Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Pushing Exercise

This is a corollary to my previous blog post, "An Open Letter to New York Dog Trainers."

How to Do the Pushing Exercise
Some dogs play tug naturally, others have to be taught how. 
That's where "The Pushing Exercise" comes in handy!  

In Natural Dog Training one of the most important and pivotal exercises we do is called “the pushing exercise,” where we hand feed a dog outdoors, encouraging the pooch to push against us while he or she eats. Kevin Behan the originator of NDT, and the nation's premiere expert on the rehabilitation of problem dogs, particularly those with severe aggression problems — created this exercise, as an outgrowth of the work he did for many years training police dogs, border patrol dogs, and detection dogs. In order to build a dog's drive to the levels needed in such work a trainer will often play tug-of-war and then push against the dog as he's tugging on the toy. This builds the dog's drive and makes him more reliable in a crunch situation.

One of the things the pushing exercise does is it creates a better emotional bond between you and your dog. But it's also amazingly effective at solving all kinds of behavioral problems, particularly those that are fear-based.


All behavior is an expression of energy, but energy always has to flow toward something. And sometimes a dog's emotional energy gets blocked by past experiences, fears, lack of confidence, etc. The pushing exercise can help a dog learn how to push past her internal resistance, her emotional barriers, and whatever other kinds of energy blocks she might be experiencing. Once she does, she'll be happier, more confident, plus a lot more obedient.

All dogs are good dogs, some just need a little push!

NOTE: This version of the exercise is designed to be used by the average dog owner, one whose dog has mild to moderate behavioral problems. Do not try this with a dog who's aggressive toward humans over food. You have to either do some preliminary work with such dogs before moving on to the pushing exercise, or leave it in the hands of an experienced professional.

At meal time, take the dog outdoors, on-lead, to a quiet spot with few distractions. Have her morning or evening meal in a bait bag (or you can use a leather nail bag from the hardware store). It’s a good idea to feed the dog only half her usual fare at her previous meal so that she’ll come into this exercise with more desire to eat than usual.

When you find a good spot, stop walking, calmly stroke her and praise her. Scruff her under the chin or scratch under her ears. Set up a warm, convivial feeling.

Take an open, loose, non-threatening stance, not directly head-on, but at a kind of 3/4 degree angle, with your legs apart so when she comes to take the food from your hand she’ll be coming at a more direct angle. You don’t want her coming in from either your right or left side—she should come straight between your legs.

With some dogs I do the exercise while seated, but keep the same loose body language.

Bend your knees slightly, but lean back from the hips in what I call the “Kramer.” But keep your shoulders rounded, not stiff. This stance will automatically encourage your dog to want to come toward you. (She might not at first, but she’ll at least have some desire to do so, much more so than if you stand close and loom over her).

Grab a handful of food from the bag. I like to use my non-dominant (left) hand for the food (I’m right handed). Also, if the dog eats kibble I usually marinate it in hot water for 20 mins. or so, until it’s nice and mushy; I also like to add some juicy chicken or bits of steak, or some tasty canned food as well. Sometimes a dog I’m working with will be eating a raw food diet. That’s fine too. I always wear a latex glove on my food hand.

Show the dog that you have a nice handful of yummy food. Praise her for showing interest in it. Then close your fingers gently across your palm (covering the food), and say, in a warm, gentle tone of voice, “Wait…” And as you can see the dog holding her energy back for a second or so, say, “Good… Ready!” in a happy tone, then open your hand and let her eat.

As she eats, put your other hand lightly against her chest, with your palm up, cupping her breast bone. Don’t push against her with this hand. Just let it sit there. If she shows nervousness about having that other hand against her chest while she’s eating, you have to take it a little slower; use that hand to scratch under her ears again, etc. You want her to feel comfortable. Let her eat while you pet her and scratch her with that hand.

Once she’s finished eating that handful of food, withdraw your other hand from her chest, dip into the bag for another handful, and start again, repeating the same sequence of words: “Wait…” She waits. “Ready? Okay!”

If she really gets into eating this way, or is almost there, but not quite, I’ll encourage her while she’s eating. “Oh, you want it! Come on! Come on and eat it! Push me! Push!” You have to make sure this doesn’t throw her off-balance emotionally though. It should make her want to push into harder. If her interest lags instead, ease off a little on the vocal encouragement. Another variation, once the dog is really into the game, is to move away from her as you push. This not only increases her interest in the game it has the added benefit of making her more interested in coming when called.

With some dogs it may take several days or more to get them comfortable with this. Take it very slowly. Sometimes it's beneficial with such dogs to simply not "push" it at one meal and "skip" to the next. It won't hurt a dog to fast for a meal or two. In fact holistic vets recommend that you fast your dog once a week. It's actually good for a dog's digestive system. Doing this will also reduce a dog's nervousness about eating from your hand. 

Don't go overboard, of course. And if you're working with a rescue dog who's severely underweight, let her get closer to her ideal weight before doing any fasting. Kevin Behan recommends that for some dogs you have to keep them at about 85% of their ideal body weight until their behavioral problems are resolved. (There is sound reasoning behind this idea: hunger is nature's way of curing fear.)

Over the course of a few days, as you sense your dog's increased openness to pushing, start pulling your food hand away bit by bit, while keeping the other hand in position, nice and steady against her chest. If she’s interested enough in the food, this will automatically cause her to push into you to keep eating. As she gets used to the feeling of pressure, and seems to start to like it, you can slowly build the amount of pressure she’s able to tolerate against her chest. The harder the dog pushes the more of her fear and confidence issues she’ll be getting rid of (because she's pushing past her emotional barriers).

The ultimate goal is that eventually, over the course of a week or two (maybe more, depending on the dog), you’ll have her pushing so hard that she’s up on her back legs, nearly knocking you over. But never let her feel pressure against her chest unless she’s also eating at the same time. As she begins to push harder and harder at each meal, you’ll see some incredible changes in her behavior. She’ll be calmer, more obedient, less pushy (I know!), and more centered and balanced.

That’s what always happens. You just have to see it to believe it…

Click here for a downloadable pdf file so you can have a hard copy to work from.

Click here to purchase Neil Sattin’s DVDs, the 1st volume is almost exclusively about pushing.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"


Anonymous said...

After a dog learns to push, how long do you continue feeding him his meals with pushing?

LCK said...

I think it's a good idea to keep pushing until you've totally gotten rid of whatever behavioral problem you're working on.

Kevin Behan, who created the exercise, said he did so because he wants a dog to give his owner that last 0.01% of obedience (as in, "My dog is 99.9% reliable").

The ultimate goal of Natural Dog Training is to have a dog who'll obey his owners under any and all circumstances. For instance, if the leash breaks and your dog sees a squirrel on the other side of a busy road, you definitely want to be able to call him back to you with 100% reliability. If your dog is leash aggressive, you'll want to keep doing the pushing exercise until you can heel him past another aggressive dog with no reaction, even though the other dog might be barking and lunging. (The "eyes" exercise also helps with this.)

To me every dog owner has to decide for him or herself how much of that 100% reliability they want, need, or think they can get. However, the pushing exercise has another effect, one that may be just as important, which is that it doesn't just make the dog more responsive to commands, i.e. more obedient, it also increases the dog's feeling of connectedness to you. And feeling a deep emotional/social connection is like oxygen for dogs. It's something they practically can't live without. The pushing exercise gives dogs that feeling.


Kasha said...

That's a crazy cool technique. So little much training to do! I would like to see some pictures of your dog(s).

LCK said...

I don't have any dogs of my own right now. But I am thinking of buying a digital camera so I can show some fun pictures of the dogs I work with.


LCK said...

Here's Kevin's response to a question someone with a 7 mo. old dog asked on his website. There are several variations that I haven't mentioned in my article, and thought it might be helpful:

"Don’t make the exercise too intense for a young dog, but since your dog is acting so tentatively, it’s a good idea to get started now. First, sit down and accustom your dog to coming in close to get the food, and then as you gently massage under its neck and it’s completely comfortable with this, then slowly introduce a little bit of a push back with just enough force that it pushes in for the food. Keep your food hand open as much as necessary so that your dog can perceive its availability.

"After several sessions of this, graduate to standing upright, and always be moving away. Do not go toward your dog even though you are trying to give it the food. Also make sure that both hands are in a straight line so that it must go through the open hand to get to the food hand. And if you move the food hand around too much, again, your dog may not perceive its availability and will hold back. As long as your dog is taking food, you are not making a mistake. Little by little your technique will get better.

"Also, you should get Neil Sattin’s video so that you can see visually what you should be doing. Good luck."

So, that's from inventor of the exercise himself!


Anonymous said...

Thanks! Your reply about how long to continue feeding meals with pushing was very helpful.

Next, could you comment on conditions for variability of position of the pushing hand? I noticed in several of Kevin's Facebook fan photos, his pushing hand seems to be closer to the dog's jaw than to his chest.

I have ordered Neil's DVD and I'm eager to see what the pushing exercise looks like on it. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your comments.


Sang Koh said...

I just finished watching Neil's video the other day, and it is excellent.

If you want to see the pushing exercise in action, definitely order his dvd. You'll learn the pushing exercise, and a whole lot more too.

Anonymous said...

I started this activity a few weeks ago, and my dog is doing well, but i have one problem. i have noticed it is suggested that you eventually get the dog pushing so hard, that hes standing on his back legs coming at you (as even exemplified in pictures). the downside for me is that my dog has been diagnosed with severe hip dysplasia, and as such, is not supposed to do activities that require large amounts of pressure on the back legs. is it ok to keep the pushing with all 4 legs on the ground, or is there some kind of comparable activity? thanks!

LCK said...

First, yes. Kevin and Neil do the pushing exercise with the non-food hand pushing against the dog's throat. I think it's better to keep the hand cupped on the dog's breast bone for various reasons. They may do it that way because it's the only way to do the exercise while standing erect, rather than kind of crouched over the dog.

As for a dog with hip dysplasia, you're right not to do it so that in any way would injure a dog. I'm not sure what your goal is, but if you use the chasing technique, where you move away as you offer the food, that might give you some of the same benefits as having the dog push hard enough so that he's up on his back legs.

Best of luck!