Conversations with River


IMG_1900-2Today, while I was asking my girl River a question for around the 20th time on our ninety minute public outing, I was thinking about how freaking boring our life together would be if we didn’t have an ongoing flow of conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I do not mean that I stand in a park and talk to my dog like some crazy dog lady (I would… never do that… ) but we do indeed have a back and forth stream of communication. Here are a few things I posed to her today; in long written word here, but we worked through them with body language and a few single words only:

1. “Would you like to enter this fenced park to go swimming in the lake? There are other dogs off leash there, and I know that can be uncomfortable for you, so I’ll let you decide.”

She chose to take a short walk around the area first so she could take in the environment and then pulled me towards the entrance. Once off leash, she ran to the lake and waited for the toy to be thrown without even glancing at another dog. Remember folks, this is my “extremely dog reactive” cattle dog bitch I’m talking about.

2. “That five month old puppy is approaching you. You know you have to ability to not react, and if you quietly lay down and wait for me to deal with the situation you can get back to the toy throwing sooner. Oof. She just stole your toy… Please stay there and I will get it back for you and be very, very happy with you.”

She did exactly that. A very sweet but slightly foolish Doodle puppy stole River’s toy less than a foot away from her feet not once but TWICE and River let it happen. She has learned over the last several years that I can help her handle these predicaments; she does not have to use her teeth or other scary displays on strange dogs.

Heel position right next to the water's edge: a very difficult thing to ask a swim-obsessed cowdog!

Heel position right next to the water’s edge: a very difficult thing to ask a swim-obsessed cow dog!

3. “I know it’s hard for you to think while swimming, but I would really like to do some Rally-O proofing exercises with you and reward all of your brilliance with toy throws. Can you work with me this close to the water and new strange stimuli and I’ll promise to make my other criteria lower?”

She responded with near excellent fronts, finishes, and short steps of heeling less than ten feet from the water! Rally exercises are still pretty new to her, so I was asking a lot, but she gave me her best.

You’ll notice that I never gave her a traditional command during these exchanges. In fact, during our actual verbal communication I did not give her a single cue word other than our Rally practice cues. Leaving other dogs alone, down stays while I got her stolen toy back, and her focus on me versus the humans and dogs in the park were all given. I let her choose what she wanted to do every step of the way and each action of mine was directly in response to her. If she hadn’t pulled me towards the entrance of the park, I would have kept walking down the trail and waited to visit the swimming area until others had left with their dogs. If she had made a move to react negatively towards that puppy (which, honestly, would have been warranted!), I would have moved us much further away and possibly left the area. If she hadn’t been able to focus on me enough in that environment to practice Rally moves, I would have abandoned the idea of difficult proofing until another time with fewer distractions.

These are just a couple of examples from one day, but the list goes on and on; I try to make me and my dogs’ time together one of mutual enjoyment whenever possible. I try to give them as many choices about their life as I safely and sanely am able to. Life with dogs is just far more interesting and rewarding when you treat them as a thinking being with thoughts and feelings about the world. Three years ago, I never imagined that my “super reactive” cattle dog could swim in a fenced dog park with other dogs around without having a complete fit every five seconds. But she did indeed play for over an hour today, with! other! dogs! around!, and I have the photos to prove it. All of our hard work towards building our relationship, trust, and teamwork is paying off. I haven’t needed to teach her any new cues lately. I have never used punishment based training methods for her dog reactivity, and I have never forced her to do anything around dogs she absolutely did not want to do. I did not flood her, I did not strap an e-collar on, she never wore a pinch or choke chain, I didn’t have to train a ton of commands and throw away all of her choices to follow them, and yet… I have a dog I can take to a public lake off leash without huge reactions. Her recall is pretty stellar, her focus is lovely, and she is a mostly happy (I won’t lie: there is still some level of stress around strange dogs and sometimes she can still get a snark in if it’s needed!) little dog who once tried to bite the face off every single strange fellow canine she came across. We constantly improve together thanks in large part to the talks we have like the ones we had today.

So: next time you’re out for a walk, try having a conversation with your dog. You might be surprised how much you can communicate and learn from them without ever opening your mouth.

Let’s Be Friends! : A Few Tips for Introducing Dogs

When I’m not writing for TU, I work with dogs at a large animal sanctuary. We get dogs in from all over with a variety of issues, and while many of them are a little selective with their doggy friends, we try hard at work to find them suitable roommates and playmates.  There are a lot of benefits that come with dogs having friends: first, dogs can play with each other in a way that humans just can’t duplicate, and I suspect it’s a relief for dogs to be able to easily communicate with each other.  An analogy I use a lot is this: if you’re in a foreign country, even if you’re pretty good in the local language, it can be a huge relief to find somebody who speaks your native language and can understand your little idioms and colloquialisms and accents. Sometimes it’s nice to not have to fight to be understood, and while dogs work hard to make humans understand what they’re saying, other dogs speak dog as a first language.

Second, dogs benefit from keeping their dog skills up. Even dogs who don’t care much for other dogs need practice walking peacefully down the street when other dogs pass them, and having occasional low-stress exposure to new dogs can be a big benefit, even for dogs who don’t really want to play.  Sometimes our ‘playdates’ at work just consist of two dogs peacefully coexisting in the same space, not interacting, just sniffing around and exploring on their own terms.  They’re not very exciting looking, but those low-key encounters can be valuable too!

Because my older dogs in particular can be pretty selective with other dogs, I have absolutely been guilty of limiting their dog-dog social time in the past; however, doing lots of dog introductions at work has gotten me a lot braver about it, and these days, Widget and Nimbus have a several playdates every week, Nellie has periodic playdates with with specific dogs and Lucy’s started to go on group walks where she doesn’t interact with other dogs but walks peacefully in the group. This is a terrific thing for all of them, and I’m glad I’ve started to be able to do it again. Below the cut, I’ll lay out the steps we use for new dog introductions at work, which have also worked really well with my own guys!

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Do’s and Don’ts for getting a sport dog from a shelter

It’s no secret that we here at TU are big fans of shelter dogs as both potential sport partners and awesome pets. We’ve written several posts on the subject before: here’s Ten Reasons Why Your Next Sport Dog Should Be a Rescue, and here’s Jen’s post on how rescues and shelters should go about marketing dogs for sport homes.  Michelle has also talked about going in with a plan when you’re going to adopt from a shelter.  However, it occurred to me recently that while we’ve always encouraged shelter adoption, we’ve never actually given any practical advice on how to go into a shelter and come out with an awesome sport dog.  We’re going to correct that right now with a short list of do’s and don’ts for people who are looking to adopt their next sport dog.

Don’t lead by saying you’re looking for a dog to do agility* with.

*or your sport of choice

Here’s the thing: most dog people don’t do dog sports. It’s easy to forget this if your weekends are wrapped up in trials and training and classes, but truly: dog sports are a niche thing. You’d be surprised how many dog owners have never even heard of dog sports. As a shelter worker myself, I will tell you that shelter workers are no exception: even when they are familiar with, say, agility, they may not have enough specialized knowledge to know what makes a good sport partner. When you say “I’m looking for an agility dog”, what your average shelter worker may hear is “I’m looking for a super high-energy dog”. If you’ve spent much time in shelters, you probably know that most shelters are chock-full of super energetic teenage dogs who have a surplus of anxiety and a surfeit of manners: these are the dogs who are surrendered because the owner “just doesn’t have enough time to meet their needs.” If you come in asking for an agility dog, you will often be introduced to a dog who is bouncing off the walls with shelter stress and pent-up energy. Captain Wall Bouncer might be a terrific sport partner; however, it is also possible that he’s just an anxious dog who had a bad start and who is going to need a ton of remedial work before you can even think about, say, developing toy drive or handler focus.

Do go in with specific criteria in mind.

A better approach than saying, “I want a [sport] dog” is to tell the shelter worker who’s helping you that you do dog sports, and you’re looking for a dog who has [x] qualities. This means, by the way, that you should have a sense of what qualities you’re looking for before you go in!  What you’re looking for will depend on several things, most notably what specific sports you play; if you’re looking for a nosework dog, you might go in looking for a dog who likes to work independently and is into find-it games, but if you’re looking for an obedience dog, you might be more interested in a dog with a lot of handler focus.  Your list of criteria will be specific to you, the sports you play, and your lifestyle!  However, there are also some basic qualities you can look for that can help set you and your future dog up for success in sports: when I polled the TU members in preparation for this post, here are some of the criteria we came up with:

  • Confidence: is the dog comfortable in new environments? How do they do when presented with new distractions and challenges?
  • Biddablity/handler focus: is the dog interested in you (in the absence of treats and toys)? If you engage them in basic training or play, are they interested in engaging back?
  • Structure: there are a lot of good books and websites that will help you get a sense of how to evaluate a dog’s physical structure. Here’s a post on Susan Garrett’s blog that will give you some preliminary pointers.  For me, I tend to look a lot at shoulder and rear angulation, gait and topline, but everyone’s got a different list of things that matter to them.
  • Drives (food, play, hunt, toy): you won’t get a perfect picture of this in a shelter setting, but if you’ve got some time to play with the dog you’re interested in, you should be able to get some sense of how they respond to food, toys, find it games, tag and so forth.  The shelter workers can give you good input here: remember, they’ve known the dog for longer than you have, and they can probably tell you if he’s generally into toys, treats, etc.
  • Ability to recover: if the dog is startled or if something happens that she doesn’t expect, does she bounce back quickly or does she stress about it for a while?

Don’t go in looking for dogs of a specific breed

When I’m looking for dogs, I’m personally much more interested in temperament and personality than breed. That said, I know there are a lot of people who like particular breeds and breed mixes and specifically seek them out when they’re looking for dogs: to each their own! However, thinking about breed can actually get in your way if you’re looking for your perfect sport dog at a shelter.  If you’ve spent any time at all in shelters or browsing Petfinder, you probably have figured out that a) most (though certainly not all) shelter dogs are mixes and b) the stated breed on the Petfinder listing or kennel card is usually just somebody’s best guess. Some shelters are better at guessing than others; that said, I have worked at several pretty great shelters, and still, I can tell you that in my experience, breed designation usually goes down something like this:

Scene: Several shelter workers stand around squinting at a random medium-sized brown dog who’s just come in.

Shelter worker #1:  He’s got kind of a …. Labby-looking head, right?

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not?

Shelter worker #3: He’s kinda short, though. Let’s say Lab-dachshund mix.

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not? [*writes it down]

If you go to a shelter, you will usually see a ton of dogs listed as lab mixes, shepherd mixes or pit mixes: the National Canine Research Council did a study that indicated that these are the most commonly designated mixes across shelters in the US.  However, the NCRC also did a bunch of blood-based DNA testing to see how accurate those breed guesses are, and whoops, not so much: it turns out that on average, they are only right about 18-20% of the time.  Here are some interesting posters the NCRC put out after that study was released: they show dogs who were identified as lab, shepherd or pit mixes and what the DNA testing indicated they actually were. [Note: these files are PDFs]

Pit bull

[Side note: my shelter has these posters hanging up all over the place, and we are still like, “Yup, looks like a pit mix to me!” when new dogs come in. Sigh.]

Anyway, the point of all that is this: if you go into a shelter and you say, “I am looking for a border collie or border collie mix” instead of saying “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker is not going to think “OK, this person is looking for an intelligent dog with herding instinct who is handler focused and good at teamwork”.  The shelter worker is, instead, going to start making a list of every black and white dog in the shelter, and you are going to see a bunch of black and white dogs rather than a bunch of dogs who have the characteristics you want.  If you say, “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker may bring you a border collie; they may also, however, bring you some awesome little non-black and white muttsky who has all of the characteristics you’re looking for and who you never would have seen if you’d asked to only see border collies.

Do bring toys and treats along when you’re meeting dogs

Bringing along toys and treats is a great way to test if the dog you’re looking at is biddable and wants to engage with you. If you’re a person who uses tug toys a lot in training, it will be useful to bring a tug along to see if the dog wants to play with you; it’s not a perfect metric, as some dogs are too stressed by the shelter environment to play, but if a dog gets excited about the tug right off the bat, that’s something to put in the plus column. Same thing with treats: lots of times, if you have good, tasty/smelly treats, you can do some basic luring and shaping with the dogs you’re looking at, and that can give you some good information about the way the dog learns and how motivated she is by treats. Note–bring the good stuff along: if you bring some dehydrated liver or some string cheese, you’re probably going to have better luck than if you use the stale Milk Bones that the shelter has sitting around.

Here’s a caveat, though: before you bust out your toys and treats, ask the shelter workers if a) the dog is a resource guarder [some extremely sweet dogs get verrrrrry intense about new toys, and this can really be exacerbated in a shelter environment] and b) if the dog has any food intolerances [nobody will be very pleased with you if you feed a dog a treat and later on they come down with hives]. Better to be safe than sorry!

Do try playing/working with the dog in as many contexts as you can.

Shelters have different policies on how potential adopters are allowed to interact with their dogs, but by all means, try to interact with them in as many different contexts as possible.  Take them into a quiet side room if one is available; take them on a walk; play with them in a fenced yard; interact with them near other dogs; walk them through a people-filled lobby and see how they do.  The shelter I work in right now is very liberal about the things potential adopters can do with our dogs: they can go on car rides, they can go on outings and hikes, they can do sleepovers, etc. Other shelters I’ve worked in have let potential adopters ‘check out’ a dog for a few hours and take them on a hike.  Find out all the things the shelter is willing to let you do, and then try to do all of them! Knowledge is power: the more information you have on how your potential dog acts in new situations, the better you’ll be able to determine if the dog is the right fit for you.

Any other do’s and don’ts you would like to add? Do so in the comments!

BAG BRAINS!!: TU Goes Lure Coursing

Late last summer, TU’s Danielle and I got together with our assorted fuzzy miscreants and went out to a lure coursing fun run hosted by the Hilltown Dog Club Lure Coursing group. It was the first time that either of us had done it, and neither of us knew whether our dogs were going to like it.

Lure coursing, for the uninitiated, is a dog sport wherein your dog chases a plastic bag tied to a string that zips around a big grassy field, going through a certain number of turns, for several hundred yards. The number of turns and the length of the course vary depending on your dog’s breed, size, and (sometimes) experience or competition level. There are breed-specific trials, mostly geared toward sighthounds, but at fun runs and non-breed events like the AKC’s Coursing Ability Test, any dog can play. In most cases, your dog is not racing against other dogs, but just trying to beat a fairly forgiving standard course time. If your dog’s in good health and interested in the bag, this isn’t a difficult game.

Not every dog, however, wants to chase that bag. I’m no expert, but from what I’ve seen, lure coursing seems to break down into a pretty binary, black-and-white yes/no as to whether your dog is going to enjoy it. This is 100% instinct, so there’s not a whole lot you can train in or out. Dogs that don’t have especially high prey drive, and/or are easily spooked by the noise and smells of the generator used to power the lure, tend to be unenthusiastic about the experience. (Also, and I’ll totally admit I’m biased on this one because My Dog Pongu is not a lure courser, but I think some dogs are like “pfft that is a plastic bag, you think I’m falling for that? That is not even close to a cat. Go catch your own stupid bag, I’ll see you in the car.”)

Dogs that do have the instinct to chase things, though… weeelllll…

…they will knock you off your feet with their screaming, rearing, laser-focused-totally-insane enthusiasm.

With Dog Mob, I got one of each reaction. Pongu thought lure coursing was super dumb: the generator was scary, the bag was obviously fake, and if we weren’t going to be doing any heeling exercises then he was Not Interested.

Crookytail, on the other hand, was a howling, raging, bug-eyed maniac for that bag. The first time he got a chance to go after it, he yanked me off my feet. I put him back in the car when his turn was over, and he went so crazy watching the other dogs chase the bag that he jumped out the half-rolled-up driver’s side window and bounded to the field. I put him back and rolled the window even tighter, and he got stuck with his head and one arm sticking out.

Finally I had to borrow a secure crate from Danielle (who, thank god, had one to spare) and stick Crooky in Doggy Jail, because he could not hold his brains in his head on his own.

The only way to keep Crooky from gate-crashing when it wasn’t his turn.

Eventually he got a second try and was, for a glorious 60 seconds, the Happiest Dog On Earth.

Danielle Here!
On our fun run outing I also got one of each reaction!  The ironic thing about lure coursing was that I thought that Perri would absolutely love it, and that Molly would be too lazy to care.  (In fact, I actually drove away from home without Molly, stopped, turned around and went back and got her. !!!)  Dog Reaction #1: Perri was mildly interested in the bag, slightly disturbed by the generator and absolutely, “Screw you guys, I’m going home!” when the coursing line was rude enough to not just touch her leg, but move against her leg.  For Perri, lure coursing means ‘bark at the bag, generator and coursing line, all from the safety of the snow fencing holding you inside of this terrible place.’

Dog Reaction #2?  When I told the owner of the coursing equipment that I thought that Molly would be too lazy and uninterested she laughed and told me that she had yet to see any pitbull that did not love lure coursing.  She was right!

Molly very impatiently waits her turn to Course!

Two important things in Lure Coursing: Proper cool down procedure and a LOT of laughing at your dog!

A couple of months later, Danielle and I met up again to take Molly and Crookytail to an official, AKC-sanctioned Coursing Ability Test. (Perri and Pongu, being decidedly less enthusiastic about the whole “run like a maniac after a plastic bag” thing, did not participate.) This event is open to all breeds; the only requirement is that your dog must be at least 12 months old, and you must prove your dog is able-bodied by gaiting her back and forth before the scribes’ table prior to doing your run. (Also: wiping her lady parts with a tissue.  No bitches in heat will be flying under the wire of the coursing ability test screening!)

It works pretty much like a fun run — the dog chases the bag for a course of several hundred yards — and after collecting three legs, your dog earns a Coursing Ability (CA) title. After ten passes, your dog can get a Coursing Ability Advanced (CAA) title. 25 passes, and you’ve got your Coursing Ability Excellent (CAX). Since there’s basically zero training involved and the dogs have a blast chasing the bag, this can be a great way to have some fun at a dog event and get your feet wet in that environment without the pressure of having to perform in a more competitive field like agility or obedience.

Plus, you get spiffy ribbons. Who doesn’t love ribbons?!

Crooky picked up two legs toward his CA that day, and I’ll likely take him to a trial to finish off that title sometime this spring. He’s not much for formal training, my Crookydog, but he sure does love chasing that bag. And I love watching him, because it’s so much fun to see how excited he gets about playing this game.

If you want to try a dog sport purely to watch your dog go out of his mind with exhilaration, lure coursing should definitely be on your short list.

Teeterphobics Anonymous: How Widget Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the ‘Bang!’

Way back when I first got Widget, I took her to a great puppy playgroup once a week.  This particular group happened to be frequented by a lot of Seriously Serious agility folks and their new “he’s gonna be my MACH dog!” puppies, so along with the standard playgroupy socialization things, we also did a little bit of stuff designed to expose our dogs to some stuff they might encounter in agility.


Dim room + maniac puppies = blurry photos

Even as a baby, Widget was an alarmingly fearless little animal who was willing to try everything. Would she run through the baby play tunnel we put out? Obviously! Would she walk across the elevated board (just a piece of wood held up by a couple stacks of books)? Of course, and then for good measure, she would tug while standing on it.  Stack of blocks to knock over (to simulate the sounds the equipment makes)? Fun! Running through a jump standard? Sure, why not?

And then one day, the lady who ran our class was like, “Hey, let’s try out some baby teeter stuff!” and pulled out her wobble board (a piece of wood with a halved tennis ball glued to the bottom: it tips, but only slightly, and is just designed to expose a dog to the feeling of the ground moving a little).  All the other puppies happily pounced on the board, rolled around, played tug while standing on it and otherwise behaved like model pre-agility pups. Widget walked over, put a paw on it, and when it wiggled, she gave me huge whale eyes, ran over to the corner of the room and refused to engage for the rest of the class. “Is she….sick?”, my instructor asked. “Um, maybe?”, I responded. It was so out of character for her to be scared of anything that ‘sick’ seemed like the most logical reason.  But a couple of weeks later, we tried again: same thing. And then a couple of weeks after that, we tried getting the puppies up on the fancy moving exam table (the class was held at a vet’s office, and they had a cool exam table on an elevator platform so it could be raised and lowered at will). Again, Widget was not having it. She was very adamant that a) the ground is not supposed to move, WTF! and b) Widgets do not like to feel like they are out of control. “You better watch out–you’re going to have a teeterphobe on your hands!” said one of my classmates, who was no doubt envisioning Widget running against her pup three years down the line and feeling a little gleeful about it.  At that point, I did what was, in retrospect, probably the smartest thing I could have done: I backed off doing teeter stuff completely. For the next eight or so months, Widget and I worked on a bunch of other pre-agility skills, but the closest we came to doing teeter stuff was doing some basic contact training. This was not easy: I am a problem-solver type, and what I really, really wanted to do was to build all kinds of different wobble boards and do some crazy thing where Widget ate all her meals off the boards and had to stand on the board before we went outside and and and…..Luckily, for once in my life, I did not succumb to my crazy, and so for several months, I just pretended that the teeter did not exist and would never be a factor in our lives.

And then, about a month ago, I decided to start reintroducing The Dreaded Teeter. Widget has gotten a lot more physically confident since our puppy class; we’ve also done a ton of shaping, and a TON of 101 Things To Do With A Box and its variants.  One of the things I do with her all the time is set a novel object out and reward her for interacting with it in different ways: basically, anytime I bring anything even vaguely durable in the house (cans of tomatoes, new brooms, boxes of mail), I put it down on the ground and click/treat Widget for figuring out new ways to interact with it.  I warn you that this kind of creates a monster: these days, any time I have anything new within Widget’s sight line, she is like, “WHAT IS THAT CAN I STAND ON IT CAN I BITE IT CAN I GO IN A CIRCLE AROUND IT, YAY FUN GIVE ME TREATS!” However, it also creates a puppy who is brave around new objects and whose first instinct is to try to engage with new things rather than shying away from them. This is a very useful thing for a jack-of-all-trades sport puppy: if they’re presented with a treiball ball or a lure-coursing lure or an unfamiliar agility obstacle, they’re pretty likely to go over and see what’s cookin’, rather than shying away from it. Just as a backup, I put the “go over and look at that new thing; you will probably get some treats out of it” behavior on cue (Widge’s is ‘go check it out!’) So between all those things, I felt hopeful that we could get some teeter back in our lives without it becoming Big Scary again.  However, I still went (and am still going!) very very very slowly. Here are a few things that we did/are still doing; hopefully, the combination of these things will result in a dog who, in a few months, thinks the teeter is the best thing since sliced bread.

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K9DIY: Make a hard core, square-braid tug

Project difficulty level: Medium (requires some attention to detail, especially at first)

I’ve got three dogs, and they’re all in sports.  They’re all big on toys, and they all like to tug.  And they’re terriers. You can imagine that a good, strong, tug-friendly toy that actually lasts is worth its weight in gold around here.


Ol’ red eyes right there is why we can’t have nice things.

I bought my first square-braid tug from Katie at Red Dog Tugs and was sold immediately.  Tugs made this way are STRONG: my first ones that I bought from Katie are more than two years old and still going strong with three maniac dogs (and several crazy fosters) in the house. The very first one I got from her, in fact, still rides around with me in Widget’s puppy bag and is her go-to tug. They’re also washable, and if you throw a stretched-out tug in the dryer for a few minutes, it shrinks back up. I started dinking around trying to figure out how to make them myself about a year ago; I got pretty good at them and have been selling them locally at the farmer’s market and giving them to my dog friends.  I’m sure I’ve made at least 100 by this point.  Here’s the thing, though: when I want a really tough tug for my dogs, I still buy them from Katie, and here’s why: much like the first couple of scarves you make when you’re just learning to knit, there’s a learning curve with these tugs, and you get better at them the more you make. Katie’s been doing this for a while; her tugs are better than mine. And the ones I’m making now are certainly better than the ones I made when I started, even though it’s the same fairly simple process to make them; it just gets in your hands better the more you make.  But if you want to try making one for yourself, here’s what to do!

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K9DIY: Make a flirt pole on the cheap

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Project difficulty level: Easy (takes very little time, no tools involved, simple components, few steps)

Sometimes when the weather’s not cooperating or you don’t have a ton of time available, there is nothing better than a flirt pole for quickly getting your dogs tired and happy. If you’ve ever been in the cat aisle of the pet store  and have seen one of those fishing rods with a feather tied on one end, you’ve seen a flirt pole; dogs just get a bigger, stronger version of that.  The basic mechanism is simple: you need a long, flexible pole, a piece of string or rope or something like that, and a toy that jazzes up your dog (I will often use the ‘skins’ left over from toys that my dogs have de-squeaked/de-stuffed). Flirt poles are fun to chase, fun to jump for, and can even be used to practice impulse control; you ask your dog for a sit or down, start swirling the flirt pole around, then release them to ‘get it’ (try this if you ever want to see your toy-driven dog go off like a rocket.) Many people make flirt poles by getting a lunge whip (for horses) and simply tying a toy to the end.  Even a cheap lunge whip is still twenty bucks around here, though, and sometimes they can be hard to find.  For my version, I wanted to create something that was springy (to avoid shocks to the dog when they hit the end of the rope), easy to fix and adjust if need be (my dogs are three different sizes) and, most of all, cheap.

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Canine play styles…why are they important anyway?

I think, like everyone else who grew up around dogs, I always understood that dogs played together.  I would watch them in our neighborhood or at a nearby dog park and see them running and leaping and jumping on each other, all obviously having the time of their lives.

But it wasn’t until I first got my own dog that I started to look a more closely at how those dogs played.  In 2010 I picked up a copy of Pat Miller’s amazing book Play With Your Dog.  In it, she outlines several very specific play styles that dogs can have.

1. Cheerleaders.  Cheerleaders play on the outside of a group who is more physically involved.  They run around the outskirts of the group and bark, sometimes almost constantly.  Often times cheerleaders turn into the dreaded “fun police.”  These dogs can be great on one hand (they may break up play that is getting too rough by dispersing the playmates and allowing them to calm down) or problematic (they can cause fights because some dogs do not appreciate having their fun broken up).


Cheerleaders stand on the outside of the group and bark at them! Why? They’re cheering them on!

2. Body slammers.
I don’t think this needs much description.  Pat Miller describes them as dogs who believe play means to “run full speed into other dogs and see if you can knock them off their feet.”  These are full contact, hard-hitting dogs.


Gracie and Ruskin demonstrate some hard hitting body slamming play.

3. Wrestlers.
  Wrestlers like to, well, wrestle.  These are the dogs who come into full body contact with each other and can often be found playing something many of us call “bitey face.”  They often look frightening, with huge displays of mad teeth.  Many of these dogs are good at self-handicapping, but sometimes the play can get out of control and escalate to something a bit more serious (this is when a good fun police dog can come in handy, but if you don’t have one of those on hand, you’ll want to keep a close eye on your wrestlers to make sure everyone is having fun and step in to separate and calm them down if one is not).


Wrestlers can look quite scary, but these dogs were having a total blast!

4. Chasers
. Chasers love to run.  Some dogs really prefer to be the one chasing.  Some dogs like to egg on others to chase them (sometimes by play bowing and running away, sometimes by showing off a prized toy and running away with it).  And others will happily change roles.  Predatory drift (wherein the dog “forgets” the dog they’re chasing is another dog and begins to see it as a prey animal) can occur when dogs are chasing and so it’s recommended to keep chasing partners close in size.


A good game of chase is exciting and fun for the right dogs!

5. Tuggers.
Many dogs love to tug and some of those are quite happy to tug with fellow canines. I’m personally a huge fan of watching dogs play tug.  I think one of the draws for dogs (vs. playing it with humans) is that the other dog can more closely match their vigor.  Even my 50 pound dog can nearly pull me off my feet in a vigorous game of tug.  Not so with her canine playmates!


Tug is especially fun when it’s a dirty half-frozen sock you’ve found in the middle of a field!

6. Soft touches.
These are dogs who are very hesitant to play much with other dogs. They aren’t confident or they’ve been injured or are older. Vigorous games of wrestling, body slamming, and tug are beyond them.  Games of chase are too much for them.  They really need other “soft touches” to have short bouts of play with.


This old dog would be a “soft touch.” She was arthritic and slow to move, but still a happy dog who wanted to play.

7. Self play.
Self-playing dogs will toss toys in the air and chase after them or toss their toy off the bed then run down to get it and hop back up, only to drop it back on the ground again.  Some will pounce on their toys and squeak them over and over again.  Dogs that self-play don’t get bored easily and I think they can have a huge advantage over other dogs when left home alone.


Dahlia can amuse herself by squeaking her toys over and over and over again…

In examining all of these different play styles and thinking about my dog, I realized she falls quite easily into some of the categories and is definitely not a part of others.  You can probably guess by looking at some of the pictures above which ones Dahlia is!  Dahlia loves to chase.  If dogs run off, Dahlia will be close behind running after them.  Dogs running get her excited and moving.  The more dogs running, the more Dahlia gets excited and gives chase.

She is also, most definitely, a cheerleader.  If there are two dogs wrestling, Dahlia is sure to be there barking her fool head off at them and sometimes getting in their way.


Dahlia cheers on Ruskin and Gracie!

But if not controlled, Dahlia can certainly turn into the fun police.  We were once at the dog park and a trainer was there who was in love with Dahlia’s ability to diffuse tension by stopping one dog from playing too rough with a dog who obviously wasn’t enjoying it.  Unfortunately, not everyone likes the fun police.  The dogs in our regular play group, thankfully, either totally ignore Dahlia or just put up with her control freak ways.


The fun police on her way in. A moment later, these two wrestling dogs separated as Dahlia came up between them and herded one away from the other.

Although Dahlia rarely gets to do it, she does enjoy a good game of tug with another dog.  And she will not let up until she gets that tug away from the other dog.

Tugging with friends!

Dahlia tugs with her friend Nellie. Even water won’t stop these dogs from their good rousing game of tug!

What Dahlia is certainly not?  You won’t find her wrestling or body slamming with a dog.  She doesn’t like being run into and bitey face makes her nervous. She’s not a dog who likes body contact.  She’s a dog who has a personal space bubble and prefers to keep other dogs out of it, especially in play.

So what does all this mean?  Why even think about your dog’s play style?  I think that picking the right playmates for your dog is hugely important.  It can mean the difference between a dog who finds joy in other dogs and one who becomes nervous around them.  If I brought home a dog who wanted to constantly wrestle with Dahlia and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, I can imagine Dahlia getting more and more upset and shut down.  I can imagine her becoming snarky and annoyed with the other dog.  I can easily imagine it turning into fights and quickly escalating to an ugly situation if left unchecked.

On the other hand, if I bring home another chasing/cheerleading/tugging dog, then I’ve got playtime gold on my hand.  I have a dog who Dahlia understands and who understands her.  I have dogs who can happily chase each other into exhaustion.

It’s certainly something to consider when looking for a second (or third or fourth) dog.  I think that matching up play styles is extremely important and so, knowing my dog’s play style, I feel that I know more of what I’ll be looking for in a second dog when the time comes.

If you’re looking for good books on play, I cannot recommend the following books highly enough:

Play With Your Dog by Pat Miller
Play Together, Stay Together by Patricia McConnell and Karen London

I really think they’re both worth reading (neither is an exceptionally long book) and well worth checking out if you’re considering adopting another dog.

So tell us, Team Unruly readers, what are your dogs’ play styles?  Do you have any pictures of their playing with their dog friends that show off their particular style?  Have you ever considered play styles when getting an additional dog?  How did it work out?  Come share your stories!