Let’s Talk About Exercise Part Two: Revving That Engine to Maximum

In “Let’s Talk About Exercise Pt I,” I discussed how the time I’ve spent with Tucker so far has affirmed my belief that when it comes to repetitive, high-stimulation activities such as walks through busy neighborhoods, trips to overcrowded dog parks, and fetch, often a “less is more” approach is best–even for the most energetic of dogs. For the next two posts I want to share what Tucker is teaching me in terms of how to calibrate which types of physical activities are good for him, as well as some of the mental hurdles I’ve been struggling with when I try to follow my own advise about what “less is more” looks like in real life.

Although I am not a fan of labels, and certainly try not to pigeonhole Tucker as a “high drive dog,” as a metaphor, “high drive” is a pretty apt description for what he seems to be experiencing much of the time. Pacing, panting, fidgeting, barking—if Tucker’s nervous system were an engine, my guess it would be stuck in high gear much of the time. Even when he’s sleeping, his respiration races and his sides heave, like he’s rounding the final bend of an Indie 500 in his dreams. I suppose I’ve got the image of souped-up car engines in my mind at the moment because I just saw the new Max Max movie, Fury Road. No spoilers, I promise, but calling it a “high octane fuel fest” is a definite understatement: non-stop action start to finish, car chases, explosions, super-human stunts, hardly even a chance to catch your breath! All the way through, the guy next to us in the theater kept whispering “Holy Crap” to himself, as each action sequence topped the previous one in pure audacity. Super fun movie, amazing look and design, surprisingly good storyline too… I actually really liked it, but must confess that after two plus hours of getting my ears and eyeballs pummeled by that much crazy mayhem, the exhilaration I felt by the end was kind of exhausting.

Of the many colorful characters in Mad Max were these adrenaline-junkie “War Boys,” young men conscripted by the local warlord, who would leap onto the hoods of their fire-spewing vehicles, suck up mouthfuls of gasoline, and then spit it directly into the carburetors, resulting in explosive bursts of acceleration that nearly sent them catapulting to their deaths, laughing manically the whole time. Cool, right? Yeah, maybe in the movies. Well, there are times when Tucker goes barreling across the yard with the exact same devil-may-care look on his face these guys had. I’m not kidding. After a few hair raising near-collisions with trees, fence posts, planters, and patio furniture, I’ve learned to be extremely careful where and how I throw the toys, because it’s clear he cares more about nabbing them as fast as possible than he does about his own safety. According to Lori Stevens, of SeattleTTouch.com, a friend and colleague who is helping me design a better exercise and body awareness program for Tucker, the number one cause of blown out knees in dogs is playing fetch. Because of his size and long legs, Lori tells me, Tucker is at even higher risk of injury than most—especially when hurtling himself cannonball style full speed downhill. I might call it “play,” but have to remind myself that every time I make the choice to launch a toy, I’m essentially spitting fuel into a carburetor and revving his engine to maximum. Not only does this potentially put a lot of wear and tear on Tucker’s body, it sets his nervous system up to rehearse the same hair-trigger arousal spikes that make him more likely to over-react to other things in life as well.

When discussing the pros and cons of fetch with Kat Kamplin of Romping Dogs, the other brilliant trainer I’ve hired to be my sounding board for some of Tucker’s stickier challenges (‘cause this dog is going to take a village), an even more troubling metaphor came up than lunatic, fictional, kamikaze characters in a movie, and that is the metaphor of crack addiction. In reinforcement-based dog training, we like to use activities dogs love as reinforcers for behaviors we want them to do. This well known principle is called Premack, or “Grandma’s Rule.” I am actually known as a bit of a Premack Queen. Here is a video of me using the opportunity to go back to barking at the fence to reinforce the behaviors of coming when called and accepting food, a method which proved highly effective for Maya in that particular moment in time, much more effective than offering her food alone. One of my greatest thrills in life is figuring out what dogs want and then using what they want to make the learning process more meaningful to them. “But is it really a good idea,” Kat posits “…to Premack cocaine with a coke addict?”

So, that’s that then. The experts agree. I just shouldn’t play any fetch with Tucker at all—right?…. Weeeell, even knowing what I know, and even believing what I believe, I must confess that keeping Tucker on a strict toy-detox 24/7 for more than a few days in a row is tough—not just for him, but for me!  In much the same way that I enjoy the thrill of an action movie, or the occasional punk rock show, I have found that I also really enjoy the thrill of playing with him too. After years of having to coax Zoë to even like fetch and tug, and always having to worry about overdoing things with her, Tucker’s all-in attitude is a bit of a trainer’s dream. Can we spell M.O.T.I.V.A.T.I.O.N? Yeah baby! Play with Tucker is fast. It’s furious. It’s a little dangerous even, like the time I forgot I had a sweatshirt tied around my waist and Tucker mistook it for a tug toy (which turned out to be not so funny an experience as it sounds), or that time (or two) I’ve been just a little sloppy about how I was holding the toy, or the time I accidentally waved my arm around in too exciting a manner while wearing a fuzzy sweater that sort of made my arm look like a toy, and got a solid, 80lb Lab-a-gator-style chomp as a result. Ouch! But over time, as our communication surrounding the games has grown more precise, I can’t deny that it truly is a blast.

Is this the face of happiness?

Is this the face of happiness?

Of course then there’s the whole pesky can-of-worms we call “happiness.” Although intellectually I understand that what Tucker is experiencing when he chases a ball or sinks his teeth into a tug is probably more of an adrenalin high than actual happiness, I still can’t quite shake the voice in my head that says maybe I’m just being a tad over-protective. As long as I don’t over do it, can’t a dude just have some fun? I mean, he’s a retriever for goodness sakes, bred to run, pick things up in his mouth, and bring them back. How can something he loves so much, something he is genetically predisposed to want to do, be bad for him? All the top competitors and trainers I admire, people like Hanna Branigan, Susan Garret, Laura Baugh, Morten and Cecilie (links lead to some pretty awesome video examples of very skilled use of toys in training), they all seem able to harness the crazy intensity of their “high drive” dogs and focus it in awesome ways. Why can’t I? And what if by putting a premium on these types of activities, only doling them out in stingy, little bursts, I’m actually increasing Tucker’s desire for them, sort of the way my mom used to forbid junk food at our house when I was growing up, then when I went to grandma’s, I binged myself sick on cookies and ice cream? Honestly, I go round and round on this. So many questions. So many doubts. So many considerations. I actually think there is no one right answer. When it comes to high stimulation exercise (flirt poles, fetch, tug, dog parks, etc) and even high impact, high stress sports (agility, fly ball, weight pull, dock diving, lure coursing, obedience, protection work, etc.), the only way to know what is right for any dog, I think, is to follow the dog.

“Following the dog” means letting go of assumptions about what dogs need and actually asking the dog right in front of you what he or she needs. “Following the dog” also means learning to be a great observer of behavior. If you are going to experiment with variables, such as keeping fetch toys put away for a week, or going on shorter walks, and you’ve made this choice with the intention of influencing behavior, it’s a good idea to figure out a way to track these changes objectively. The simplest way to do this is the good old hatch-marks on a calendar method. Pick a behavior you’d like to see more of (such as laying around calmly), and every time you see your dog doing that behavior, put a hatch mark in a certain color on the calendar for that day. If it is too overwhelming to monitor your dog’s behavior all day, just pick an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening to focus on. If you are hoping to track something you’d like to see less of (such as demand barking) use a different color. After just a couple weeks, at a glance you should be able to easily see if what you are doing is having any affect one way or another. If you are a more detail oriented person, another method is to print out a daily time sheet and jot down what your dog does each hour throughout the day, that way you can more easily pick up on trends and patterns over time.

Example of super simple record keeping showing a decrease in demand barking during fetch games

Example of super simple record keeping showing a decrease in demand barking during fetch games

The hardest part about record keeping, I find, isn’t setting up the system, but sticking to it. It is really important to get at least two full weeks of solid data collected before coming to any conclusions about anything. Four weeks is even better. Subjective experience is just too darn slippery. For example, let’s say you take your dog on a long walk around noon. When you get home, she immediately flops down and goes to sleep. You think: “Great! Long walks really help calm her down.” But a few hours later at 6:00 she may be up and active again, pacing around the house and barking at every little noise in the neighborhood. Caught up in the annoyance of that moment you might think: “One walk per day is not working. My dog needs evening walks too.” Then, based on how you felt about how that one evening went, you might start taking your dog out for two walks per day, one at 12:00 and one at 5:00. But on your 5:00 walks you run into lots more dogs and people because that’s when everyone else is out walking too. These walks are kind of stressful because every time your dog sees another dog, she pulls and gets really excited. When you get back home at 6:00, instead of relaxing like you were expecting, now your dog is zooming all over the house, and then starts chewing the carpet while you are trying to watch TV. What does this mean? If more exercise is supposed to calm dogs down, why didn’t that extra walk work?

Many people assume that walks or fetch games will have a calming effect, and that without them, their dogs will go stir crazy and start bouncing off the walls. But it is always important to ask: is this really true for my dog? One way to find out is to try replacing neighborhood walks with enrichment and training at home for a couple weeks and keep track of what actually happens. When I’ve done this test with Zoë, Tucker, and Maya, for instance, I discovered that for the most part all three tend to lay around and nap off and on from 11:00–5:00, and then are more active in the evenings—regardless of whether or not I’ve done anything with them that day! Often I do walk, train, and play with them in the evenings, however, because it’s cooler then, and that’s when I get home. Which leads me to the most likely cause of their increased activity-level in the evenings: MY habits. Every night, in expectation of good things, the dogs start getting restless. Then, either because it’s a convenient time for me, or I’m feeling guilty because I’ve ignored them all day, or because it seems they really need something to do, I get out the treats and training equipment. We play, or go for a walk—all of which is usually pretty fun and exciting. After that I feed them dinner. In short, it is no wonder my dogs tend to get restless in the evenings. Restlessness works!  Above all, testing assumptions has changed my thinking about why I exercise my dogs in the first place. Instead of a way to “blow off steam,” burn calories, or settle them down, I now think of it primarily as life-enrichment. Life-enrichment means focusing on quality over quantity and, as much as possible, replacing mindless repetition with skill building, variety, and opportunities to practice good old fashioned “natural” doggie behaviors like sniffing, exploring, and wandering. It’s sort of like switching out your gym membership for tango lessons—both activities will get you fit, but walking on a stair master inspires a lot less creativity, flexibility, body-awareness, and self-expression than learning to dance to exotic music with a partner.

Many people ask me how much play is too much play, especially the ones that feel as if their whole lives revolve around the demands of their so called “ball crazy” dogs. Using a loose version of the data collection methods I mentioned above, I put this question to the test with Tucker. The results have turned out to be pretty interesting. Due to VERY CONSISTENT handling on my part (see Rules For Fetch below), as I mentioned, Tucker’s ability to play safely has improved, so much so that in the moment I often think  I’m well on my way towards achieving my goal of being able to use toys with him in training successfully. What my actual record keeping shows, however, is that the less-helpful side effects tend to pop up later on. For example, day before yesterday Tucker got a walk in the morning and fetch in the afternoon–a double whammy excitement-blast in one day. The walk was lovely, and the play session was pretty fun too. No demand barking. No out of control nipping. He even accepted his “All Done” cue and relaxed right away afterwards. Great–right? I thought so at the time. But the next day, as I was getting ready to leave the house, just the sight of me rummaging around in a backpack for some training gear, caused Tucker to leap up and begin shrieking. Why? It was the same backpack I used to carry his toys in the day before. Just one play session was all it took and that backpack now represents a great big neon sign for the possibility of a toy-fix, and I can’t even touch it in his presence at this point without a huge outburst. This pattern of good on toy day, super hard the next has repeated itself so consistently with him, every time I find myself questioning whether or not I should get out any toys at all, I go through a thought process similar to when I’ve already knocked back a few and then am offered one more drink at a party: “Yeah, might be fun now, but I’ll probably pay for it tomorrow.”  When I limit Tucker’s high octane activities to no more than 3 times per week, however, and add in more mental games, swimming, enrichment, and scent work, my records show, that these frustration-related outbursts happen much less frequently.


(NOTE: this is not a recipe for how all dogs should play fetch. This is what is currently working well for me and my boy at this moment in time. Different dogs and different people all have unique play styles and needs. Setting rules isn’t about being strict to the point not having fun anymore, or getting into power struggles with your dog. The point of having rules is to make YOU more consistent, so your dog can learn to trust you. Rules also help the dog know exactly how to get what he or she wants from you without stress or confusion.) 

  1. SAFETY FIRST. In the interests of safety I have switched from balls (standard-sized tennis balls are choking hazards for big dogs anyway), and even irregularly shaped rubber toys, to heavier tossables like Kong Rope Wubbas which don’t bounce quite so erratically. On the advise of Lori Stevens (who would really rather I didn’t play fetch at all I think—sorry Lori!), I also make sure I set up the game in a way that Tucker is always chasing the toy uphill, never down, and always toss low and underhanded to minimize the chances of him leaping up and landing awkwardly in ways that could twist or jar his back or legs.
  2. CLEAR START AND END CUES. The first clue that I’m up for some playtime is when I say “Rock n Roll!” Nothing else does it, and I mean nothing. I have learned the hard way not to create predictable patterns that lead to playtime, such as putting on my shoes at a certain time of day, picking up a specific backpack to carry the toys in, going out the back door, and then cuing “Rock n Roll,” a pattern which sets Tucker up for arousal spikes and frustration barking every time I put on my shoes or go out the back door for other reasons. If I have NOT said “Rock n Roll, no matter what I do, I’m not playing. End of discussion. He can just relax.
  3. CALM DOGS GET TO PLAY. I only say Rock n Roll,” when Tucker is laying around minding his own business, usually inside. I never say it if he is already agitated, antsy, or engaged in any kind of demand behaviors—no matter how much it seems in that moment like he just needs a good run.
  4. QUIET = GAME ON. BARKING = GAME OFF. This is the sticky one. Once I’ve said “Rock n Roll,” the following rule structure is in effect: IF Tucker remains quiet, I will continue to head towards the drawer where I keep the special toys. If he starts barking, I say “Ooops!,” turn around, and begin moving away from where I keep the toys. The instant he’s quiet, I use a marker signal “Good!”, turn back around and continue towards the toy drawer again. If he remains quiet, I proceed to take out a toy, and then ask him to “Wait”, a safety cue which prevents him from leaping for the toy in my hand before I am ready. If he does leap for the toy early, I say “Ooops!, immediately drop it, and freeze in place for 10 seconds before trying again. IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: This use of P- (removing something the dog wants) with a marker signal (Ooops!”) is not my first choice with most dogs. Normal levels of excitement or communicative barking are usually fine by me. Not making a big deal about it, being proactive about reinforcing quiet, and teaching alternative behaviors so the dog can easily get what he or she wants instead of barking usually works great. After much deliberation, however, I decided that due to Tucker’s long history of reinforcement for demand barking, mixed with super harsh punishment for barking (a combo which worked great didn’t it?), clarity of information, and 100% consistency about which behaviors are going to work for him and which are not seemed the most humane way to go. The most important thing to pay attention to with any kind of deliberate use of P- like this, is it should work pretty quickly and luckily, with Tucker, it has. According to my records (see calendar example above), he can now hear the “Rock n Roll” cue, race out the back door, and then wait for me in the play area until I’m ready without barking most of the time, and I usually only have to say “Ooops!” once  or twice a session to get him back on track. A month ago his I was saying “Ooops!” 5-6 times per play session. If you are trying P- out as a solution for your dog, and do not see a decrease in unhelpful behaviors within a week or two, it is really important to stop and rethink your plan. P- protocols done badly can be really frustrating for everyone involved—especially the dog!
  5. DROP YOUR TOY, YOU GET MINE. I usually use two identical toys for fetch, so Tucker and I are never in any conflict about who gets what. Playing with two toys has also cut down on barking because it allows me to get into a nice tossing rhythm, so he doesn’t have to wait for me to walk to the toy, lean all the way down, and pick it up before tossing. If he remains quiet, I say “GO!” and toss right away. When he brings me the first toy and drops it at my feet, I say “GO!” and then toss the second toy. NOTE: I always say “GO!”  and THEN throw the toy, because my goal is to use “GO!” just like a click to mark behaviors, and I want him listening to the word, not just fixating on the toy.
  6. RESPONDING TO CUES and OFFERING BEHAVIORS MAKES ME SAY “GO.” As trust has grown, I’ve gradually been able to ask Tucker for simple behaviors before I make each throw, such as looking at me, sitting on cue, putting his feet on a platform, holding a solid stay without barking, or following me a few steps backwards in front position. An important behavior to teach was backing off and letting me pick up toys from the ground without lunging for my hands, which I also shaped using “GO!” as a marker signal each time he waited patiently or backed away.
  7. QUIET DOGS GET TO KEEP PLAYING. As long as he’s in control of himself—no barking, able to respond to cues, no wild snatches at my hands or clothes, we’re good to play for five or ten minutes–with a couple breaks. 5-10 minutes of all-out Mad Max style fetch-mayhem at at time is PLENTY in my opinion, for any dog, no matter how energetic.
  8. “ALL DONE” REALLY MEANS ALL DONE (BUT HE GETS TO KEEP THE TOYS). When I’m ready to be done, or I think he’s ready to be done, I say a very clear “All Done” and let him have the toys. I also give him a visual signal for “All Done” by holding up my hands to show they are empty. Once I say “All Done,” (and this is important) NOTHING he does at that point will get me to touch those toys again. Eventually my goal will be to be able to put toys away after “All Done,” but I have noticed that when I try to put toys away right now, it tends to inspire frantic snatching at my hands and other signs of distress.
  9. ALL DONE IS NOT THE SAME AS OOOPS! To distinguish my “All Done”—turn away cue from the “Ooops!” —turn away cue he gets when he barks, I try to soften the “All Done” by chatting with him and praising him calmly. Often it helps to offer a long lasting chew or frozen peanut butter bone when he’s ready to come inside to help wind him down as well.
  10. TOYS ARE PUT AWAY LATER. Much later on, long after he’s forgotten about them, and is inside eating a meal or napping, I will then quietly put toys away if there is some reason to do so. More and more often now, however, I find we can just leave the toys out and he waits until his next “Rock n Roll” cue.

If you are exhausted just reading this list, you should be! The fact that I have to work this hard to keep our boy’s engine from exploding every time I want to throw some toys around is perhaps one sign it may not be the healthiest activity for us to do very often. I still very much want to use toys in training, and so will continue to practice with him in small doses, but the most positive side effect of limiting fetch to just a couple times per week is it forces me to think up new activities for him to do instead.

Next Up: Let’s Talk About Exercise Pt. III: Tango Lessons With Tucker

Tucker Lessons Part One: Let’s Talk About Exercise

Google the phrase “a tired dog is a good dog,” and you’ll get about 32,000 results. This old adage is… well, old. It’s been around the dog training and pet-owning community longer than I can remember. Much like the equally ubiquitous “take two aspirin and call me in the morning,” “increase exercise” is often universally prescribed as a curative for all sorts of behavior issues: separation anxiety, aggression, car-chasing, excessive barking, jumping on guests, destructiveness—you name it. Just give your dog a good run everyday, and all these problems should just magically go away. Funny thing is, more often than not, they don’t.

In my business I talk to dog owners about the real causes of problem behavior often. Hands down, second only to misguided feelings of inadequacy about their inability to achieve proper “alpha status in the pack” (another harmful myth beautifully dismantled by Kathy Sdao here), people often express guilt that “they do not walk their dogs enough,” as if walking their dogs every single day were the gold standard of pet ownership. Even more interesting, however, is how many clients come to me confessing the opposite problem. These hardworking and often exasperated pet parents frequently say that no matter how often they walk their dogs, run their dogs, play fetch with their dogs, or go to dog parks, their dogs are still out of control! Given how deeply ingrained “a tired dog is a good dog” is in our collective consciousness, not to mention the way every week on TV, the Gospel of Exercise is preached by Cesar Millan as the number one ingredient in creating a “balanced” dog, the guilt and confusion pet owners feel around this issue is understandable.

As Dan Estep, Ph.D., CAAB and Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D., CAAB from the Association of Animal Behavior Associates write: (A tired dog is a good dog)”… is a cliché we’ve read and heard numerous places, including in on-line articles from prominent veterinary schools. If veterinary schools and a wide variety of respected trainers maintain this is true, then does that mean it IS true?  We should take a step back and ask “where’s the evidence”?  And what do we really mean by “good” and “happy”?” (http://animalbehaviorassociates.com/blog/tired-dog-good-dog-happy-dog/)

“Where is the evidence?” is one of my all time favorite questions. It is a question that forces us to look past the adages, wive’s tales, cultural fog, and clichés, and focus our attention instead on observation, data, and identifying patterns of behavior over time.  It is a question which forces us to stop thinking in generalizations and take a more objective look at what is really going on for the unique individual right in front of us. I also wholeheartedly agree with Dan and Suzanne about the importance of defining what we mean by words like  “good” and “happy” when talking about our dogs. Tucker’s story is a perfect example. Take a look at the before and after pictures of him below. Pictures and video are a great way to help us define our terms more concretely.

When Tucker was first brought to the shelter, he was approximately 15lbs underweight. It may be hard to believe, but the condition he was in was not because his owners were starving him, far from it. According to his intake papers, as well as corroborated by someone who spent time with him in his former home, Tucker was actually being fed large quantities of a high-performance kibble, way above and beyond the recommended guidelines, but he “just wouldn’t gain weight.” As a high energy dog from working breed lines, I’d bet good money his owners were told by the breeder, as well any trainers they went to (and we know at least one trainer they went to recommended a prong collar when Tucker was still a puppy), that in order for him to be healthy, happy, and well behaved, Tucker was going to need plenty of exercise. Now, certainly, an appropriate amount of daily exercise is good for all dogs. (In later posts I’ll be discussing healthy exercise options for dogs in more detail).  However, as is so often the case with one-size-fits-all recommendations, chances are no one helped Tucker’s owners figure out what appropriate exercise for a dog like him might be.

Another stereotype that ended up causing more harm than good for Tucker in the end is the commonly held idea that if a dog loves fetch (and all retrievers love fetch—right?) playing lots of fetch every day should make the dog “happy.” But no matter how many times Tucker’s owners threw that ball, they said, he “never seemed to get tired.” He just wanted more and more and more. As I mentioned previously, Tucker once chased after a ball for so long, he collapsed and had to be carried home. Like a strung out race horse, or endorphin-addicted marathon runner, very likely the primary reason Tucker was perpetually underweight was because the excessive amounts of running and stress caused him to burn calories faster than his body could utilize them.

But far beyond the physical impact, repetitive games like fetch all too easily feed into obsessive patterns of behavior, patterns such as demand barking, hyper-focus, out of control arousal (trembling, drooling, dilated pupils, etc), and even aggression. Take a look at this before and after video of Tucker playing fetch—first at Glendale Humane, and then several months later at my house after a long stress detox and plenty of remedial self-control work.

Now, of course, I’m not saying that playing fetch with your dog is a bad thing. My point is that before anyone should have ever thrown a ball for Tucker even once, they should have first taught him how to play: how to wait for the things he wants, that quiet, calm behaviors make the fun start, and most importantly, how to stop playing and relax again when the fun is over.  (For a super example of what this essential teaching for puppies might look like, check out Marge Roger’s “Life Lessons for My Puppy” series on You Tube, or my video on teaching puppies to relax).

Although most dogs or pet owners don’t usually end up in such an extreme place, the moral of Tucker’s story is that it is much easier to head down this path than one might think—especially when dealing with a dog that has a genetic propensity to hurl himself pell-mell through life like a racehorse or marathon runner anyway. As my colleague and brilliant trainer Kat Camplin of Romping Dogs reminded me once, throwing the ball can be just as addictive for the person as chasing the ball is for the dog. There is no doubt in my mind that every time they got out that Chuck-it toy, Tucker’s owners thought they were doing right by him. Now that I live with Tucker full time myself, I can also sympathize with the relief they must have felt each time the ball was launched and Tucker finally stopped barking at them. Nevertheless, the fact remains that in spite of doing their darndest to follow Cesar Millan’s magic formula of Exercise, Discipline, (and only then Affection), the extreme behaviors Tucker learned to repeat over and over again during all those fetch games made him really hard to live with, and ultimately, they ended up giving him up to a shelter anyway. It prompts the question: how well did all that exercise and discipline work out for them really?

After my initial consult at Glendale Humane, where I described Tucker as “toy obsessed to the point of self-injury,” my first recommendation was to immediately stop playing fetch and even to remove all toys—except Kongs and other chews–from his environment. Because their play yard was now totally associated with ball-time, he was unable to be out there without frantically racing around like a junkie looking for a fix. As a result, for the first two months of what is perhaps better described as an “intervention” than training, Tucker got no off-leash time at all. Although I did take him on 20-30 minute sniffy walks around the neighborhood each day, just to stretch his legs and let him get a change of scene, exercise was a pretty low priority in my training plan. This is what I mean by keeping a close eye on the dog right in front of you. You’d think a young, field-bred labrador with so much energy to burn would grow increasingly stir-crazy without the daily runs, especially given that when I was not with him, he was confined to a kennel or a room most of the time–but no. Quite the opposite. In spite of how tough shelter-life certainly was for him in other ways, Tucker’s response to his prescribed stress-detox was like watching a flower very slowly start to bloom.

If not exercise, then what? During those first couple months, all teaching time with me was spent working on Relax on a Mat (which I did like gangbusters a la Chill Out Fido), capturing and reinforcing stillness, quiet, and eye contact, teaching release cues (a key foundation skill for all self-control work introduced later on), establishing consistent rule structures such as wait at doorways, (so both Tucker and the shelter staff could feel safer), and, above all, slowly building trust. It helped, of course, that I came to visit him almost every day, but in just a few weeks, everyone at the shelter began noting the change—even when I was not there. Although certainly there were (and continue to be) flare ups and challenges for Tucker, with each passing day he became markedly calmer. You could see this calmness settling in his muscles, in his face, and in his eyes. He started gaining weight. He stood still more often. He was more responsive to his name. He napped more. He was able to wait at doorways instead of frantically attempting to bolt. He was able to make eye contact, and even show pleasure, leaning into our hands when we pet him, instead of flinching away. He was able to offer to lay down on a mat at my feet after his leash was put on (a big goal), and eventually even to offer his settle behavior after short bursts of very controlled tug and toy search games. The changes were small at first, but cumulatively, they were clues that we were on the right track in temporarily reducing stimulation and exercise for him in such a drastic way.

Since this blog is primarily about my own brave learning, I must confess that living with Tucker full time is a totally different ball-game than making recommendations to the Glendale Humane Society and only seeing him a couple hours at a time. Not playing fetch or tug with him every single day is much harder for me to resist than I thought. Now that he is in a much healthier place emotionally and physically, it is clear that Tucker truly does love to play. It isn’t entirely about bad patterns and stress for him. This passion he has for toys is clearly a large part of who he is. What I’ve come to realize, however, is that Tucker’s addiction feeds perfectly into mine: not a day goes by that he doesn’t express in some way how much he wants to get out there and play. My addiction is making dogs happy, which for me means figuring out what dogs want and finding constructive ways to give them what they want as often as possible. What could be wrong with that, you ask? To find out how Tucker is teaching me some of the ways even good play can sometimes be too much play, stay tuned for Part Two in this series: Tucker Lessons Part 2: Exercise and the Three Bears. 

Recommended reading:

“Too Much of a Good Thing: Overexcitement in Exercise by Sara Reusche
“Tired Dogs Make Dumb Choices” by Caen Elegans
“Is a Tired Dog Really a Good Dog?” by Crystal Barrera
Stress in Dogs by Martina Scholz & Clarissa von Reinhardt
Chill Out Fido by Nan Arthur

Meet Tucker–My Latest “Z-Dog”

I started this blog in the Summer of 2013, inspired by the wild and woolly, six-week puppy-sitting adventure that was Zydeco. In an early post, What’s a Z-Dog?, I shared Zydy’s story, discussed my own dog, Zoë’s, challenges with allowing such a rambunctious puppy into her home, and defined Z-dogs as “the master teachers among us…the ones giving out hard won doctorate degrees in being better human beings.” …Well, I’m happy to say I now have a new dog to add to the faculty roster. His name starts with a “T,” not a “Z,” but that’s okay (since it rhymes) and he certainly belongs in this blog! Everyone, please welcome … Tucker!

Tucker at the Park

I first met Tucker a little over two months ago at the Glendale Humane Society in Los Angeles. An owner surrender under special circumstances, he had been with the rescue for two weeks, and was described to me as a dog “urgently in need of help.” I remember my heart sinking as I listened to Alyce, the shelter’s director, describe how out of control Tucker was. It sunk even more as she filled me in on the details of his life spent with people that clearly did not understand him at all. Reading through the notes written up by his former owners, it was clear that, although they certainly did care for him, the relationship had been a struggle since day one.

As is so often the case with high energy, working breeds indiscriminately sold to ill-prepared pet owners, through no fault of his own, Tucker was simply “too much dog” for them to handle. Sadly, once his natural instinct to move fast, chase, bark, put things in his mouth, and play play PLAY was misinterpreted as “defiance,” it was a slippery slope of escalation from there, from corrections, to choke chain, to prong collar (a tool that is described in the notes as the only thing that finally “got through to him”), to worse…

I’m not going to list the exact particulars of how and why Tucker was removed from his home and brought to the Humane Society. Suffice it to say, as Alyce and I walked down the gauntlet of barking dogs towards his kennel that day, I was honestly bracing myself for the worst. Although she had assured me he was not aggressive, any dog that lived a life of such social impoverishment, stress, confusion, punishment, and endured such dangerous levels of inappropriate exercise must be pretty damaged–right? I pictured a large and unpredictable beast leaping and baying at me like some crazed Hound of the Baskervilles, the worst-case of all the worst-case dogs I have ever worked with. I pictured it taking me a week to even enter his kennel without upset. Most of all, I pictured this quickly becoming a commitment I’d deeply regret making, just another heartbreak story to lose sleep over.

So imagine my surprise when Alyce stopped at the gate of a surprisingly quiet (especially compared to all the other barking dogs we had passed before him), sweet-looking, yellow lab. For a full minute I stood there distracted, so busy thinking through the safety protocols I might need for entering the kennel of a high-risk dog with such a troubled history, my eyes did not even focus on the dog right there in front of me! Then it registered that this big, goofy, golden-eyed boy shimmying all over with excitement at the sight of us, this was in fact the wild and fearsome Tucker! Ha! A perfect example of how pre-conceived notions not only can alter how you might think about someone, but what you actually see when you look at them as well!

Here is a video showing Tucker’s response to me standing outside his kennel at the Humane Society the first week I began working with him. Not our initial meeting, but his reaction is very similar here to the first moment I saw him. Look at his body language carefully. Does this look like a “defiant” dog to you?

Although some of Tucker’s issues are understandably complex, none have anything to do with defiance, dominance, or willfulness. Here is a snapshot of the quickie, first-impressions Observation Checklist from my follow up report to Glendale Humane.

Tucker Observation Checklist

As you can see, most of our boy’s challenges (or “growing edges” as I like to call them), have more to do with a tendency towards intense arousal spikes and impulsivity, particularly in relation to balls and toys, than anything else.

It wasn’t until we took Tucker out to the exercise yard that  I first got a good look at some of his more troubling behavior patterns. While walking through the parking lot, he spotted the broken arm of a plastic Chuck-it toy discarded in the leaves, and before I knew it, I was dragged forward about 15′. In a flash, Tucker grabbed that toy and was instantly transformed from a smiley, energetic, excited dog to a WAY-over-the top-unable-to-get-back-from-Mars-again dog. Luckily, I at least managed to get him into the yard and close the gate before being forced to drop the leash. Gripping the plastic so hard we could see his gums bleeding, Tucker began to race around us in circles, making the strangest screechy/growl/squeak-barks through his teeth I’d ever heard. The textbook example of a conflict-related behavioral response: he looked desperate to drop the toy so we would throw it for him, but just could not bring himself to let go.

It is always fun when this type of thing happens during an evaluation consult, when you don’t know the dog, and the dog does not know you. My first thought was to sit down and wait him out, no pressure, no extra stimulation. But when ignored, Tucker became even more frantic, to the point where I was seriously afraid for his well-being. Next, I tried offering him full handfuls of fresh chicken dropped right under his nose. Nothing. No response. Then I tried gently taking hold of the leash, talking reassuringly to him, while at the same time attempting to limit his movements. Being restrained really backfired, however, as he began to buck, twist, and thrash backwards like a wild mustang on a rope. Finally, Alyce had the great idea to get out a tennis ball and see if he would trade for that. Yes! Immediate, laser focus on the ball now instead. Fortunately, however, unlike the plastic toy which he seemed determined to hold in a death grip until the End of Time, Tucker already had a built-in habit of tossing balls at people’s feet, (then barking non-stop until the ball is thrown). We weathered the barking this time because at least it now we were able to pick up the ball and put it away.

“Toy obsession to the point of self-injury” is what I wrote in my report, fallout from the unfortunate and all too prevalent myth that high energy dogs need lots of repetitive exercise. Tucker’s owners often used fetch to try to “wear him out,” but he was a dog that “just never seemed to get tired!” Once, I was told, they tried throwing the ball nonstop for so long, he nearly collapsed, had to be carried home, and then took three days to walk or eat again! (For more info on why some types of exercise can be too much of a good thing, please see this great article from Paws Abilities Blog).

My first recommendation to Glendale Humane was to stop playing fetch with him altogether, and replace all other high energy activities with mental enrichment, and daily relaxation work a la Nan Arthur’s wonderful Relax on a Mat exercise from her book Chill Out Fido. We also began Tucker on calming supplements such as L-theanine and Melatonin, and Alyce was able to move him into a quieter room each night to help him get the best sleep possible. In just two months of almost constant work, and drastic reduction in his overall stimulation levels, I think the results speak for themselves.

One thing is for sure, instead of breaking my heart, this dog has completely won it. So much so in fact that I am now currently fostering him in the hope of adopting. It all depends, of course, on how well he does with Zoë, and on her quality of life with him in the house. But I’m happy to report that we are nearly two weeks into the experiment, and although it has taken an incredible amount of work, all in all, things have been going surprisingly well between them–much easier in many ways than with puppy Zydeco.

Tucker has so much to teach, and has already stretched me much farther as a trainer and as a person than I was ever expecting. His surprising arrival in my life has sparked the urge to renew this blog and begin sharing his many lessons with all of you too. Stay tuned for more posts ahead!

Shut Down Dogs (Part 2)

Another great one from eileenanddogsblog. It is night and day to compare “calm and relaxed” body language achieved by force, and calm and relaxed body language achieved via positive reinforcement. Check out Zydeco’s guest appearance in the video at the end showing all the different ways one can teach relaxation to dogs.


This is Part 2 of a two-part series.

In Shut Down Dogs, Part 1 I talked about the fact that people appear to believe and say that a shut down dog is relaxed or calm since it is motionless. In that post I included a video of my own dog Zani after she had been scared by an air snap from my rat terrier.

In this post I am putting my money where my mouth is. I have put together a compilation of clips from many published movies in which dogs are either motionless or moving in very guarded, unnatural ways. In most of the examples of motionless dogs in the movie, the narrator says that they are “relaxed.” They are far from it, and it takes no advanced knowledge of dog body language to tell.

In the clips of dogs demonstrating very guarded, unnatural motion, no one is saying…

View original post 1,432 more words

Getting Your Shoes On: A Simple Solution With Long-Term Benefits

I made this video a few weeks ago. Just put the finishing touches on last night because I knew it would only take a few minutes. Zydeco is so much bigger now! WOW! The great benefit about teaching this particular skill proactively is that putting shoes on is often a part of an exciting chain of events such as getting the leash out and then going for a walk, or putting your shoes on and then leaving puppy alone in the house–both are potentially difficult for dogs to handle emotionally. If you teach your puppy to be calm when you put your shoes on, however, as I am doing here, it can help change that pattern of over-excitment, and you are much more likely to have a calmer puppy on your walks, and a less anxious puppy when you leave the house.

Two Brave Learners

I’m trying not to get too bogged down in long blog posts here, but keep finding these wonderful things to share. So, here ya go. An inspirational video for today: TWO brave learners learning to trust each other and trust the process without coercion. This is a cross-over trainer learning to let go of control. This is a cross-over dog learning to be brave and offer behaviors after 5 years of compulsion training where she was very likely corrected for thinking for herself. Look at the space and time the trainer gives her dog to figure things out here, but most of all, look at the uncontrollable joy that erupts at the end. Powerful stuff! I have absolute respect for this person and this dog. Amazing.

Want to learn to do this too? I teach the exact same concepts via a basic manners course with http://www.cyberdogonline.com, or you can go for the more advanced stuff as seen here by signing up for Denise Fenzi’s online academy. http://denisefenzi.com/2013/03/01/fenzi-dog-sports-academy/

The Toxic Stress Cycle

This is an article about children in schools, but every single statement and all the great solutions they come up with for teachers to help kids get off the stress cycle, self-soothe, and get control of themselves 100% applies to dogs as well. When your dog “acts out,” discipline doesn’t help. It perpetuates the toxic stress that then creates more problems later on. This is why I insist so much on teaching dogs Relax on a Mat and other self-soothing behaviors such as default sit or down. Once your dog learns to offer calmer behaviors on his own, your dog is actually moving towards the emotional place to succeed in life and be healthy. If he can’t calm down on his own, gentle, non-confrontational guidance plus more teaching is needed until he can.


A thousand shades of grey

In this post, as always,  Kay Laurence stretches us one step further, one step deeper towards better understanding of the dogs in our care. I’ve been moving away from the phrase “reactive dog” for awhile now, although still catch myself occasionally reverting to the easy label as a shorthand as an alternative to what seem to be more damning and harmful ones. The professional terminology has indeed been shifting across a spectrum from “bad/disobedient dog,” to “dominant/fear/aggressive” dog, to “reactive dog,” and now to “dog behaving in a certain way in response to certain environmental conditions”—a clunky, inelegant phrase for sure, but closer to the truth of the matter. I love the equation she draws between a dog who reacts and a dog that cares. Lovely stuff as always. Well worth reading and rereading again. 

A thousand shades of grey.

Quick Personal Update: Prepping For Expo 2014!

Hey there bloggers,

I am over the moon excited to have been invited to speak at Clicker Expo 2014 in Long Beach, CA at the Queen Mary! I mean, just read through these session descriptions! http://www.clickertraining.com/clickerexpo/session-details. Good golly Miss Molly! I can’t even believe my name is tucked in there with all these idols of mine, not to mention lots of other brilliant colleagues that I totally respect and admire too. Expo truly is a life changing event whether you are a pet owner or professional animal trainer. If you can make it, come to California in January. It is so totally worth it!


The good news is prep for both my Wallflower Dogs Session and Emotional Fluency Lab is well on its way, with lots of great ideas and creative juices flowing. The bad news is, in order to meet the deadlines, I’m not allowing myself to do much extensive blogging, Yahoo, or YouTube video work until after Dec 1. Sadly, that means the backlog of Zydy wisdom, and all the interesting thoughts I’ve been having about miscommunication, characterizations, and polarizing politics in dog training lately, is going to have to remain backlogged a little while longer. I am still seeing Zydy twice a week for lessons at his house, though, and he’s doing great!

Don’t forget about me! I’ll be back posting again soon. Always more to say it seems. Thanks for listening so far!


Noah Dupuis presents: How to Solve a Behavior Problem With Positive Reinforcement

This video is awesome on so many levels. I just felt like sharing it because it makes me really happy to watch. Kids are often natural trainers with great timing and mechanics, and it is such a good thing to encourage them to interact with animals in this respectful way because it teaches empathy–something the world really needs right now.

As you see, this stuff isn’t just for the dogs!

If the video isn’t working you can go to the direct link on the Behavior Works website: http://www.behaviorworks.org/flashplayer/index.htm?file=http://www.behaviorworks.org/flashvideos/Noah%20Dupuis.mp4