bucket with a large hole, meaning they can cope with a fair amount and will calm down quickly too. On the other hand they may have a small bucket with a small hole, meaning that their bucket will fill up more quickly and they will take longer to empty it.

What pays into the bucket?

It would make perfect sense to assume that, when talking about stress, only negative experiences would cause liquid to be added to the bucket. However this isn’t the case. Both positive and negative events add to the bucket. The only events which don’t are the ones which your dog has a neutral, or no, response to. 

For some dogs, the simple act of you getting up from the sofa would be enough to add to the bucket. It may be because they expect something positive such as going for a walk, or having their dinner. Or it might be that they find it difficult when you leave them alone, and therefore associate your action with a negative outcome. 

The amount of liquid added each time will depend on the event itself. If we take the example above, the act of you standing up on its own may only add a small amount, as it’s just an indicator that something might happen. But a game of fetch in the garden would likely add quite a lot because it’s definitely super exciting! 

Be mindful of these ‘smaller’ events, especially when they happen relatively close together, as they might accumulate to affect your dog’s bucket more than you would have originally thought. 

Other factors that will add to your dog’s bucket are if they are in pain or itchy. These will likely be adding constantly, so it will be almost impossible for your dog to empty their bucket.

Think about how irritable you are, or how difficult it is to concentrate, when you have a headache. It’s because your bucket is full too!

Signs that your dog’s bucket is full

For some dogs, a full bucket will result in more action. For others they will do the opposite and opt for stillness. The signs will look different in each dog, and one or multiple signs might be present.

  • Barking
  • Mouthing
  • Chewing
  • Destructive behaviour
  • Jumping
  • Lunging
  • Pulling on lead
  • Fidgeting / restless
  • Not interested in food
  • Not interested in playing
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Easily distracted

Emptying your dog’s bucket

A huge factor in helping your dog to empty their bucket is to give them some downtime, allowing them to relax. During these periods you want to try, as much as possible, to stop anything being added to your dog’s bucket. 

If you have a busy household, ensure that your dog has a calm, quiet place to rest away from the hubbub of family life. It’s important that everyone knows to leave your dog when they are resting, especially children.

The saying, ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ is still one to live by!

How does it affect learning?

As you’ve already seen, having a full bucket can make it harder for a dog to concentrate on a particular task, and also result in them being easily distracted. Neither of these bode well in terms of training success. 

When dogs have a high level of stress hormones in their system over several days, they find it harder to remember. So that new trick you wanted to teach will take far longer for your dog to learn. 
If you’d like to learn about other factors which can influence your dog’s training success, you'll love this course: Understanding your dog's mind

How can you use this knowledge to shape your training?

If you think that your dog may have a fairly full bucket, don’t do anything too challenging, such as learning a new behaviour. They will likely struggle to work out what is being asked of them, leading to frustration and adding even more to their bucket! 

Practise behaviours they know well, but maybe not an exciting game of fetch! Think of calm and controlled behaviours they can do instead, such as sit and lie down or boundary training (remaining on an object, such as a bed or mat, until released).

If your dog is completely over threshold with an overflowing bucket, it may be better for everyone if you just skip that training session and spend the time helping your dog to relax instead.
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