One of the fundamentals of natural dog training technique is a style of food work that we call "pushing". By now, if you've read the other dog training articles (and please do, since they've been leading up to this moment), you understand that our goal with our dogs is to tap into their prey instinct, so that in times of stress our dogs will turn to us, automatically, as a way of resolving the stress. Pushing is a fundamental dog training technique that will shift your relationship with your dog, increasing their level of attraction to you during high energy moments, and also helping your dog learn to be relaxed during those times.
The beauty of pushing is that the concept is pretty simple. You are going to call your dog's name, feed your dog with one hand, and encourage your dog to push against your other hand. It takes awhile to get the hang of it, though, so be patient with yourself and your dog as you develop your ability to push. This article will explain exactly HOW to push, and then I'll write a follow-up about why it works.
First, the obligatory DISCLAIMER:
You are going to be working with your dog in a highly energized state, and they are going to be eating food directly from your hand. While the dog is definitely more interested in the food than your hand, it IS possible to get nipped by an enthusiastic dog, and even bitten if you are not GRADUAL in how you increase the intensity of your pushing. As with all dog training, you practice these techniques of your own free will and at your own risk.
Here's what you do to prepare:
- You want to have the tastiest bite-sized morsels of food that you can supply.
- For starters, your dog should be hungry.
- Put a long lead on your dog.
- Put the food in an easily accessible food pouch.
- Find an open area, free from distraction (for starters).
Now for a little more detail:
- You want to have the tastiest bite-sized morsels of food that you can supply. For my typical clients, I recommend the following: Take a meal-sized portion of your dog's dry food, and mix in some hot water. Give the food time to soak up the water - you want the kibble to be soft, but you don't want it to turn to mush - and then drain any excess water. Mix in some morsels of something really tasty - the easiest thing is to dice up some hotdogs and mix those in. Eventually you can transition to using your dog's regular food, without any preparation. For you raw foodies, I would suggest some pieces of steak cut into cubes - or whatever item your dog finds to be the tastiest. You'll just get a little bit messier.
- For starters, your dog should be hungry. If you have a stressed-out dog, or a dog who doesn't seem all that interested in food, your dog might need to be REALLY hungry. I always suggest a 24-hour fast before an initial lesson that I have with any dog. As Kevin Behan puts it - hunger is nature's method for helping a dog overcome fear. Since we're working with our dogs' fear of US and using food as the prime motivator - it follows that they need to be hungry enough to push past what makes them uncomfortable.
- Put a long lead on your dog. I use a 50-foot nylon leash. It should be long enough so that you have time to grab the end should your dog decide to take off in a different direction. Here's an article on use of a long lead, for more information.
- Put the food in an easily accessible food pouch. Emphasis on the "easily accessible". You want to be able to reach right into the pouch and bring out a handful of food without having to mess with zippers, plastic bags, snaps, velcro, etc. Kevin Behan uses a leather nail pouch (pick one up at a hardware store) - I use an old LL Bean fanny pack (I like that I can zip it up if need be). You also need to be prepared to get dirty - both from dog paws and food residue. So wear your "work clothes" - don't wear your Sunday best. Your goal is to help your dog be as unhibited around you as possible, so wear something that will allow you to be uninhibited as well.
- Find an open area, free from distraction (for starters). I like to find a big field - if there's a fence it has to be well away from where I'm working. Yards will do in a pinch - but if you use invisible fence you will probably find that it inhibits your dog's pushing and you'll want to practice elsewhere. Eventually you will practice with distractions, but initially it'll help you if you find a place where you're unlikely to run into someone else. You absolutely MUST do this exercise outside. (see this article on how to help your dog relax for the reasoning)
OK, now for the pushing. I am going to describe the technique from the perspective of a right-handed trainer (where I feed the dog with my right hand and push with my left hand). You should figure out what's most comfortable for you and practice that way.
Since I feed with my right hand primarily, I also have the feed pouch strapped to my right side. Make sure that you can get a small handful of food with a simple plunge of the hand into the pouch. Also, I typically keep my hand slightly cupped, with my thumb over the food to contain it until I'm ready to give it out (which I then do by moving my thumb aside and slightly de-cupping my hand).
Here is the step-by-step of how to push. The key is to be GRADUAL - so when you're in doubt, err on the side of pushing too little instead of pushing too much.
IMPORTANT: If your dog backs away from you at any point, that is a sign that you have taken the exercise to a place that was too energized for your dog to handle. When you are pushing, think of it as the same as tug-of-war, only in a different direction. In tug-of-war, the building tension of the game feels GOOD when the dog wins and experiences the release of winning the toy. It would feel bad for them to lose the toy to you. In pushing, there is gradual tension built up as your dog comes towards you (which is actually something our dogs generally resist, because they see us, primarily, as predators). That tension results in a GOOD feeling when the dog gets the satisfaction of the tasty food in your right hand. When the dog backs away that means that they experienced the tension of the exercise WITHOUT the satisfaction of food in the belly at the end - which DOESN'T feel good. As much as possible, you want to build on your dog's small successes (so that they spend most of their time feeling good and relaxed) and avoiding the bad feeling of your dog's backing away from you as much as possible.
- Start by just getting your dog used to being fed by hand and to the fact that YOU have lots of good food. Take small amounts of food out of the pouch and offer it to your dog, letting them take the food from you without providing any resistance. You might need to crouch down for a small dog. For an especially timid dog, you might even need to start out by tossing food at them from a distance, encouraging them to come closer by tosses that land nearer and nearer to you.
- As you're feeding your dog, mix in some praise in a relaxing tone of voice.
- Back away a step or two and use the food to encourage your dog to come to you. Feed the dog a little bit more. Note: NEVER move TOWARD your dog. Always move AWAY FROM your dog. This is part of becoming more prey-like in your dog's eyes.
- Start calling your dog's name as you offer the food to them. Call their name in an eager, excited tone.
- Before you do anything, practice the following position: Put food in your right hand. Hold both hands comfortably in front of you (elbows bent), with your right hand above your left hand by a couple of inches (max). Your right hand should be cupped around the food, while your left hand should be held open, palm-up, and a few inches in front of your right hand. Your right hand, though closed, should also be palm up. Move your hands around as a unit - just getting used to their being in close proximity to each other. One of the biggest mistakes that people make with pushing is having their hands too far apart to push effectively.
- Now call your dog's name and let them come across your left hand with their muzzle to get the food from your right hand. Don't do anything with your left hand yet - the goal is just to get them accustomed to having your left hand there.
- Slowly, slowly, slowly introduce some action with your left hand. You should think of your left hand as trying to SOFTEN and relax anything that it comes in contact with. While your right hand holds onto the food (i.e. the dog is trying to GET the food, but you have your thumb across the food keeping the dog from getting it), your left hand will slowly massage their muzzle and neck. Keep it very gentle at first, just to get them used to the sensation, and then gradually increase the depth of the massage. At all times your left hand should massage the dog slowly and deliberately. Just do a little bit of massage at a time, then let your dog get the food from your right hand. Again, if your dog backs away then you stimulated them too much before letting them get the food - next time let them have the food SOONER (or massage them less).
- As your dog gets used to the massaging action of your left hand, don't forget the other aspects...back away a few steps, call your dog's name, tempt the dog with the food in the right hand while you massage with the left hand, give the dog the food and praise.
- As your left hand makes contact with your dog, gradually position it further down to the base of the neck where it meets the chest. This is ultimately where you want to be. Once you're there, keep up with the slow massaging, so that your dog gets used to having your hand there. You might also notice at this point that your dog will provide some counter pressure, pushing against you as you massage their chest. This is exactly what you want!
- Transition your left hand from massaging into an ever-so-slight push against your dog's chest (right at/below where the neck meets the chest). It is now MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER that you be gradual - just give a slow, deliberate push so that your dog pushes back, then release the push and let your dog have the food. As you push, you should constantly be feeling the situation and matching the level of push that your dog is giving you. Once your dog gets comfortable with the push, you can start praising as well (something like "good push...push, push, push..." etc.).
- Work on moving slowly backwards as you push with your left hand. This can be harder to do than it sounds, because our tendency is to move FORWARD as we push. So pay attention to maintaining the push with your left hand while you move backwards with your feet. Take time to make sure that you got it right! It's important to keep the exercise moving backwards (i.e. the dog is moving towards you while you move backwards) because it is both encouraging the dog to move towards you in a state of drive and it also keeps the energy flowing.
- Gradually (are you getting the key word yet?) increase the amount that you push. As your push increases, so should your dog's level of pushing back. Ultimately, you want your dog to REALLY be driving at you for the food. Your dog will eventually push so hard that the front paws might come up off the ground. That's good too! If your dog keeps pushing against your left hand with their front legs off the ground as you move backwards - using their back legs to drive right towards you, then you have gotten to where you want to be.
- As a subtle nuance, you can start saying "Ready..." before you call your dog's name. So you'd say "Ready...Sparky!" as the pushing game begins. Think of "ready" as if you're saying "may I have your attention!" - it's the cue that the pushing is about to happen. Do not focus on making your dog wait - say ready, then call your dog's name to "release" them into the pushing. Eventually you can incorporate the "ready" into your work with the "stay" (as a way of building their anticipation before the release) - but don't worry about that now. "Ready" also becomes a powerful cue for your dog - in the early stages of my training Nola, for instance, I could just say "Ready..." as she was about to chase a squirrel, and she would come running towards me for a push instead.
At this point, the exercise will be something like this:
Back away a couple steps.
"Sparky!" (eager, excited, good dog tone)
Feed the dog, offering praise in a relaxed tone.
Once your dog is reliably taking steps toward you for food, in a relatively uninhibited manner, it's time to incorporate your left hand.
It's important for you to register what's going on with your dog. Are they getting tense? Take a break from the feeding, and take some steps to relax your dog. Give them some good, long massaging strokes, or take a break to play some tug of war. The more relaxed they are, the more focused they will be on this exercise.
Also, take note of how your dog is approaching you. You want your dog to come directly towards you in order to get the food. If your dog is moving to one side or another to approach at an angle, that's a sign that they're getting stressed, and you want to take steps to relax them.
IMPORTANT: Your dog will only tolerate the massaging as long as they're interested in getting the food. Once your dog gets the food, there is no longer any incentive for them to put up with the contact from you. This whole exercise is about building up the duration of time that your dog can handle the direct contact from you as they try to get the food. Since that incentive goes away once they've gotten the food, you should stop massaging/pushing as soon as your right hand has given the food to them.
There you have it! The whole thing should look/sound/feel like this:
Prepare. Get food in your right hand.
Back up a few steps.
Dog comes directly at you and makes contact with your left hand, which pushes against their chest. Dog pushes back.
Lot's of praise. Building...building...building...to
Dog gets the food in your right hand.
Take breaks for massage and play.
Along with taking your dog a little while to get used to this new interaction with you, it will probably also take YOU a little while to get used to this new way of interacting with your dog. Take your time, stay relaxed, be observant, and trust the process. And be patient. I have seen dogs who hated food and were totally apprehensive about pushing turn into eager eaters and pushers(!) - it just takes time. Eventually, they will be driven by the love of the pushing game itself.
Now you know how to "push" with your dog. You're teaching your dog how to feel safe with you and attracted to you at higher and higher levels of drive. Think of it as building your dog's heart muscle - their capacity to stay relaxed as the emotional intensity of a situation increases. The more that your dog is willing to push, the more that they're going to be willing to give YOU their attention when energy levels are high - which is when it counts most. Don't take my word for it - put it into practice and watch your relationship with your dog change for the better, as you become more moose-like in their eyes. Pushing will become your way to tap into your dog's deepest desires, and help you shape their everyday behavior into something more fulfilling for the both of you.
Thanks for stopping by, and as usual, feel free to ask questions - either through the comments, or through e-mailing me (neil at naturaldogblog dot com). I also have some photos and instructional video for this lesson in the works...so stay tuned! 🙂