Originally posted May 2013
I used to belong to the local gym, and I used to go every workday morning. It was a great start to the day. I would lift weights, and ride the exercise bike and swim and then have a hot tub and shower and get ready for work. I had friends at the gym who would share their lives with me, and I would share my life with them. Then we moved out to the country and the gym was really inconvenient to get to, and I was really busy, so I stopped going. I am not in the least bit surprised that my weight went up and my fitness went down. I used to be a gym rat, but not anymore, and frankly when you don’t go, you stop reaping the benefits.
|Once…I was this fit. Not so much any more!|
Dog training is like this. Coming to puppy school when your dogs are really young has become the norm, and we think this is terrific. In puppy class we teach people about recognizing when their dogs might be overwhelmed, when play is getting too rough and how to introduce your puppy to the family. We teach older puppies how to sit, lie down, come when called and stay out of the trash. Almost everyone in class meets someone who has a puppy who is a good play match for their dog, and they continue to stay connected with one another throughout their dog’s lives.
All too often though, we have families who tell us that they are “taking a break” from classes and training, and periodically we get a client who returns to us when their puppy has grown up into a four year old Dennis the Menace. Bad habits creep up, and the family works around them. The problems aren’t addressed, and then suddenly they are overwhelming. Maybe the dog has learned that coming when called is an optional behaviour that results in driving away from the dog park. Quite often the behaviour that brings people back to class is a dog who is pulling on leash. Hard. Every day. Quite often the client will say to me “but we went to puppy class”.
Puppy class is a great foundation. I really, sincerely do believe that every puppy deserves puppy class and I believe this so strongly that I am giving puppy classes away for free. If you do nothing else with your puppy, come to class before he is 12 weeks of age. Never the less, if you come to puppy class before twelve weeks, and you never come back, don’t be surprised if your dog’s skills and socialization decay and aren’t reliable.
|This pup is learning that being caught by a child is a safe thing! This is one of the foundation skills that pups learn in puppy class, but you have to keep practicing in order to maintain the skills.|
Building skills to begin with is like going to the gym. When I first went to the gym, I didn’t have any skills. I started out by doing weightlifting that started out small and built up. I started out lifting small weights, and built up to my top lifts of 200 lbs. I started out with short light aerobic work outs on the stationary bike and the eliptical machines. Each day I did similar routines that carefully built up my fitness. Each week the routines became more challenging and helped to increase my fitness level. I became stronger and more aerobically fit. Sadly, I have taken a break and I am not where I was at my peak of fitness.
If I wanted to get back into weight lifting and get back to my best ever bench press of 200 lbs, then I would need to establish a base line. What is the most I can lift now? I would bet that with my current tennis elbow and terribly out of shape body, that I would probably be able to lift somewhere between 60 and 70 lbs. That is a far cry from what I could lift when I was working out with weights every day! 60 to 70 lbs being my baseline, I would work out with weights that are less than that to build strength. I might lift 4 sets of ten reps of 40 lbs for a week, and then move up to that work out with 45 lbs. In dog training, when you have taken time off, you need to figure out what your dog’s baseline is when you start back at class and then work up from there. There is no point in starting at your dog’s best performance; that is not where he is.
If I had kept going to the gym instead of stopping and starting over the years, I might have exceeded my heaviest lift ever instead of getting flabby and out of shape. Things got in the way though, and my priorities shifted. I know this happens with our puppies too. When it happens though, we cannot be surprised when skills decay.
Not only do skills decay if you don’t practice, but so can socialization. Socialization is the process of carefully exposing a puppy to everyone and everything he will encounter as an adult. If you do this diligently, and then keep your dog in the backyard for the next four years, he will no longer be confident about the things that he encounters as he passes through life. Thus it is important to take advantage of the early window of time to start socialization, but throughout your dog’s life, you need to continue to keep him socialized. A large gap between initial socialization and ongoing socialization can create a problem where the dog is no longer confident about stimuli that he may once have been very tolerant about. If your dog has had a gap in exposure to the environment either due to illness or the vagaries of our busy lives, he may develop the kinds of problems we hope to avoid by doing socialization activities in the first place.
When we start training with puppies, we are not surprised that they don’t know much and we work at the easy things such as restraining yourself against snatching treats, and work up to the more complicated things like leash manners and coming away from play or food. When I am passing my students on their various obedience skills I often point out to them key exercises that they should practice throughout their dog’s lives. Some of the exercises that we do with the dogs form the foundations for other exercises and again there are similarities to exercising at the gym. I think of these exercises as the warm up stretches that we do before we work out. If you have been to class but now you cannot return for whatever reason, then you can maintain your dog’s skills by practicing some of the simple skills that you worked on early in your dog’s career. If you can do this, then taking a break from classes is not going to ruin the work you have done. I am stronger now than I was when I got my horse a year ago because I began lifting heavy feed bags and hay and other items involved in caring for my horses. I am not as strong as I was when I worked out every day, but I am stronger than I was.
|This chocolate Newfoundlander practices his down stay in the presence of treats in our Levels Class. Continuing classes through adulthood keeps skills sharp and helps you to develop new skills as you go along!|
I may go back to the gym at some point, but for right now, I exercise by caring for and riding my horse. My dogs come to classes regularly and we practice regularly both at home and in class. When I get my next pup, he will go to classes three to five times a week until he is about a year. At that point, I will likely ease up and go only once or twice a week to develop skills for competition or sport. My dogs go to classes for their whole lives, because I like the benefits of continuing classes over the long term; like the gym, classes yield benefits in other parts of my life. Not only do I have dogs who have current skills but I also have fun at class. There are people I see regularly who I enjoy talking with, and sharing experiences with. Come to think of it, I am missing the community I built at the gym. It might just be time to go back.