Are you the time crunched owner of a dog with energy to burn? The flirt pole can harness a dog’s natural instinctive drive to chase prey. This fun, efficient, high intensity exercise makes the most of the time you spend exercising your dog. Even if you only have 10 minutes, it’s a tiring, power packed workout. And for dogs that retrieve balls only to run away and bury them, the flirt pole keeps you in the game.
ZZ is the 7 month old Brittany Spaniel in the video above, and this is her favorite type of play. From 0:03 – 0:24 (that’s 21 seconds), she chases the lure as fast as she can. Then from 0:25-1:52 (1 minute 28 sec) she recovers. Towards the end of this video, ZZ shows that she’s tired by slowing down. She’s audibly panting so it’s difficult to maintain her hold on the fleece portion of the toy. I let her decide how long she wants to hold it. When she drops it, the playing is happily complete.
Chasing with a flirt pole is similar to lure coursing, with events hosted by Canadian Kennel Club, the American Kennel Club, and internationally by the United Kennel Club. (You can make your own full-scale lure course.) In contrast, the flirt pole requires a more modest amount of space. You can do it yourself around your own yard or neighborhood. We use a robust version with an elasticized cord: the Squishy Face Studio Flirt Pole with Fleece Lure, available at amazon. It’s pricey, but durable. Having experienced the rebound of a broken flexi, I appreciate the wrist strap. If the dog pulls the pole out of your grip, the wrist strap prevents it from slingshotting across the room.
In ZZ’s first flirt pole session, she was immediately fascinated by the moving lure, and I was happy with 10 seconds of chasing. As we gradually built the value of playing with the flirt pole, we increased the duration and I noticed that her excited vocalizations increased as well. Chasing the lure is now a very high value reward. After the video, we performed our daily scent detection training session of about 10 minutes. Without the flirt warmup, ZZ is far more likely to be distracted by the environment. She’s a high drive dog who does better working after exercise than before it. This is not necessarily true for all dogs. The only way to find out if you’re better off exercising your dog before or after your training is to try it out and compare. While it’s true that dogs that are panting generally perform less well at scent detection, on a hot day, unfortunately panting is a reality. Hydration is hugely important, and we’re always sure to keep our sessions short.
Since she’s still a puppy, I limit ZZ’s endurance exercises. Where possible, I curtail her jumping to low heights with cushioned surfaces. For example, I lift her out of the vehicle instead of letting her jump onto asphalt. I give her time to mature without being pushy. Eventually we’ll improve her conditioning so she can run for at least an hour in the field. We’ll continue to experiment with different types of play and exercise to determine what she likes best. With her favorite flirt pole, I avoid many changes of direction, and focus on large circles where there is less impact. We’ll gradually work up to several sets with the flirt pole, alternating high intensity intervals of chasing the lure, with recovery/rest periods in between.
The Science of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
HIIT is a workout alternating “all out” bursts of cardio with equal or longer periods of rest. Recent media coverage has brought attention to research studies documenting the fitness benefits of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) (2). Time Magazine summarized “HIIT improves cardiorespiratory fitness nearly twice as much as longer stretches of moderate-intensity running, cycling or other aerobic exercises”(1).
For the human version of HIIT, picture 30 seconds of running as fast as you can, alternating with slow walking. HIIT is popular because it “provides similar fitness benefits ad continuous endurance workouts, but in shorter periods of time. This is because HIIT workouts tend to burn more calories than traditional workouts, especially after the workout” (4).
Exercise causes our bodies to make more mitochondria, the power producers in our cells. In HIIT, the heart can’t pump sufficient blood to satisfy the muscles. In response, a cascade or chemical changes happens in the organs. Overall, the result of very intense exertion produces a greater training response than more leisurely exertion. To achieve these benefits, you need only work for a short period, but you need to work really hard!
If you’re already fit, you can try HIIT with sprinting. Here’s what a HIIT training session would look like:
- Warmup by walking for a few minutes.
- Sprint as hard as you can for 20 seconds.
- Walk for 2 minutes.
- Repeat sprinting/walking intervals 2 more times, for a total of 3 sets.
You can substitute any type of cardio that you can perform at 100% effort e.g. biking, rowing, or swimming for the high intensity intervals. The American College of Sports Medicine cautions that “HIIT workouts are more exhaustive then steady state endurance workouts. Therefore, a longer recovery period is often needed. Perhaps start with one HIIT training workout a week”. In addition to cardio workouts and HIIT, “strength training should be performed a minimum of two days each week” (4).
If you are sedentary, ask your healthcare professional to help create an exercise programs that’s are safe for you. HIIT can be modified for people of all fitness levels, including some with diabetes or weight issues. “Persons who have been living rather sedentary lifestyles or periods of physical inactivity may have an increased coronary disease risk to high intensity exercise”(4) so medical clearance from a physician is important.
HIIT FOR CANINES
While the benefits of HIIT have been studied in humans, unfortunately less research has studied HIIT for canines. One Canadian study looked at huskies that were sled dogs over a 12-week interval training program (8). The huskies did 2-3 workouts per week; including treadmill intervals alternating with resting at a 1:1 or 2:1 work-to-rest ratio. The total workout time was 24-36 minutes. They characterized this interval workout as “submaximal” i.e. the dogs weren’t running all out. The control group did lower intensity 7.5 km running on the treadmill. The investigators compared changes to blood chemistry and found that blood chemistry was comparable in both groups. But they couldn’t rule out the degree to which elevated heart rates may have been in response to the stress of that test, and how that interacted with the effects of the exercise. They questioned whether higher intensity exertion would have produced more convincing results, and suggested that future projects might explore a longer study exploring changes over a longer period of time.
Don’t go crazy. Every activity carries risks. Common sense requires that you should not force an unfit dog to go all out, and even with fit dogs, you must limit the number of HIIT workouts that you do to 1 or 2 a week. A balanced exercise program for canines should include longer less intense cardio workouts, core strength, rear end awareness and balance as well as sports specific exercise. As always, ask your health care practitioner for advice on what’s safe for your unique dog, given his age, health status and current fitness. Other options for aerobic exercise you might want to explore include swimming, biking, hiking, hunting, agility, treadmill, or whatever best suits your lifestyle and your unique dog.
HOW TO GET STARTED – CHASE THE WHIP
Warmup with a few minutes of easy walking together. Then let the dog sniff and check out the lure while it’s stationary on the floor. Pick it up and slowly move the lure away from the dog, to ensure he’s not scared. If your dog is confident, animate the toy like a live bunny. Keep the toy far away from you so the dog is free to interact with it. Hold it low so the toy moves along the ground erratically. Keep it slightly ahead of your dog.
Keep a nice balance of chasing the lure and letting the dog have it to keep motivation high and a dog that gives 100% effort and focus on pursing that lure.
Don’t be greedy or you risk turning your dog off the flirt pole. Keep your session very short. Do not command the dog to give up the toy. Chasing is fun but frustrating if all you do is chase for long periods. Let your dog win, grab and hold the lure. When your dog opens his mouth to re-grip, whip it away from him and put the flirt pole away for that day. If you add rules too early and push your dog towards your human goals, you take away the fun and drive.
At the beginning, only practice one set: chase and catch the flirt, then recover. In the video we tug during recovery. You do not need to tug unless your dog loves it. Recovery could consist of a leisurely walk instead.
Once you’ve motivated your dog to LOVE chasing a flirt pole, it becomes a very high value training reward. You can incorporate into your warmup for scent detection training, use as a reward event after all of your searches are complete, or use it as an extreme distraction for advanced dogs.
The flirt pole can be used to teach impulse control and focus. To start, your dog should understand how to sit or down on cue, away from the lure. Then let your dog chase the lure, play a while, steal the lure back, then ask for sit (or down). The instant the dog sits, mark and present the lure for chasing.
Next, try letting your dog chase the lure at top speed, then flip it over your head to rapidly change direction. Repeat several times, whipping side to side until your dog pauses and waits. Then say “get it” and let them chase and grab the lure.
Naughty But Nice, a DVD by Absolute Dogs uses the flirt pole for their “Whip-It Game” (see 4). Check out obedience training guru Janice Gunn (2) for more ideas on using it to train obedience. If you have several dogs, you can increase drive further by tapping into their sense of competition, getting them to watch each other, eagerly anticipating their turn to be released to chase the lure (3). This opens up a whole new world of possibilities for training in drive.
Overdoing the control will sour your dog to this game. Try to keep your sessions 90% play and only 10% control.
There are a few potential disadvantages to the flirt pole:
- Initial investment: Expense of the flirt pole
- Dog needs to want to chase the lure
- Fairly large, uncluttered open space is required
- Chase is easier to play off leash, so you either need a reliable recall or fence to safely prevent the dog from running away
- Risk to joints of rapid changes of direction
- Risk of breaking – the wrist strap is important for safety
- Unlike a treadmill, you need human involvement for this exercise
- Unlike off leash runs with dogs, it’s hard to use flirt pole with more than one dog at the same time
- Dog should be healthy enough in order to perform 100% exertion safely
- As with tennis balls, the fleece lure may abrade the dog’s teeth more than exercise with more rubbery lacrosse balls
- Some dogs are reluctant to give up the lure and high excitement may put some reactive dogs over threshold
- Don’t go crazy. Start short and easy, very gradually increasing duration. If you push the dog, you run the risk of overtraining, stress, and souring the dog’s motivation.
OTHER WORKOUTS WITH YOUR DOG
If you haven’t tried a flirt pole yet, you may be missing out on what would be a fantastic option for your scent or hunting dog, at least some of the time. When you love exercise and it seems like play, it’s something to look forward to instead of another task on your to do list.
If your dog doesn’t like the flirt pole, it’s easy to adapt. HIIT canine workouts don’t necessarily need a flirt pole. You can substitute any aerobic activity where the dog runs “all out”. For example, you could play frisbee in a way that you both get a workout. Throw the Frisbee as far as you can and while the dog retrieves it, do as many push ups or jumping jacks as you can. When the dog gets back to you, rest. Then throw the frisbee for you dog and do another boot camp exercise e.g. lunges, or burpees until he brings it back (9).
Agility and dog parkour are other fun sports to keep you and your dog active. You do not need to spend thousands of dollars on equipment. Get started at home by training on whatever unstable surfaces or platforms you have on hand. Many of our students have trained jumping using a wooden pole or pipe held up by crumpled soda cans on either end.
Whatever cardio you choose, keep the session short and limit impact on the joints. Seek out forgiving surfaces such as soft matts used in training centres. Ask your dog’s healthcare practitioner about how to introduce safe cardio activities that suit your dog’s physicality and any limitations and work up to interval training that’s appropriate.
While scent detection can be lower intensity, it is an invaluable activity that stimulates the dog’s mind with very little training required. On days when you are too tired to exercise with your dog, instead of giving your dog a bowl of food for nothing, try spreading his dinner across your yard and let him find every piece. When your tired dog falls asleep contentedly at your feet, it’s a good day.
- Weston KS, , High-intensity interval training in patients with lifestyle-induced cardiometabolic disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med
- Heid, Markham. “Don’t Have Time to Exercise? Do This for 10 Minutes”. Time Magazine, Aug. 2017. Downloaded from http://time.com/4893161/hiit-high-intensity-interval-training-exercise/
- Gillen JB, Martin BJ, MacInnis MJ, Skelly LE, Tarnopolsky MA, Gibala MJ (2016) Twelve Weeks of Sprint Interval Training Improves Indices of Cardiometabolic Health Similar to Traditional Endurance Training despite a Five-Fold Lower Exercise Volume and Time Commitment. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0154075. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0154075
- American College of Sports Medicine High Intensity Interval Training Fact Sheet. https://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/high-intensity-interval-training.pdf
- Janice Gunn. “Flirt Pole for impulse control & focus – competition obedience” (Video) published March 29, 2017 at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeAsseASyJc
- Janice Gunn. “Go Out Game with my 3 dogs” (Video) published April 23, 2018 at: https://youtu.be/du9OVfJri3s
- Ready, AE and G Morgan, “The Physiological Response of Siberian Husky Dogs to Exercise: Effect of Interval Training”. Can Vet J 1984; 25: 86-91.
- Interval Training Works for Dogs Too (or Kiss Your “Packed Schedule” Excuses Goodbye) http://www.theoptimaldog.com/2012/02/15/interval-training-works-for-dogs-too-or-kiss-your-packed-schedule-excuses-goodbye/