Ask the Dogfather: a hound’s workout and a biter

Lily the dog. How much of a workout does she need? — Photo courtesy of Sian Williams

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels the owner of Lily about how often she should work out, and advises on how to avoid, or change, a biter.

Hi Tom,

How often does my 60-pound half Australian shepherd/ half red tick coon hound need to exercise?


Sian Williams

Dear Sian,

I had a client who was training for the triathlon. His life basically revolved around exercise, most of which he shared with his smooth collie, which resulted in what I referred to as diminishing returns. That dog needed a solid hour of running next to a bike just to warm up and get loose. In the house he was like a spring coiled tight, ready to explode.

Granted, the expression in my business is, “A tired dog is a well-behaved dog,” but imagine you’re best friends with Clark Kent and talk him into jogging eight miles to your house hoping to tire him out before your tennis match with him. He’s still going to beat you.

So Sian, you’re not looking to make “super dog,” but you do want lean and muscled and not pacing with excess energy he needs to expel. And those exercise needs vary greatly with age, breed and health. The young German short hair pointer isn’t quite warmed up by the time the young pug is completely exhausted. Aussie shepherds and redbone hounds are both breeds that require lots of exercise. Assuming your dog is relatively young and healthy, in addition to pee and poop outings two serious half-hour walks should suffice.

Just before I sat down to write this answer to you, Sian, I was at Sunset Lake Park in 30-mph wind-driven rain with my poodle, Paula. She was totally crazy, totally happy and energized by the cold, wet wind. I however, was not. So another thought came to mind: mental stimulation.

I remember how my kids complained of how tired they were after taking their SAT exams; while my response was, “Tired! What are you tired for? You were sitting on your butt for three hours!” Sian, take a half-hour working with your dog on obedience, mixed with a new trick and it will be just as exhausting as a half-hour walk.

Another suggestion. If you’re going to have company over or barbecue, try to exercise the dog vigorously for 40 minutes before the guests arrive. People will be commenting on what a well-behaved dog you have.

Good luck,

The Dogfather

Hi Dogfather,

What advice do you have for people entering a house where there’s a dog with a history of biting people? What gestures should I watch out for in the dog? What body language should I exhibit?

I don’t want to make the wrong move or a fast move near the dog.

How do I break through to the good dog inside it?


Not Fond of Stitches or Rabies Shots

Dear Not Fond of Stitches or Rabies Shots,

Great question for those of us who prefer avoiding hospital emergency rooms. My close friend Brian Kilcommons (Google him) just recently answered this very question for police departments across the country. Cops responding to domestic disturbance calls run into very agitated dogs all the time.

I remember an Easter dinner at my house years ago when my wife’s uncle raised his hand and asked me if he could go to the bathroom. I was boarding and training a huge Scottish deerhound at the time who stood up and alerted with a hard stare at any visitor who had the audacity to move about.

In a perfect world, dogs that threaten visitors would be denied access to the non pack members. In the real world I learned very early on in my career to ask many questions, especially about any history of aggression, and the dog’s response to people it didn’t know entering the home. You’d be amazed at how many people describe bites as “nips,” or are in a state of denial about their dog’s belligerence. I’d need an abacus to count all the times I’ve heard the fib, “Wow, it’s the first time he did that!”

Dogs bite for different reasons. There are six or eight different types of aggression, depending on who you ask and how you define the trigger that sets off the response. I remember the tearful lady who told me about her Vizsla who mauled a guest who had simply walked into the kitchen to toss her paper plate with the chicken bones into the garbage. The dog had raided the large container and wasn’t about to share its booty with anyone. That’s possessive aggression, or resource guarding, the resource being the chicken in the garbage.

So, what to do when, as a guest, you’re about to enter a house with a biting dog? One way of eliminating about 80 percent of the territorial aggressive response is to ask the owner to have the dog outside in the yard or in another room when you enter the house. Then have a seat on a chair at a table, not on a couch. If the dog is crazed with barking because it knows there’s a stranger in the house, wait till it calms down, then have the owner let the dog enter, perhaps dragging a leash. The owner should not be holding the leash. Your job: basically ignore the dog. Fleeting eye contact with a brief, “Hi Rover” is okay. Don’t try to engage the dog, even if it’s sniffing you while growling. Ignore. Never approach an aggressive dog. I’d need my abacus again to count all the people who ended up in the emergency room, who even after being warned, said, “Oh, I’m good with dogs; dogs love me.”

When it’s bored with your neutrality and saunters away is the time to break through to the good dog inside. As it’s walking away it’s your turn to engage with a happy sounding, “Rover, come!” When he arrives, offer him a treat from your flat hand below his mouth. Then ignore and continue talking to the host, even if Rover nudges you for more. It’s the reverse sale, like a stockbroker telling a client, “I have a hot new issue but was only allotted a limited amount of shares; I can’t give you more than ——.” Have him wanting more! It’s the same with trick-training a dog. I just taught Paula, my poodle, to drop dead when I shoot her with my hand and say bang. As soon as she got it and loved the praise and treats, instead of repeating it till she got bored, I stopped it, leaving her wanting more!

You’re right about not making a fast move around the dog. I remember a client’s dog lunging and biting a guest who leaped up yelling during a Super Bowl game. Surreptitiously observe the dog observing you. If he’s giving you a hard stare, ears cocked, stay put and ignore. If he gets up every time you get up, be deliberate, but slow as you move about. If his mouth is closed, he’s anxious. What you want to see is the open-mouthed slack-jaw grin. That’s a relaxed dog.

If you’re really not comfortable with the dog’s discomfort, don’t be shy — ask the owner to put the dog away. It might help one of the many owners who are in denial about their dog’s aggression to get some help.

Good luck and keep socializing,

The Dogfather

PS: Love those questions — keep ‘em coming! Write to