Monthly Archives: January 2012

Lessons From Layla

This article (reposted from the Paws Abilities website) was the winner of the 2008 Dogwise John Fisher Essay award and scholarship.

The first time Layla saw a squirrel, she screamed and leapt on top of my head. This was no small feat, since she was all of 11 pounds at the time, and I stand 5’6” tall. As she scrabbled for purchase against my shoulders and ears, screaming in frustration at the squirrel in the tree above my head, I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Several tempting treats lay forgotten on the ground, snubbed by a 16-week-old baby in favor of climbing me like a ladder. What had I gotten myself into?

Unfortunately, this was not to be a freak occurrence. Over the next several weeks, the tiny puppy snapped two collars going after the local wildlife. Her eyes would glaze over in response to the smell of a rabbit or squirrel, and it wasn’t long before she caught and killed her first chipmunk. The best treats I could come up with still paled in comparison with the chance to go after some little critter. Braunschweiger, liver, salami, and fish were all offered and rejected. I bought thicker collars and kept the puppy on a leash or drag-line at all times outside. We stopped trying to train in the unfenced backyard, where Layla’s eyes would get that crazed look and her whole body would tremble with the need to run and hunt. Her heart rate would shoot up to 160 beats a minute – twice the normal rate for her – and it would take her a half hour to calm back down after going inside.

I was told by several trainers that I needed to work on our relationship. The fact that my puppy would choose killing something furry over spending time with me meant that I didn’t have a strong enough bond with her. I had already put Layla on a “nothing in life is free” program due to some concerns expressed by her previous homes upon surrendering her to the shelter. Even at sixteen weeks, she had bitten multiple times out of fear and had a history of guarding food and toys from both people and other animals. She slept in a crate and was not let out of my sight when loose in the house. She worked for her meals with several fun, fast-paced training sessions a day. My other dog, a patient Labrador mix, was thrilled to have a puppy of his own, and the two dogs wore themselves out with multiple play sessions daily. The puppy was given ample exercise, and went to sleep each night exhausted. I thought I was doing everything right. I was absolutely stumped.

It was not hard to transfer the young dog’s high prey drive to toys. Teaching her to fetch and tug was a snap, and her high motivation to play with the toys made it easy to teach her a solid ‘leave it’. Plush toys on a rope were another favorite, and I soon had a collection of fun rewards built up, which I put to use in her day-to-day training. I entered my adolescent whirlwind in agility classes, and she took to the exercises with unbounded enthusiasm – as long as there weren’t any chipmunks outside the fenced-in agility field.

We added in more and more non-food rewards to our repertoire. Layla loved running to her crate and slamming herself down inside it, so that too became a valued reward (and a good way to give her a break when she was getting too amped up). Due to her unstable upbringing as a puppy, she was fearful of children and women with grey hair. Not a problem – rather than asking her to interact with these people, brave behavior around them would earn her a click and the chance to run away from the people to the safety of her crate, or turn away from them and get a treat from me instead. Within a few months of practice with three willing neighbor kids, she was comfortable interacting with each of the children, even taking treats from their hands with a soft mouth and loose, relaxed body.

Of course, as a professional trainer I had heard of the Premack principle before and used the theory to help me put together some fun training games. The principle states that a highly preferred activity can be used effectively as a reward for a less preferred activity (i.e. eat your broccoli and you can have some cake). But it wasn’t until Layla was almost two years old that I was convinced to try the idea with her to work on her uncontrollable predatory responses. I spoke with my veterinarian before I began training, to verify that my dog’s physiological response to prey was safe – I was concerned that her heart rate jumped so high and took so long to drop after being in the backyard. After getting the go-ahead from the vet, I took a deep breath and began training.

The first several sessions in the backyard were excruciating for me. Layla was thrilled to go there, where her eyes would immediately glaze over and her body begin shaking. We coined a new term for the intense head-to-tail trembling: “Laylaquaking”. I put Layla on a body harness and a soft, strong, six-foot leash. We stood at the edge of the yard, and she sniffed the air and quaked, leaning into the leash. I just waited. After several long moments, Layla’s eyes flicked towards me. Click! We took several steps further into the yard, towards the woods. Again we waited. Layla backed up in frustration but remained focused on the woods. Finally, her eyes slid in slow motion from the line of trees to meet my gaze. Click! Another few steps. The first session lasted just a few minutes before I pried my entranced dog away from her predatory fantasies and went back inside. After about twenty minutes of calming down, the exhausted dog took a nap.

I needed a lot of reassurance from other professionals in the field during those first few sessions. It seemed so counterintuitive to me to let this voracious dog practice the stalking part of a predatory sequence. After all, doesn’t practice make perfect? Layla clearly didn’t need any more practice to become a skilled hunter – she already had a long history of killing (and often eating) furry prey. The very low rate of reinforcement – as long as two minutes between clicks – also seemed backwards and ineffective. But at this point, I was willing to try anything. I took another look at my training plan. It was impossible to split my criteria any further. Layla was able to work happily to the front and sides of the house, and there was no gradual progression towards her extreme response. If she could see the woods, she was unreachable. If she couldn’t see the woods, she was fine. Ping-ponging between the sides and back of the house just frustrated her and sent her more over-threshold, resulting in monkey screams that brought the neighbors to their windows. And that brief second of eye contact seemed to be smallest bit of attention that she offered – her ears always remained pricked towards the woods, so I wasn’t even able to capture an ear flicking towards me.

After just two weeks of daily practice, Layla was able to back away from the woods and sit by my side, holding eye contact for five seconds. After three weeks, we were able to progress all the way to the edge of the woods in just 15 minutes, where the excited dog would follow scent trails towards a cluster of rabbit holes. Two months into it, Layla was able to tug in the backyard, and a few weeks later she swallowed her first treat within sight of the woods. I began to work her on a long line, asking for simple heeling or brief stays before releasing her to run along the edge of the woods and take in the smells.

A fascinating new book, Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt, helped to reassure me that I was on the right path. Rather than being in conflict with a dog over something the dog wanted or needed to do, McDevitt recommended presenting access to these distractions in a structured way to further a dog’s training program. Dogs who were concerned about the proximity of other dogs were taught to glance at those nearby canines who concerned them from a distance and on cue, as part of a game structure called “Look at That.” Dogs who would become stressed during agility training and respond by disconnecting and sniffing the ground were asked to do one or two simple behaviors, then released to go sniff. Soon the dogs stopped worrying about the nearby dogs and started refusing to go take “sniff breaks,” choosing instead to stay connected with the handler and continue training. I was intrigued.

Suddenly, I started to see opportunities for rewards everywhere. My students were first suspicious, then delighted to find that releasing their dogs to “misbehave” actually helped the dogs become more attentive. A goofy adolescent Labrador puppy in one class was struggling with relaxation and stay exercises outside. She would hold still for several seconds, taking treats from her owner with a wildly rotating tail, then explode upwards and bound in circles around the hapless lady. Releasing the dog to zoom around on-leash after a successful stay gave the puppy the activity she needed, and allowed the owner to regain control of the situation and feel less frustrated. A young Beagle in the same class was fascinated by the myriad smells in the grass, and would disconnect from his owner to take in the fascinating scents while heeling. Not a problem! Releasing the dog to go sniff after several steps of heeling soon resulted in an attentive, connected dog. Within a couple minutes, the Beagle’s owner was able to drop the leash and was amazed to find her dog happily working alongside her, ignoring the fascinating scents on the ground and the other dogs working nearby.

Anybody who lives or works with dogs on a daily basis understands the amazing complexity of these sentient beings. We will never know exactly how dogs experience emotions or whether their experiences are comparable to ours, but it is clear that dogs have distinct personalities, just as we do. Each dog is an individual, and the more we can work with our dogs rather than against them, the more we find out about their motivations and values. Just like people, some dogs are more fearful and tentative, some more curious and outgoing. Some dogs are mild-mannered while others are impulsive. Patient training can influence a dog’s ability to control their emotions, just as practice can help a person learn to be less spontaneous.

Looking at the curriculum for many of the pet dog classes I teach, I can see that I need to learn to be more fluid. Fitting each dog into a cookie-cutter mold is harmful to the dog-human bond. Even using gentle methods based on positive reinforcement, if I ask a dog-handler team to do an exercise that one of the team members is not capable of, I am responsible for harming that team’s relationship. My students depend on me to help them learn how to communicate with an entirely different species. That is no small task! In no other profession is someone asked to teach a brand new skill to two naïve members of two entirely different species at the same time. If a student leaves my class knowing nothing more than how to truly watch their canine companion and listen to what she is saying, I will consider their graduation a success. Obedience will come in time. Understanding and empathy cannot be taught, only encouraged.

As for Layla and I? The other night as we were walking, we came across a rabbit crouched under a bush just a few feet away. The rabbit froze, as did my dog and I. Layla backed up a few steps and looked at me steadily, her body tense in anticipation. Smiling, I quietly released her, and together we chased the rabbit several feet down the street before I gently pulled up on her leash. Then we resumed our walk together, content to spend time with one another and happy with the close bond that true understanding brings.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

“Whether you believe you can do a thing or believe you can’t, you are right.”

– Henry Ford

After writing about how limbic resonance can influence training with one’s dog, I heard from many people about their personal struggles with their own dog. One thread was common in many of these conversations, so I’d like to address it today. Many people told me that they know their own stress or anxiety negatively impacts their dog, and that their dog would probably be much better with a better handler.

It’s common to feel guilt or doubt in one’s abilities when working with a difficult dog. Unfortunately, it’s a lot less common for someone to feel pride or self-assurance in this situation.

I’d like to put a different spin on this perspective: your dog is lucky to have you. Yes, your dog. Here’s the thing: if you care enough to be reading dog training blogs online, your dog is probably among the luckiest dogs in the world. Your dog has an owner who cares about helping him become happier and more comfortable. Your dog has someone who is committed to him, who decided to work through or manage his issues so that he can keep living in his home and not end up dead or in an animal shelter. Your dog more than likely lives indoors, gets plenty of food and water, and perhaps even has some luxuries such as toys or a soft bed.

Your dog is lucky. You are a good owner.

Guilt can only hold you back. Acknowledge that you’re doing your best, and believe in your abilities. Believe in your dog, in your training skills, and in your partnership. Work with a qualified trainer who also believes in you.

We all make mistakes. Let go of your past and your dog’s past, and work in the moment. Think to the future. Remember, your dog is one of the lucky ones.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

In my best possible world, NO collars and leads would be used in training. The strongest leash of all is that invisible leash that connects one heart to another, and it’s built of love & trust. 

-Suzanne Clothier

I Feel You: Sharing Emotions

Emotions are contagious. This comes as no surprise to anyone who’s ever lived with a dog, and is such a well-known phenomenon that it has a technical label: limbic resonance. Limbic resonance is defined as a mutual exchange and internal adaptation whereby two mammals become attuned to one another’s inner states. To put it simply, just by making eye contact with another mammal (your dog, your spouse, etc), you can not only know what emotions that mammal is feeling but may also begin to feel those emotions yourself.

So, how does this relate to dog training? Limbic resonance is a powerful thing, and it can both help and hinder our training interactions with our dogs.

Dogs and humans both feel strong emotions. While many scientists have been hesitant to dicuss the emotional lives of animals due to fear of being accused of anthropomorphism, we now know that dogs’ brains contain emotional centers that are nearly identical to people’s. Anyone who has lived with a dog has no doubt that their canine companion feels joy, fear, disgust, anxiety, and many other emotions, and the physical structures responsible for these feelings light up in brain scans the same way that a human’s would when a person reported these same emotions.

This is not to say that dogs’ emotions are identical to ours. Dogs lack the highly-developed pre-frontal cortex (responsible for complex thoughts) that we humans have, which means that certain emotions (such as guilt) are probably not possible for them.

Regardless of their exact emotional range, emotional contagion is no small matter. This is especially true in situations where you or your dog are stressed or worried. Simply looking into your stressed dog’s eyes is likely to raise your stress level, and if you’re anxious about something, your dog is likely to be influenced by your worry. There’s a good reason many vets take dogs into the back room for procedures involving needles, and it has less to do with your dog than it does with you. I can’t tell you how many times during my work as a groomer or vet tech a dog who had previously been calm and relaxed for a grooming or veterinary procedure suddenly panicked when the owner came back early. Sometimes it was almost like a switch getting flipped: the dog would catch sight of the owner’s furrowed brow and worried frown, and suddenly begin snapping at me or trying to escape.

The good news is that we can also use limbic resonance to our advantage. By simply becoming aware of your own emotional state, you can begin to influence your dog for the better. If you’re stressed or anxious, working on calming yourself first will do much more for your dog than trying to work through it and ignoring your own distress. Dogs are great emotional mirrors, reflecting and amplifying your feelings. There’s a reason we include deep breathing (for people!) in our reactive dog classes, and there are often times when I will ask a person to hand me their dog’s leash or put their dog in his crate until they can calm themself down. You do no good to your dog if you’re not in a positive state yourself.

It is possible to learn to remain relaxed and self-assured for your dog. People often comment on how calm and patient I remain when working with even the most difficult dogs. Those who’ve watched my training progress with my own reactive dog, Layla, can attest that this isn’t natural for me! Learning to manage my own emotions took time, practice, and awareness, but the great thing about this skill is that once you’ve mastered it, you’ll never forget it (and will probably find it useful in many other areas of your life as well). Learn to take stock of your emotional thermostat, and take the time to focus on calming yourself down if you notice you’re starting to run a bit hot.

How do your emotions influence your dog? Have you found any helpful techniques for keeping yourself calm in exciting or stressful situations? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Advocating for the Anxious Dog

Working on behavior cases such as aggression and anxiety can be incredibly rewarding. There’s nothing like watching the bond between a dog and owner deepen as both learn to trust one another and work cooperatively together. Seeing a fearful dog blossom or an anxious dog learn to relax always gives me goosebumps.

Working with behavior cases can also be incredibly frustrating and devastating at times, and nowhere is that more likely than when the subject of anxiety medications comes up. This is probably the biggest area (other than the dangers of punishment) where I meet client resistance and misconceptions. Perfectly reasonable people become perfectly unreasonable when I bring up the topic of seeing a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist to discuss medicating their dog. This has to stop, for the dogs’ sakes.

Imagine that your dog is diagnosed with hypothyroidism. This means that his thyroid gland is not working as well as it should, and because of this physical problem he is suffering from a range of symptoms (possibly lethargy, weight gain or loss, poor temperature regulation, and skin/coat issues, to name a few). The vet prescribes daily medication to regulate his thyroid levels. Would you refuse to give him this medication?

Now, let’s say your dog is diagnosed with diabetes. His body can no longer regulate his blood sugar levels, and due to this physical problem he’s suffering from a range of symptoms, including excessive drinking, excessive urination, increased appetite, and weight loss. The vet prescribes insulin injections to regulate his blood sugar levels. Would you refuse to give him his insulin shots?

What if your dog is diagnosed with anxiety? His brain chemistry is imbalanced due to too little serotonin. Due to this physical problem he’s suffering from a range of symptoms such as hypervigilance, trouble sleeping restfully, irritability, and reassurance-seeking behaviors. Your vet prescribes a Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor (SSRI) to increase the amount of serotonin in his brain. Would you refuse to give him this medication?

Here’s the thing: anxiety is often a physical issue. The brain is an organ. As such, it can develop abnormally (in utero or due to early experiences), suffer from physical trauma, or malfunction. There is a delicate chemical balance that can sometimes, due to genetics or environment, get disrupted. We know that the brain of a dog who was given a supportive, enriched environment as a puppy is physically different from the brain of a dog kept in a sterile environment or exposed to traumatic or neglectful stimuli during development. We know that the brains of anxious or aggressive animals are observably different from those of normal animals. This is not news. This is a fact that has been proven time and time again through rigorous scientific study.

We treat other physical problems with a combination of lifestyle changes (management) and medication. Severe anxiety that impacts a dog’s quality of life needs to be treated the same way. Not treating an anxious dog due to your personal misconceptions about anxiety medications is just as neglectful as not treating your dog’s diabetes or hypothyroidism. We may treat a severe heart arrhythmia by giving a dog beta blockers and limiting strenuous physical activity. Severe clinical anxiety is best treated with both medications and behavior modification. One or the other given separately just doesn’t cut it in many cases.

So why are so many people resistant to using anxiety medication for their dogs?

There’s a large cultural bias against anxiety. Because the symptoms are less quantifiable than, say, a kidney problem, it’s harder to definitively diagnose anxiety. There is still a large portion of the population who seem to believe that anxiety does not really exist. This is sad and harmful (not to mention ignorant).

The brain has an amazing capacity to heal itself and return to homeostasis, which I think also causes some resistance to meds. It’s true, there are many cases where dogs really don’t need medication and just behavior modification alone will fix the problem. Through learning, new neural pathways can be created and the problem behavior may resolve. This is why I rarely recommend anxiety medications as the first step when working with behavior cases. However, this is one issue where undermedication is much more likely than overmedication. Many general practice veterinarians do not feel comfortable prescribing anxiety medication, and between this and client resistance, I see more dogs suffering for years before they get the help they need than I see dogs who don’t need medication and are prescribed it anyway.

The bottom line is this: not every case needs anxiety medication. In fact, the majority of cases don’t. However, some cases legitimately do. In these cases, refusing to consider medication is as cruel and neglectful as refusing to give pain medication to a dog with severe hip dysplasia. If your dog’s quality of life is impacted by severe anxiety or aggression, you owe it to her to help her. You owe it to her to consult with a board certified veterinary behaviorist about whether medication may make her more comfortable.

You are your dog’s voice. Advocate for her. Do not make her suffer because of your misconceptions.

Kong Stuffing 101

Last week we introduced the Kong toy as a great tool to provide mental exercise. Food- and treat-stuffed Kongs are excellent enrichment! Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Photo by Nora Kuby

Photo by Nora Kuby

Dogs who are fed kibble can have the kibble stuffed into a Kong toy which is hung from a tree branch or other sturdy object (have the bigger hole in the Kong facing upward), so that the dog must leap into the air and knock at the Kong to release his meal.

Alternatively, kibble can be mixed with just a spoonful of canned food, yogurt, cottage cheese, or other healthy “wet” food and spooned into the Kong, then the entire Kong can be placed in the freezer. The dog must then work extra hard to remove her frozen meal when the Kong is delivered. Multiple Kong toys can be stuffed with the dog’s meal portions and hidden throughout the house, so that the dog must spend his day hunting down and “dissecting” his Kong-kills.

Dogs who like to destroy or chew things can have their energy harnessed into a positive outlet by sealing Kong toys inside paper bags or cardboard boxes, although you will have a shredded mess to clean up later on (and such dogs may be better served by crate training to prevent destruction). A machine that dispenses four Kongs randomly during a period of four or eight hours was available for sale for a short period of time, and may still be found for sale by a diligent buyer.

Crated dogs especially need the mental enrichment provided by a Kong toy during their confinement. My dogs run into their crates in the morning and wait impatiently for me to leave, because they know their Kong goodies will not be delivered until I’m ready to head out for the day. Frozen Kongs make my dogs extra eager for me to go and make the crates into a positive place to spend the day. Dogs who are not yet entirely comfortable with the idea of a crate can be encouraged to spend time in an open crate by tying a stuffed Kong toy at the back of the crate (make sure to supervise your dog while doing this, but do not try to lock him or her in: your goal is to create positive associations with the kennel, not trick your dog into getting trapped).

Dogs who are fed raw, home cooked, or canned diets can get even more enjoyment out of getting their food from a Kong. This is because these diets usually contain much more moisture, which makes them ideal for freezing.

Melted cheese can be another great addition to a kong toy. A Kong can be filled with a small amount of cheese along with some kibble or other dry tidbits, placed in a microwave-safe cup, and heated in the microwave until the cheese melts. Allow plenty of time to cool before giving it to your dog, or place directly in the freezer for an especially tough-to-remove treat.

Many dogs are reluctant to work at a Kong toy at first, especially if the toys are packed in such a way that food is difficult to remove. For these dogs, try layering the Kong toy to make it especially rewarding to work on. Simply alternate layers of wet food with layers of dry tidbits, then serve to the dog directly (without freezing). After just a small amount of licking to swallow the wet layer of food, the dog will reach a dry layer. This will make a bunch of treats suddenly fall out of the Kong. Jackpot! Usually this dry layer jackpot is enough to renew the dog’s interest in the Kong, and he will soon begin licking and slurping at the next layer. After just a few moments, another dry layer will appear, and so on.

When using “wet” or moist food in the Kong toy, there are lots of options, so be creative. For dogs who are not used to rich foods, use common sense in introducing new foods and start with small amounts to be sure your dog tolerates it. Some ideas to try include canned food (both dog and cat food), meat flavoured baby food, rice, potatoes, cream cheese (use low fat varieties for most dogs), cheese whiz, peanut butter, Braunschweiger (this is very rich so a little goes a long way), leftover cooked veggies (gooey veggies such as cooked spinach or squash are especially great), tuna, raw ground meat such as hamburger or ground pork, cooked ground meat, canned fish such as salmon or Jack Mackeral, gravy, beef or chicken broth, oatmeal, yogurt, and cottage cheese.

Dry tidbits are even easier to experiment with. Try various types of dog or cat kibble and treats, small pieces of pepperoni or lunch meat, strings of string cheese, cheerios or other breakfast cereal, bread crumbs, croutons, beef sticks, or healthy leftovers from your meals.

For dogs who have become really talented at “destuffing” a Kong toy, use a dry dog biscuit that is slightly bigger around than the large opening of your dog’s Kong toy. Bend the toy by squeezing it so that the hole lengthens in one direction, allowing you to slip the biscuit into the Kong. Once you stop squeezing the sides of the toy, the biscuit will be “stuck” inside the Kong and will not fall out easily. At this point the only way for your dog to get the biscuit loose will be to either break the biscuit into smaller pieces (which can be done by biting down hard on the Kong or by throwing the toy about the room), or by licking at the treat until it becomes soggy and crumbles apart. Be prepared to help your dog remove the tightly lodged biscuit using a pair of pliers if it proves too difficult and is driving your dog nuts!

Do you have a favorite Kong stuffing trick or recipe? Share it in the comments below!

A Case for Kongs

If every dog in the world could be given one toy, I think the Kong would be the way to go. A Kong toy is shaped somewhat like a rounded rubber pyramid with a hollow center. Kongs have three chewing “levels” – red for beginners, black for tough chewers, and blue Kongs, which are the toughest level and are available only through veterinarians because they are radio opaque (which means they will show up on an x-ray if the dog swallows them). There are also special, softer Kongs made for puppies or senior dogs. These Kong toys have a marbled appearance, with white mixed into the pink, blue, or purple color.

Kong toys are extremely durable, which means they can go from the microwave to the freezer to the dishwasher and back again without breaking down. They stand up well to almost every dog, provided you choose the right size and hardness level for your dog’s tenacity of chewing. Kong toys bounce erratically when thrown and provide a great chew toy.

The thing that puts a Kong toy head and tails above the competition, though, is their hollow center. Kong toys can be stuffed with an amazing variety of food items. This is a great source for mental exercise! For dogs who are left home alone all day, consider throwing out your dog’s food bowl and feeding solely from Kong toys.

There are certainly other brands of toys that resemble Kongs available, but the Kong is the “original” toy and is the one that seems to work best for most dogs. There is one Kong knock-off on the market which may be of interest to some people though, and that is the “Squirrel Dude” toy manufactured by Premier/PetSafe. This tough purple toy (yes, it resembles a squirrel) improves on the Kong design by adding four small rubber prongs which line the inside of the toy’s hole. These prongs make it much harder to get food back out of a Squirrel Dude toy once you’ve stuffed it in. A Squirrel Dude toy is not for a beginner to puzzle stuffing, but can provide a nice challenge to dogs for whom a Kong toy no longer gives any challenge. The Squirrel Dude toys can be further customized by lopping off one or more of the rubber prongs with a sharp pair of scissors, so that you can adjust the toy’s level of difficulty.

To clean your dog’s Kongs out, use the cleaning brushes that can be used for baby bottles, or just scrub around inside the opening with your fingers. Kongs are dishwasher safe, but be warned that tightly lodged food can easily sneak through an entire dishwashing cycle. Make sure your dog’s Kongs are cleaned regularly to prevent food from spoiling.

Next week we’ll discuss Kong stuffing options, as well as other games to play with these toys.

Do you use Kong toys for your dog? Please share your favorite Kong stuffing recipes, games, or other tips and tricks in the comments below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Maisy with her mom, Paws Abilities instructor Crystal.

“Are you upset little friend? Have you been lying awake worrying? Well, don’t worry…I’m here. The flood waters will recede, the famine will end, the sun will shine tomorrow, and I will always be here to take care of you.”

-Charlie Brown to Snoopy

The SuperDog Syndrome: Too Much Exercise?

We’ve been discussing exercise lately. We’ve covered how important both physical and mental exercise are, as well as why you should avoid overly arousing activities on a daily basis. Today, let’s talk about another common exercise issue: the SuperDog Syndrome.

SuperDogs are created through too much physical exercise. This most frequently happens when owners rely on physical exercise alone to create a well-behaved dog. Tired dogs are good dogs, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to keep a dog worn out through regular, intense physical exercise in order to avoid behavior problems.

At first, keeping your dog worn out through physical exercise does the trick. The dog spends his time at home sleeping or lying quietly, tired from the increased physical activity. Things are peaceful.

There’s a problem with relying solely on physical activity though: your dog will become more fit the more activity you provide. Activities that previously resulted in a tired dog will instead only take the edge off. Over time, more and more exercise is required to wear the dog out. The dog becomes a great athlete in peak physical condition. The dog becomes a SuperDog.

SuperDogs are hard to live with. They have come to expect, and even to require, massive amounts of physical activity. Missing a day is not an option. Sick with the flu? Too tired from a long week at work? Family visiting from out of town? The dog still needs exercise, or he’s going to be a nightmare.

So, how can you avoid creating a SuperDog? First of all, acknowledge the fact that physical exercise alone will not create a calm, well-behaved, and balanced dog. Mental exercise, training, clear rules and expectations, and management are all also important. Completely wearing your dog out might work in the short term to avoid issues such as counter surfing, attention seeking, barking, or chewing, but long-term results will only be accomplished by teaching the dog appropriate behavior and preventing him from practicing bad behavior through the use of management tools.

Extra physical exercise certainly does have a place. Short-term situations that require an extra-well-behaved dog, such as when frail or elderly visitors are expected or a family member is recovering from surgery, call for increased exercise. Consider hiring a professional dog walker for the week or look into doggy daycare options for social dogs. However, anything longer than a week requires a more well-rounded plan than just increased physical activity.

What if you already have a SuperDog? Climbing out of the rut of relying on physical exercise takes some forethought and preparation. First of all, start increasing your dog’s mental exercise and make sure that you’re providing adequate training and management. Consult us if you need help with this. Then, start slowly decreasing your dog’s daily activities until you’ve reached a more normal and sustainable level (most dogs need about half an hour of physical activity a day).

Do you have a SuperDog, or do you know anyone who does? How do you provide balance to your dog’s exercise routine? Let us know in the comments!

Too Much of a Good Thing: Overexcitement in Exercise

Physical exercise is necessary and healthy for all dogs. However, there are a few common problems we see in client’s dogs who are not exercised properly. Today we’ll discuss one of the biggest problems, overarousal due to exercise, and the myth that you should exercise “crazy” dogs more.

Layla adores lure coursing, and it's great exercise for her, but it also makes her overly aroused.

Arousal refers to a dog’s level of excitement and emotional control. A highly aroused dog will be very excited, with a fast heartrate and respiration and poor impulse control. He may have dilated pupils or chatter his teeth. He may pant, jump around or on you, or vocalize incessantly. He may become grabby or mouthy. Alternatively, he may become “locked on” to an activity, freezing in place and staring intently at the object of his obsession, spinning in circles, or pacing.

Highly aroused dogs are stressed. Remember that stress is not necessarily bad. When we think of stress, we often think of negative stress, or distress. However, there’s also positive stress, known as eustress. Winning the lottery and having your home foreclosed on are both stressful activities, and your body actually responds to them the same way even though your emotional response to each is different. This point is important for us to understand as it relates to our dogs, because happily exciting events still create a physiological stress response in your dog’s body.

Why does this matter? Stress causes physical changes in the body. When you or your dog become stressed, your body releases certain stress hormones into the bloodstream. These stress hormones don’t just instantly dissipate. They hang around for awhile (the most commonly quoted length of time is 72 hours, but estimates range from mere hours to an entire week depending on who you ask).

Consider this, then. If you engage in activities that cause your dog to become aroused, and therefore stressed, every day, your dog will always have high levels of stress hormones in his bloodstream. High arousal becomes the new norm. Consider how you would feel if you won the lottery, rode a rollercoaster, or attended your favorite band’s rock concerts every single day. Our bodies aren’t built for prolonged periods of excitement, even when the excitement is positive.

What does this have to do with our dogs? I’m often called in to work with dogs who have trouble controlling themselves or calming down. These dogs are often reactive and hypervigilant. These dogs are also often victims of the wrong sort of exercise. Exercise that amps your dog up is okay in moderation, but allowing your dog to engage in it every day will likely do more harm than good. This is highly individual, but is most commonly seen with ball- or frisbee-obsessed dogs playing fetch every day or highly dog-social and excitable dogs visiting the dog park or daycare regularly.

If this sounds like your dog, there is hope! Cut down on overly arousing activities and replace them with other physical and mental exercise. Save these exciting activities for special times. My dogs both enjoy the flirt pole, but only play with it a few times a month due to how highly aroused they get while chasing it. Layla adores lure coursing above all other activities, but she takes 3 full days to recover after just a few runs after the lure because she becomes so over-the-top waiting for her turn (words cannot describe the bark-scream-screech sound she makes in line). Dobby loves to play fetch, but two days in a row with the chuck-it or frisbee creates a dog who’s not very pleasant to live with.

In future posts, we’ll discuss other common exercise pitfalls as well as some great ways to exercise your dog. Have you ever had to limit an activity your dog adored because it caused him to become too overstimulated? Please share your stories in the comments below!