There are a whole lot of ways dog training is like running.
I’m new-ish to running. When I first started, I just wanted to get it over with. And I was only running so I could burn a ton of calories and lose the jiggle.
Over my last two running years, I’ve found out that dog training is like running. The similarities are striking.
- The smaller the ego the better.
Running: if you’re willing to walk when you’re tired (instead of gritting your teeth and forcing yourself to exhaustion), you’ll go a lot further a lot faster. There’s no shame in walking sometimes. Quick story: I was running a 5K race and still had an ego: “Must not stop. Never stop. Run, run, run.” Three women were using the run-walk-run method throughout the race and we were leapfrogging position throughout the whole race. When we got down to the final quarter mile, where I really needed to turn on the speed to surge ahead, I found that I had nothing left in my tank. Meanwhile, the run-walk-runners breezed past me with more speed than I could believe. So yes, I never stopped for the entire race, but look who crossed the finish line first — wasn’t me!
Dog training: If you think you know it all, you’re sunk before you even walk into class with your dog. It’s ok that your dog doesn’t know it all. It’s fine that your dog only listens sometimes. That’s why you’re in class! You don’t have to make excuses or apologize for your dog. Open yourself up to learning and soak as much information in as you can.
- It takes time.
Running: It was literally impossible for me to run a mile when I first started. Impossible. It took a specific training plan (and my dedication to following the plan) to get me from walking to running. Patience isn’t optional. Skipping the “easy stuff” would have been a mistake. That “easy stuff” was actually building a strong running foundation that I would use for my future training and races.
Dog training: Your dog can’t learn everything at once. No matter how good a teacher you are, it takes time for your dog to assimilate the lessons. Following a specific training plan, almost anything is possible. If you rush ahead, skip the foundation training, you’re going to wind up at the start all over again.
- You’re never done.
Running: There is always room for improvement, no matter your level of experience or performance. I may not want to ever run further than a 10K, but I can certainly improve my 10K time. Or my running form. Or my endurance. I won’t ever be “done” running.
Dog training: Your dog’s capacity for learning is almost limitless. Honestly, if there’s a limiting factor, it’s usually us, the human half of the equation. We’re too busy, too tired, too whatever. The dog can learn new things, more complicated things, can refine current skills (can walk past a steak on the floor instead of walking past just a pile of dog food, for instance). Dogs are eager learners, don’t be the weakest link in the dog training chain.
- Maintenance is required.
Running: If I don’t keep stretching my muscles, I will earn myself an injury. If I don’t run regularly, I will slow down. If I don’t get a new pair of shoes ever 400 miles, I’ll have sore feet. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.
Dog training: If you don’t practice and reinforce your dog’s good behavior, it will go away. Period, end of story. Use it or lose it, baby! The reinforcement part is just as important as the practicing the behavior part. If you practice good “come when called” behaviors, but you don’t reinforce them, guess what? You can kiss those recalls goodbye! Be generous with your maintenance — that means with the practice and with the reinforcement.
- Some people won’t understand.
Running: I used to think runners were weirdos. Who would run for miles voluntarily? You would find me running either (1) behind an ice cream truck or (2) from a clown with a chainsaw. Otherwise, you could not convince me that running was worthwhile. And yes, those people are out there. Those people who roll their eyes at me as I tick of mile #5 and smile my way through my run. But you know what? I don’t care. I feel better than I have in years, and their approval isn’t on my radar.
Dog training: Some people think all a dog needs to know is “get out of my way” and “go lay down.” Anything other than that is overkill. Or they think that dogs are dumb and can’t (or don’t need to) learn anything. Yep, just nod your head as they tell you the limitations of your dog, and keep right on training. Maybe it’s tricks, maybe it’s fun stuff, maybe it’s something related to a dog sport. It doesn’t really matter what you’re doing, if you’re working with your dog, you’re on the right track.
- A good coach is invaluable.
Running: When I started running, I got all the coaching I needed through my running app. I got a good pair of shoes from a running specialty store and I was off! But as I refined my running, I found I needed more help. The more I learned about running I realized there was a lot more I didn’t know about running. I had gone about as far as I could go without getting specialized help. So I’ve signed myself up for a running clinic in a few weeks to get a set of professional eyes on my running stride and form in hopes that I can improve my times and — most importantly — that I can make sure my form is good so I can avoid injury.
Dog training: Teaching your dog a few tricks is fairly easy. You don’t need a trainer to help you because, in the end, it’s not imperative that your dog can give you a high 5 when you ask. What is important, though, is if your dog can come when you call him. Can he come away from other dogs? People? Wildlife? It’s those high stakes situations in which a trainer can make a big difference. A trainer can get you to your ultimate goal faster and usually in a more efficient and reliable manner than you could do by yourself.