I’ve been running all spring and summer to get ready for a race: Across the Bay 10K.
It’s this weekend!
All my training is ready to be tested on Sunday when I run 6.2 miles across the Chesapeake Bay. At the highest point, I’ll be almost 200 feet above the water. I’ve run this race before (twice, to be exact) and the view is spectacular.
I certainly don’t expect to run this race without preparing for it.
I need all summer to get ready for this thing. I’ve got a training plan with daily, weekly, and monthly goals. I follow that plan almost to a T. There are some days I swap one workout for another due to weather (rain or fog — I run on the road and it can be dangerous to run in those conditions), but for the most part, I stick to that training plan.
As part of that plan, in addition to my weekly running goals, I ran formal races so I can be as race-day ready as I can be for my goal race, the Across the Bay 10K. I ran 5 races (4 5Ks and one 4-miler) to practice my race running. Yes, that cost money (and time), but it’s important to practice running a race before the real thing. I got to work out some kinks on those race days (going out too fast, wearing clothes that were too hot, not paying attention to my breathing, etc.) so I could optimize my race day preparation and execution.
One of the things I love about running is that I’m competing against myself. I might come in 974th place overall (that would actually be incredible considering there are 25,000+ runners), but could still beat my PR (personal record). In practice, I might actually run my best 5K pace ever. So the opportunity for reinforcement is always there when I’m practicing or when I’m running a race. Same thing with your dog: you’re not entering a dog show and competing against other dogs — you’re just trying to improve your dog’s behavior from where it is now.
Working with your dog is no different than my running regimen.
You need to practice A LOT before you really need your dog to use those skills in real life. Huh? What does that mean? It means: you’re practicing loose leash walking in your house, not just when you take your dog for his regularly scheduled walks. It means you’re practicing his good dog greeting manners long before you have people over (for the holidays, for example). You’re practicing “leave it” long before he grabs the Thanksgiving turkey. You’re working on stay before you plan that holiday party at your house.
Imagine if I declared “I’m going to run the Across the Bay 10K” and never trained for it. Would anyone be surprised if I failed? I wouldn’t. You wouldn’t be surprised either. Most people would say “Duh! You didn’t train for it yet you expected to run 10K? That was kinda dumb. You can’t expect to run a 10K without practice — everyone knows that.”
So don’t be surprised when your dog can’t walk politely on a leash if you only practice on your walks.
That’s the same thing as my expecting to run a 10K without working up to it through my training program.
And I can’t just run a 10K, then slack off the training, and expect to be ready for my next 10K in April.
Nope. I’ve got to keep practicing! That which you don’t use, you lose. What’s true in running is also true in dog training. Your dog might be great at something now, but if you slack off and stop practicing, that skill is likely to atrophy. Just like my muscles and lung capacity will do if I stop running.
My point is: if you want good behavior from your dog on “race day” a.k.a. “when it really counts” you’ve got to develop a plan and follow it!
You can’t expect to train your dog in the moment and expect good results (or any results, honestly). Good behavior is a skill. It takes time and effort to develop those skills. And if you don’t have a plan — and the time to execute that plan — you’re setting your dog up for failure and yourself up for disappointment.
So now what? So identify those exact problems.
Big hint: “My dog doesn’t listen” isn’t the problem! That is code for “my dog has no idea what to do in the real situation.” Sure, your dog might listen to you when you’re home alone. But that doesn’t mean she can listen to you when there are people at the door, or squirrels on the walk, or when there’s food on the table. You have to teach the individual skills (sit to greet politely, good leash manners, solid settle on her mat, respectively), and then (and only then) will you start to incorporate those skills into real life. That’s like me doing all my daily running on the road — to acquire the skill of running — then registering for a race — to practice my running skills — so that I can finally enter the Real Race — and kick some major running butt in said race!
If you’ve been disappointed in the past because your dog’s behavior fell apart when you really needed it, think of me and my race training.
I’ve spent eight months (logging 425 miles) getting ready for one 6.2 mile race.
Wish me luck on Sunday!
I’ll post some pics from atop the Bay Bridge on the Smart Dog University Facebook page, as well as my finish time! Cheer me on, I’ll need it!