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

4 comments

  1. Jaymie Derden

    Tucker is so fortunate to have found a home with you, Sarah! This was my Robi… ball-obsessed and out of control. All the advice I got for the first 9 months we had him was “exercise, exercise, exercise!” I played ball with him 45 minutes twice a day, plus a 30 minute walk once and sometimes twice a day. One person asked me, “Does he do better on the days when you walk him twice in addition to the ball play?” In desperation I started searching and found some of the blogs (Pawsabilities) and books (Frantic, Frazzled and Freaked out) about over-exercising and stressed out dogs. Then we found a trainer who told us “no ball play” for three weeks… cold turkey. Now a year later (and also thanks to Cyber Dog sessions) he and I have both come a LONG way.

    I’m looking forward to more Tucker Tales!

  2. Donna

    This is a good for dog that are artiacial for dog who fit this profile. But it still adds up to the quality time you spend with them. You are the prize. If you have pets give them your time they are all different and need different thing but it still come down to you giving it to them

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