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.
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.
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.
THE RULES OF FETCH FOR TUCKER
(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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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