Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Swimming Upstream

This is an early explanation of how and why "The Pushing Exercise," where you get your dog to push into as hard as he can, are helpful at solving behavioral problems.

Swimming Upstream:
Using Resistance to Solve Behavioral Problems
We've talked a lot here about how tug and the pushing exercise can build a dog's confidence. And that sounds fine and quite noble in a way, but what does it mean really, to build a dog's confidence? And what about dog owners who perceive their dog's aggression, for example, as not being caused by a lack of confidence, but too much of it (or too much "dominance")? Or the woman I met on the street today whose dog's paws are bright pink from being licked obsessively, yet the owner claims the dog is super confident, and the least anxious dog you'd ever meet? On a certain level neither type of dog needs to have their confidence built, but they both need help with what's going on inside their emotional pressure cookers.

As usual I think it's best to take this down to its barest essentials: how the dog handles changes in the continuous flow of energy between himself and the environment. As we know, when talking about dogs as part of an energy exchange system, a dog's energy has two polarities: attraction and resistance. Also, since it's been my thesis for a long time that dogs are part of a self-organizing system, which for lack of a better word we call "the pack," I was both surprised and delighted to find this definition of self- organizing systems on Wikipedia:

"Self-organization is a process of attraction and repulsion in which the internal organization of a system, normally an open system, increases in complexity without being guided or managed by an outside source. Self-organizing systems typically (though not always) display emergent properties."

This idea, of the canine pack as a self-emergent system, has been a theme (or sub-theme) throughout all of my novels. The point here is that self-organizing systems are said to operate on polarities of attraction and resistance (or repulsion), which for me, goes directly back to Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan, even though Kevin had never heard of emergence theory when he wrote it. 

But since the topic of today's blog is how and why playing tug and doing the pushing exercise helps a dog overcome behavioral problems by building his ability to deal with sudden shifts in energy, particularly in the form of strong feelings of resistance that he feels he can't get past, I thought I should lay down a bit of that foundation first:

All behaviors are part of an energy exchange with the environment 
and all energy manifests as either attraction or resistance, 
or a combination of the two. 

So here's a discussion I had with a dog owner named Anna, at

Subject: Dog aggression.

We have a three year old neutered male Boston Terrier, Willie. Ever since we got him he has been highly aggressive towards other dogs but more so lately. When we first got him we had a spayed female Great Dane who has since passed away. At their first meeting he tried to lunge and bite her but once he realized that she didn’t respond aggressively towards him they got along fine and never once fought. But when he is out in our yard he has actually broken our gate and attacked another dog. In the house he ran so hard into our front door that it broke open and he again went after another dog pinning down a 150 lbs mastiff while biting his neck (He has never actually hurt another dog; he doesn’t bite hard enough to break the skin.).

We take him for daily walks were he still goes crazy at the sight or sound of another dog. He is completely unresponsive to treats or his favorite pull rope when he sees another dog. At first we were using a regular collar and leash which he would pull and choke himself with. Next we tried a Gentle Leader head collar which stopped his pulling but gave him sores on the top of his nose (we tried to put Vaseline on his nose but is still broke the skin). We then tried a small prong collar which has by far worked the best. He no longer pulls on the leash but still does react to other dogs. To correct him we would give a quick tug on the leash and calmly tell him no, try to distract him with treats or a toy. No correction has been successful. 

Any advice you may have would be very welcomed. Also since using the e-collar he has never gotten gone after another dog in the yard or the house. He is a great dog and would be amazing at agility if he could just get past his issues. He knows tons of tricks and is very eager to learn and highly motivated by food unless there is another dog. Please let me know if there is anything I forgot to mention and I look forward to your response.


ANSWER: Hi, Anna,

Thanks for the question.

All aggression is based on fear. And Willie is exhibiting high levels of nervous tension (or stress). Think of the little guy as a salmon swimming upstream, fighting against the current, only Willie is fighting against internal emotional currents that get stirred up in him when he sees other dogs and feels suddenly as if he's going to be attacked. In the normal scope of things, his emotional river runs through a broad channel, and the current travels at a slow, comfortable pace. But when he sees another dog, the energy builds, the emotions tighten up in him, and he feels like he's going to "drown." So he lashes out at what he perceives to be the locus point of the sudden energy shift from lazy river to extreme rapids.

With me so far?

Okay, now let's take this down to the bare essential quality that causes his aggression. Dogs have two social polarities, social attraction and social resistance. Social attraction is what makes dogs gravitate towards, and to want to be pals with, other dogs. Social resistance is what makes them tell another dog, "Hey, you're getting too close here!" As you found out with your great Dane, Willie has strong social attraction, and would probably love to play with every dog he meets if he could only get past these Rapids of Doom that keep cropping up in his internal emotional river.

The reason his emotions feel like rapids is that he doesn't have a normal, well-balanced dog's (or a salmon's) natural skill for swimming upstream. This is probably because he was abused or trained in very heavy-handed manner before you came along and rescued him. So, to repeat the metaphor, when there's a sudden influx of energy, he feels thrown off balance emotionally. And since he has strong levels of social attraction, his instinctive strategy is to go AT the other dogs rather than to run AWAY from them. The primary reason he does this is that he hasn't been given the skill-set necessary for dealing with strong feelings of internal and external resistance. He doesn't know how to swim against the current.

There are two exercises that will help him learn this skill.

One is a pushing exercise, where you hand feed him all his meals, outdoors. You put one hand against his chest, palm up, and hold his food up to his mouth for him to eat. As he eats out of your hand you start to slowly yet almost imperceptibly pull the food hand away so that he has to push into your other hand in order to eat. As you progress with this exercise over time, you want to get to the point that he's pushing into you with all his might in order to eat. This will teach him, on a visceral and emotional level, that he can not only tolerate strong feelings of resistance, but that he can conquer them; he can swim upstream. It will also change the emotional dynamic between the two of you so that he'll be more focused on you and your commands while he's outdoors and there are other dogs around.

Another helpful tool, involving resistance, is to play tug-of-war with him outdoors every day, always let him win, and praise him enthusiastically for winning. 

If, once you've built up his internal emotional ability to handle resistance, and he's still acting snarky toward other dogs (after all, he's a Boston terrier, so it's not out of the realm of possibility), then you can employ some of the techniques found in the following link: 

Also, since part of Willie's problem with other dogs is that he can't handle the sudden influx of energy that he feels when he sees them, it's NOT a good idea to use an electronic collar. The e-collar adds more energy to the equation. So even though it seems to be working, there's going to be a severe downside at some point. More energy in = more energy out. The prong collar is fine for now, but if you do the exercises I've given you, then eventually you'll be able to walk him on a regular collar or even a harness. 

Dear LCK,
Thank you so much. Your view on training is different from many others in which we have consulted. It has only been two days we have had your advice and already we see improvements. We couldn't thank you enough!

Thanks again,

Okay, so that worked for Willie. But the pushing exercise isn't just for aggression. It's helpful with all fear-related behaviors, including obsessive licking, phobias, possessiveness, and separation anxiety. 

The point is that it's very helpful to think of behavior in terms of pure energy, and how capable the dog is engaging in an energetic dynamic at a high rate of exchange. That's where the salmon/river analogy helps. Most dogs are capable of fairly high rate of energy exchange with their environment. This ability comes directly from the group hunting behaviors of the wolf. But due to mistreatment, bad breeding, or whatever the cause (which is kind of irrelevant), some dogs aren't very good at processing certain types of energy at a high rate of flow; when the channel narrows, the emotional waters run faster, and these dogs literally feel thrown off-balance emotionally. Why? Because they need to work on developing more of an ability to handle resistance, both internal and external.

With Anna's dog the sudden influx of energy came when he saw other dogs on the street. With Trevor the energy overload came when he was left alone; he'd go into a panic state instead of being able to swim against the emotional currents. I worked on a resource-guarding case recently with a springer spaniel named Caleb, whose feelings of attraction to his toys and food dish were so strong that when another dog came toward him he went into energy overload and would try to attack them. Just yesterday Caleb and Dougie were playing tug-of-war with one of Caleb's favorite toys! He actually enjoys sharing now.

In another case (see the comments section), a terrier mix named Henry stopped jumping up on strangers, stopped stealing other dogs' balls, and started paying much more attention to his owner outdoors, just from doing the pushing exercise and the "eyes."

If you fall overboard and know how to swim, you'll quickly find your balance. If you don't know how, you'll feel like you're drowning and you'll just start thrashing around in a panic. And that's very similar to the way a dog feels when the energy in a particular situation is too much for him to handle. He feels like he's drowning and acts out of either panic or deep fear. The pushing exercise teaches him how to manage those emotional currents with no fear at all.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"


boywunder said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
boywunder said...

Oops, I deleted my comment. Well, here it is again:)

Hey Lee, just wanted to share an update about Roxy, the Seattle terrierist.

For a while now I had been taking the dogs out separately for exercise, so that I wouldn't be overwhelmed if a situation were to arise. Well, today I decided to take both Jackie and Roxy out to play together. Where I take them is a school playground where there is this corner area of flat grass that's on top of a hill, with a fence on one side where the sidewalk is, and rocks on the hillside. So there's really only one way in or out, and I can see the main entrance from that spot since it's up on a hill to see if any dogs are coming into the schoolyard. So it's really great for Roxy. Anyway, I had been throwing the ball for her for a while with the chuck it, and she was getting pretty nice and tired. Meanwhile, Jackie was lying in the grass by the fence, taking a break from her frisbee catching, when she got up and started looking out of the fence up the street. So I knew a dog was on its way since that's the only thing that would get her attention like that. And sure enough, a young girl was walking by with her Boston Terrier. I didn't pay any attention to Jackie since she was doing fine on her own. I just got Roxy's attention and had her sit and stay, which we had been working on before the Boston showed up, and she sat and stayed next to me. Now, the fence is probably about 40 feet from where I was standing, and that is well into Roxy's threshold of going from relaxed to frenzied when seeing another dog. Normally she'll go into a frenzy at a good 50 yards if she sees another dog. But she didn't even start to whine. I was really proud of her for being able to sit and stay next to me while a dog was walking by. Especially since Jackie was over there checking out the other dog. Normally that would just be too much for Roxy to handle, knowing that one of the other dogs is over there and she can't be over there too. I know that if she had gotten to the fence and close to the Boston, she would have been overwhelmed and started acting out. But she was able to channel her drive right into some obedience stuff, and that made me feel really good about our progress. She has a long way to go still obviously, but things are definitely looking up.

I know it really helped that we had been doing some play training with the ball the whole time we were there. I was using her drive for the ball to work on her sit, down, and stay, as well as her heel. I know that totally helped her to be able to do what I was asking of her when I told her to sit and stay. I didn't have her leash on her, nor did I hold on to her collar. I just told her to sit and stay, and she did. It was so awesome. She just sat there, focused on me and waiting. This is a dog that a few months ago would have instantly taken off and charged the fence, and nothing would have stopped her from doing so.

Then, a few minutes later, the girl walked back in the opposite direction with the Boston, and this time I wasn't as on top of what was going on. So Roxy sees them coming by, and she goes to take off toward the fence. So I gave her a verbal correction to get her attention, which is an "aaagggghhhhttt" sound I make when I need to really snap her attention back to me. She immediately spun around in full stride and ran back to me and sat in front of me, completely focused on me making excellent eye contact. I of course rewarded her profusely and got back to the ball throwing to reward her some more, as well as release any tension.

I was just really proud of her. It was just great to see that the things we've been doing, like the pushing and the tug, as well as the play training with the ball, have been making a difference. The changes are small and subtle, but they are there and are great signs of what is possible, and the power of working with the prey drive.

Hope you're doing well, and I'll keep you posted on our continued progress. Later!


Lee Charles Kelley, said...

That's great, Sang.

It looks like Roxy is the new "poster dog" for Natural Dog Training techniques. Summer will have to start taking the second-place ribbon...


Lee Charles Kelley, said...

I got this e-mail recently from a client whose dog had problems stealing food, among other things. He apparently loves the pushing exercise:

"Last night some people were having ribs in the park during off-leash hours and Henry didn’t bother them at all! Two other dogs got to them though! I was sooo relieved. He started to wander over to them, but I said 'Henry, ready!' and he came running back to me and we did some pushing for treats.

"He really LOVES to push. I just say 'ready and put my pushing hand in position and he comes bounding over to me at full speed and smacks his chest into my hand. I think he really like the sensation. Does that makes sense? I’ll have to show you at our next session.

"Anyway, I’ve noticed since I started working with you, that Henry rarely leaves my side anymore during off-leash. (Unless of course he is in a fast chase with another dog.) This makes his tendency to look for trouble (ie sneak some food) much more manageable. Also, it just occurred to me that I haven’t had to scold him for jumping up on people and begging for treats recently. That’s funny...Maybe because I’m more engaged with him and him in me. I didn’t even realize that until right this second.

"He also isn’t stealing balls from other dogs anymore! Could that be because I’m playing fetch with him so much more now, that he knows he has his own tennis ball? Wow! This is great!"

Keep pushing, Henry!


Lee Charles Kelley, said...

More from Henry's owner:

"Hi Lee,

"Just wanted to give you another update on Henry. First of all, I just have to say, that this whole pushing thing is almost like magic. When we first started working together, and one of Henry’s biggest problems was jumping up on people and begging for treats, I couldn’t for the life of me understand how teaching him to jump up and push against me for food wouldn’t be counterproductive. But I can confidently tell you that Henry simply does not jump up on people AT ALL anymore. In fact, someone commented the other day, 'Henry has become quite the model citizen lately!'"

She's also developed her own unique way to use the pushing exercise to increase the reliability of Henry's recall:

"I wanted to ask you about a new thing I’ve been incorporating into Henry’s pushing exercises to make sure it was in keeping with your methods. We are now practicing a down stay and recall with every handful of food. Here’s what I do:

"I put Henry in a down stay and walk away. Then I turn around and say 'Ready?' and Henry comes bounding towards me as I run backwards. Then he slams his chest into my hand and we push, push, push push, as I’m still walking backwards, and then he gets the food as he’s still pushing.

"I have to say, his recall gets better and better every single day. Is it okay for me to me to be doing this?"

Yeah, it's okay. In fact, it's great! Just make sure there's no pushing going on EXCEPT while he's eating. He should only feel that pressure against his chest while there's food available.