Open Letter to New York City Dog Trainers
Can One Technique Solve All Behavioral Problems? I'd like to introduce you to a wonderful new 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: 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 owner spend 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 we in Natural Dog Training call 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 here on this 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 Belgian shepherd named Ba’sia, whose only real behavioral problem was that she loved to chase the Frisbee but wouldn’t bring it back, began bringing it back to her owners, on her own, with no prompts. She just suddenly “felt” like doing it.
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 at 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. However, there was one unanticipated, yet encouraging, side-effect. Her owners called me about four days in to doing the exercise to ask if I’d also been working on her fear of sidewalk grates. I told them I hadn’t. In fact, I hadn’t even known about the behavior.
“Well, whatever you're doing is 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 as well. 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 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.
Muskoka: This is a Westie who had 2 problems — leash aggression and an absolutely frantic fear of walking anywhere near 72nd Street between West End and Broadway (the location of her vet’s office). She’s now no longer leash aggressive, and is slowly getting used to walking nearer and nearer the dreaded place where she gets all her shots and examinations, and used to get her toenails clipped.
Dudley: He’s a cocker spaniel who’d had separation anxiety for seven years, and during that time had also forgotten how to play. He was so frightened of being left alone, he was found by his owners several times, trembling in a corner covered in his own excrement, his eyes practically spinning with terror and despair. It took much longer to bring this poor little guy back to normal, but one of the primary ingredients was — you guessed it — the pushing exercise!
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?
If your background is in dominance training (or being the pack leader), this exercise would make no sense to you for a lot of reasons, the main one being that by simply allowing (not to mention outright encouraging!) a dog to push into his owner to get his meals every day you would be setting up the exact opposite dynamic of what the pack leader culture believes in. You would in the clearest of terms be allowing your dog to “dominate” you. And yet the exercise makes dogs more, not less obedient. It makes them less pushy about food. It makes them more likely to stay off the furniture, come when called, and less likely to get into fights or engage in resource guarding. In other words, it makes them less “dominant.”
If your background is in the “all positive” approach, the exercise probably makes no sense to you either because from a learning theory perspective all the exercise is doing is reinforcing a specific behavior, pushing for food. And yet it makes dogs less pushy!
How is this possible?
Working for a Living
Dogs are designed to work for a living. Pet dogs no longer have the utilitarian function in our lives that they once did. They don’t have to hunt, herd, or guard our flocks for us to get their daily provender. Their expectation (learned and reinforced by their owners) 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-hr. day, punching the time-clock down at the elk herd type stuff, is it?
Meanwhile our species—who also used to hunt (and gather) for a living—now expend much less of our physical energy toward putting food into our dinner bowls. Sure, some of us still farm the land and pull nets full of fish out of the sea. But the difference (or one of them) is that those of us who engage in that kind of hard, physical labor on a regular basis don’t need gym memberships. 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 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 pushing feels good.
Think about it: 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 those 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.
Why is Michael Phelps the best swimmer in the world? His physical gifts are part of it, but there are other swimmers with his height, his reach. Why does he consistently perform better? Why do some football teams always seem to 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 good 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 walk down 72nd Street!”
“I can’t be left alone in the apartment!”
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 the one teaching you that wonderful lesson?
That’s right. It’s the person who loves you. He or she is the one who’s like Michael Phelps’ trainer, or Tom Brady or Joe Montana, 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…
“Changing the World, One Dog at a Time”
Link Up With Me on Linkedin!