Crazy Malinois
Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels

The dog is insane.

It’s no secret. If you met him, you’d quickly realize he has more drive than sense. He’s a bull in a china shop, and he’d have no issue running head first into a fence if a ball was on the other side (in fact, he’s done it). He is intense in every way, and as soon as a toy enters the picture, his brain completely melts.

Not only do his smarts take a back seat to his intensity, he loves those toys so darn much, he doesn’t want to let them go. When he first came to me at just over a year old, he could regularly be found toy hoarding, protecting his treasures with his entire body, and at times becoming aggressive if someone tried to take what was his.

With this particular dog, as you can probably imagine, teaching the “OUT” was a tricky endeavor. It required a bit of creativity, and still, to this day, requires a whole lot of persistence to get right. Just as I’d overcome one hurdle, it seemed another would pop up, stopping me dead in my tracks.

Challenge #1: Get him to let go of the toy

This was no easy feat, but with some creativity I got him to give it up. To release his jaws and give the toy over to me. Despite the gargantuan win, my work wasn’t done. Letting go was only a small piece of the puzzle.

Inevitably, he’d spit the toy for a split second, but his drive would regularly get the better of him. As he pulsed with anticipation, his brain would spill out of his ears and he’d instantly launch for it again, flying through the air haphazardly, sometimes missing and grabbing my hand, my arm, or my side. He wasn’t thinking. His brain had left the building.

Alternatively, he’d chew on the “OUT,” negotiating whether or not he could even bring himself to let go in the first place.

Early on, playing with him was never pretty.

Challenge #2: Get him to hold the “OUT”

Not only did we have to get him to let go of his coveted toy, we had to teach him to STAY letting go, to not instantly grab the toy again the moment it left his jaws. Otherwise, he’d lose his battle with his own drive, and end up once again grabbing haphazardly at the toy, his growing anticipation too much for him to bear.

But there is one thing I’ve done with this dog that has been a lifesaver. One thing I implemented early on that has helped me to have some semblance of an “OUT.” One thing you should teach if you are working through the “OUT” with an intense and perhaps possessive high drive dog.

And that one thing is…

Giving him something better to do.

Here’s the deal. In working dog circles, we love to make dogs with more drive than sense. We breed them this way. Many of us select for it. But while these genetic Mr. Hyde’s can be awesome for real world work, and can be quite impressive to watch (you should see my dog bite!), they can also be very hard to handle and even harder to keep “clean”. Plainly stated, they aren’t for the faint of heart or first-time handler.

Malinois Full Grip Bite
Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels

In fact, this dog regularly tests my perseverance … and I’ve been doing this a long time!

For strong dogs like these, just being in the presence of a toy or GASP! the decoy or helper can shut down their brains entirely.

And let me tell you, the standard approach won’t work with these guys. Sure, I could ask my dog to let go and immediately reward with a continuance of the game, giving him his toy back if he did what I wanted.

This would make sense. And this is how many would approach the problem.

But for intense dogs, this approach can be a recipe for disaster.

While it seems like a straightforward exchange, this technique neglects one very important piece of the puzzle.

It neglects the dog’s stress level.

Think of it like this: Let’s say my dog’s stress level (and stress can be both from good stuff – anticipation for play and rewards – and bad – fear, anxiety, etc.) falls on an arbitrary scale of 1-10. If my dog is at a Level 1, he is napping. If he is at a Level 10, he’s crawling “OUT” his skin with either good or bad stress.

This particular dog, when the toy is in the picture, sits at a Level 11. He’s off the charts.

Now consider what would happen if I “OUT” him. He’s playing, which is satiating his stress a bit, and then I ask him to let go. The anticipation for the toy dangling in front of his face is HUGE. This kicks him from an 11 to a 12. If I immediately reward again, he’ll hover at that 12 until the next “OUT.” Then, the anticipation for the toy on the next repetition will kick him to a 13, and so on and so on.

Already at his Level 11, the “OUT” was tricky to get. But once he hits Level 13, 14, or 15, letting go of that toy becomes an impossibility.

So what do I do?

I make him get his brain back.

I make him DO SOMETHING that is incompatible with hanging on to the toy. I’ve got to get his brain to shift gears so I can take him back down to his resting 11. Not only does this help him keep his wits, but it will give him an opportunity to chill out between reps. Something this particular dog needs help with.

Here are a few things I could do…

I could ask for the “OUT” and immediately ask my dog to lay down. It’s hard to drop down and hang on to the toy at the same time. Asking for this makes it easier for him to let go. It also shifts the gears in his brain a bit, getting him to think about what’s next so he doesn’t stay as fixated on the toy.

I could also ask him to “OUT” and immediately ask him to bark. Asking for a bark and hold is an excellent option, as a dog simply can’t bark and hang on to the toy at the same time. Not only that, it also provides a place for my dog’s stress to go. Barking can be wildly satisfying for some dogs, and it helps to release all that pent-up energy. However, be careful, as barking and tugging together are tiring, and if you’ve got reps to put in this could be a tough one to repeat too many times over.

Asking for your dog to turn away from you is another fantastic choice. I can send my dog to a place or a target point following the “OUT.” Because he has to turn his back to me and move away, he can’t complete the task while holding onto the toy. This completely shifts his mindset and helps him recover from the stress that darn toy causes him.

If you want to add incompatible behaviors into your routine, do this:

  • Choose It – Pick your incompatible behaviors. Take into consideration your sport, your goals, and what would work best for your dogs. For my sport, my dog will have to “OUT” and DOWN during bite work, so I opted to follow my “OUT” with making my dog lay down. If my dog is really worked up, sometimes I send him to a target instead. This will provide a complete reset of his brain by making him move away from the toy and do something else.
  • Teach It – You can’t just ask your dog to do something with an awesome toy dangling in front of their face, if you haven’t spent a good deal of time reinforcing that particular behavior first. So spend time away from the toy teaching and reinforcing your chosen behavior. Teach your dog to go to their place and LOVE it. Or teach your dog to lay down on command until they are doing it with speed and consistency. Don’t be in a rush to add the toy to the picture. Slow and steady always wins the race in dog training.
  • Pair It – Make the association. After every “OUT,” immediately ask for your new behavior. And I mean immediately. Don’t reward your dog for simply letting go of the toy. Wait until they’ve given you the behavior you’ve asked for. Then mark and reward consistently.
  • Practice It – Practice often. And don’t ask for much. Don’t ask for complicated behavior chains when you get your dog letting go of the toy. If your dog thinks they are going to have to work for 30 minutes before getting to play again, letting go of the toy will become even more of a challenge. Instead, keep it simple. Practice the “OUT,” BEHAVIOR, REWARD chain often, and then put your dog up.
Belgian Malinois With Bite Sleeve
Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels

Now, I’m not going to lie and tell you I’ve got it all figured out with my dog. He’s still a work in progress. It’s taking a small army to reign in the beast. But I will tell you that he is a completely different dog from when I first got him a few months back. He’s gone from having no “OUT” and guarding his treasures, to bringing the toy back consistently, wanting to play WITH ME, and letting it go when asked. We can now get reps in without him getting possessive or nasty, or hanging on for dear life. Without working with incompatible behaviors, I’m not sure we would have made the progress we have.

So if you’ve got a Mr. Hyde like I do, when that toy is dangling in front of his face, try giving him something better to do, something else to think about. Get his brain working again, and stop the brain melt before he loses it altogether. Have patience and perseverance. You might not master the “OUT” today. But if you keep putting the reps in, you’ll be able to turn your relationship with play around in no time.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    8 replies to "Combatting Brain Melt – The Technique That Transformed My Dog’s “OUT”"

    • Ivan

      Interesting article. Love the way you put your points across. Many are good dog handlers,few have the gift to do both (train people as well as their own dogs)and articulate their points so well that the layman can understand.Kudus to you Meagan.

      My 2 cents worth-keep your dog at a low threshold as that is when they learn best. I realise that from a working dogs perspective this is difficult but sometimes we tend to get excited ourselves and this leads to hyping up our already hyped up dogs.(Its natural to get excited when we think our dog is doing what we want but this has its negatives as well).

      In all I agree with you, again, well put.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Thanks for your comments! And I completely agree. It’s one of my biggest challenges in fact. Controlling my own behavior to not amp my dog. I tend to be a little too enthusiastic at times 😉

    • Dean Balouris

      I have such a beast. Truthfully, I wasn’t successful at getting him beyond the BH because he came to me with a lot of baggage . I started getting control by teaching most obedience behaviors for food. He, too, was a resource guarding beast, so evento this day we practice chained behaviors before and even during meals. To get the out off the toy I had to start by firmly holding the toy while it was in his mouth, and isolating his ability to move the toy at all. This was the catalyst for getting him to out. He is one of those dogs that loves to bark, so I taught him out, bark, then out quiet, and then to switch back and forth, bark, quiet, bark, being careful to randomize the order to keep him thinking. The biggest challenge was to get him to actually come to me to play with the ball. He’s super possessive, and was allowed by his former handler to run in circles and self-gratify. Getting him to switch gears and want to share his toy has been a continuing struggle. Even though I don’t compete with this dog, I constantly train with him. It gives him an outlet for his energy, and me a lab rat to learn from.

    • Paula

      Love to hear your perspective on training your high- drive pup!! I learn something new every time I read your blog …

    • Sue Guy

      I have a high drive Malinois who was just the same with a tug, couldn’t let it go at all. I also found that the only way to get it back was to down him with a stay command too. He’s a little better with a toy I throw which is a good job as I’m aiming for obedience competition with him so he needs to retrieve and hold it until told to let go. Last week he mastered not running immediately after the thrown item but instaed he now waits in a sit until told to fetch it. So far he’s always outed ok on a bite sleeve, it’s just a tug he had problems letting go off. Aren’t these dogs GREEEAT!!!!!

    • Beth F.

      You may laugh but I have a Papillon who had some of these same issues and I really wanted to be able to use his toys as a reward, and we did just what you described here and it worked great. So, its not just the big strong dogs that this works for!

    • Lindsay

      My weim has this problem (not letting go of toys or random objects). Thank you for the help!

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