An Open Letter to New York Dog Trainers
This blog post is actually written for all dog owners and trainers, everywhere.
I'd like to introduce you to a wonderful training technique. It can help shy dogs become confident, turn aggressive dogs into love-muffins, eliminate fear, decrease unwanted barking, make dogs happier and more playful, increase obedience, and can even help with housebreaking issues. In fact, it does all that and a lot more.
I must be joking, right?
Nope. It's called "The Pushing Exercise" and here are just a few case histories:
Ginger: A few years ago I got an e-mail from a veteran dog trainer of 35 years who started out using “pack leader” methods but switched several years ago to an “all positive” approach. She wanted to know how to get her “shy,” 11 month-old Jack Russell terrier Ginger to stop eliminating in the house. Since the little Jack wouldn’t play, I suggested that the woman spend some time on the floor every day, letting the dog jump on top of her, and that she hand feed all her dog’s meals outdoors, using what’s called the pushing exercise. Within a week the little doggie had not only stopped eliminating in the house, she was much less shy and actually began bringing her owner a toy.
Ba’sia: Some members of an online behavior board read about the pushing exercise on my training blog, and several of them tried it, just to see what changes if any it created in their dogs. Within 4 or 5 days the owners of a shy Belgian shepherd named Ba’sia, who loved to chase the Frisbee but was hesitant about bring it back, began bringing it back to her owners, on her own, with no prompts. She just suddenly “felt” like doing it. And better than that, her shyness melted away too.
Fancy: When Fancy, a boxer, was a puppy she was sick for several months and had to be kenneled at the vet’s office. As a result she had trouble interpreting social signals from other dogs and was getting into skirmishes a lot at the park and the dog run. I did the pushing exercise with her for a few days, and she slowly began to learn how to play nicely with other dogs. There was one unanticipated side-effect. Her owner called me about four days in to her taining, to ask if I’d also been working on her fear of sidewalk grates. I told them I hadn’t even known about the behavior.
“Well, whatever you're doing it's working like a charm. She’s no longer afraid of them!”
Kyla: A German shepherd mix (mostly shepherd) named Kyla had a very “dominant” temperament, and one problem she had was that she could not be bribed, cajoled, or coaxed with treats away from her intense focus on squirrels. She also pulled constantly on the leash, ignored her owner’s commands, constantly got underfoot at home, was always jumping up on the bed or the couch, barked incessantly at other dogs at the dog run, and scavenged like there was no tomorrow. But Kyla slowly and gradually became a totally different dog. She now loves to obey all her commands, she no longer pulls on the leash, she still shows a strong interest in squirrels, but is easily called away, stays off the furniture, and no longer scavenges. Why? Because of the pushing exercise.
Caleb: A Welsh springer spaniel named Caleb, who sometimes stays with me overnight, was starting to exhibit a very severe form of resource guarding whenever other dogs were staying with me. At meal time he felt he had to attack any dog who came near any food, even the food in their own dinner bowl. All food was his! This was an otherwise wonderfully social dog who had a knack for making almost any other dog love him, no matter what it took. But at meal time, with other dogs around, he had became a monster. So, as an experiment, I did the pushing exercise with him for 2 days, and guess what? He never showed any signs of resource guarding ever again.
Kobe: Besides training dogs I offer boarding and day care. Kobe, an intact bichon frise, often stays with me during the week. He suffers from separation anxiety. So initially, whenever I had to go out and leave him and the other dogs alone, Kobe would immediately start crying, whining and barking. And as soon as I came home and started up the stairs, he would start up again. And, once I came back inside the apartment, I always found that the wee-wee pads were soaked, a clear sign of anxiety. After doing the pushing exercise with Kobe for three days (along with another cool technique called "the collecting exercise") Kobe no longer a) cried and barked when I left the apartment, b) vocalized as I came up the stairs, or c) soaked the wee-wee pads I'd set out for him.
Hamilton: Hammie is an American Eskimo dog who was afraid to go on walks. He was also nipping his owners (and their 2 kids). So I took him to the park every day, and just sat with him on the grass, massaging his shoulders with one hand while hand-feeding him with the other. (A kind of intro to pushing.) I did this for about 2 weeks gradually getting him to push hard into me while doing the pushing exercise. His demeanor changed so that he became interested in saying hello to other dogs, and he started playing with me in the park. He's now the star of a training video on this website.
Noodles: Noodles is miniature dachshund who'd been abused by original owner. As a result he always felt like he was in danger of being hurt. As a result, he was biting his owners, and biting me when I came to take him on training walks. The abuse had been quite severe, so it took a while to bring him back to normal. But he no longer bites, and is, in fact, quite a wonderful doggie.
How is it possible that one simple exercise — whose only point seems to be to teach a dog to be pushy about eating — have such diverse effects, one of which is that it actually makes dogs less pushy?
I was skeptical about the pushing exercise first (very skeptical) — I tested it and it worked amazingly well!
You might be wondering, "But how does it work?"
Dogs are designed to use their natural energy to work for a living. Pet dogs no longer have the utilitarian function in our lives that they once did. Most dogs don’t have to hunt, herd, or guard our flocks for us to get their daily provender. Their expectation is that a bowlful of food will appear in the kitchen or on the back porch 2x a day, and that’s pretty much it. Oh, sure, sometimes they might have to perform tricks to get an extra treat now and then, but for the most part all the energy they’re designed by evolution to expend on working for a living goes into, what? Playing with other dogs at the dog park? Going on long walks? Playing fetch with a Frisbee or tennis ball? Patrolling the back yard for gophers? All worthwhile pursuits, but hardly dirty-fingernails, blue-collar, working-class stuff.
If they’re lucky — and if they’re suited for such tasks — they might get a chance to do Schutzhund or go to agility trials and dance through some weave poles. But again, it's hardly the real 8-hour-day, punching the time-clock down at the elk herd type stuff, is it?
Meanwhile our species, the human animal — who also used to hunt for a living — now expend much less of our physical energy than our ancient ancestors. Sure, some of us still farm the land and throw nets into the sea. But the difference (or one of them) is that those of us who engage in those kinds of hard, physical labor on a regular basis don’t need gym memberships, etc. Most of the rest of us do.
Why is that? Why do we go to the gym, or the golf course, or go hiking or kayaking or play tennis or go skiing?
Because pushing against some kind of physical resistance feels good. Whether your thing is lifting weights, jogging on a treadmill, doing pilates, playing golf or tennis, hiking, kayaking, skiing, or going to a spin class, you’re pushing against something to get a result. And the pushing feels good.
In a spin class you’re pushing the pedals on the bike. In tennis you’re pushing your back, leg, shoulder, and arm muscles to go after the ball so you can put the right force and spin and velocity on it to “push” it back over the net. In golf you’re using some of the same muscles to put enough force against that little ball to drive it (push it) down the fairway. If you’re on a treadmill you’re pushing your leg muscles to work past your own internal resistance. If you’re doing pilates you’re pushing against your core. All of these things create a pleasurable outcome, even though we initially might feel some resistance to doing them. Yet once we push past that resistance, we feel energized, charged up and happy. That's what happens with dogs as well.
Why do some football teams always come from behind in the final minutes to win a big game while other teams tend to fade in the clutch? The kind of athletes who come through, when others can't, usually do so because they’re a little better at pushing past their own internal resistance, past that internal voice that says to the rest of us, “I can’t do this.”
Do dogs have such an inner voice?
Not exactly. But if the dogs I described in the case histories I cited above could talk they might very well say things like this:
“I can’t hold my bladder muscles until I get outside the house!”
“I can’t bring the Frisbee back to my owners!”
“I can’t walk on sidewalk grates!”
“I can’t control myself when I see other dogs eating!”
“I can’t obey commands or not chase squirrels or not be dominant!”
“I can’t be left alone in the apartment!”
“I can’t walk in the park or meet other doggiest!”
“I can’t stop biting my owners!”
Well, my little doggies, the truth is, “Yes, you can!”
You just have to learn how to push past your own internal resistance. You just need to have someone with a nice big pouch of food, take you outdoors, and teach you how to push for your dinner. You don’t have to push very hard at first. You don’t even have to push at all if you don’t want to. But slowly and gradually, the more you learn how hard you can push, and how good it feels to push that hard, and then even a little harder, and a little harder after that, you’ll start to realize that you can do anything.
And guess who’s teaching you that wonderful lesson?
That’s right. It’s the person who loves you. He or she is the one who’s like Tom Brady or Russell Wilson, the one person who knows you can do it. That you can come from behind, you can get out of the hole you’re in, and prevail! That you are a strong doggie with a wonderful, wild heritage. And that you can do anything.
All you need is a little push…
“Life Is an Adventure — Where Will Your Dog Take You?”