By Misty Mills
I LOVE my job at a dog day care facility that is owned by a fabulous, top-notch dog trainer. Working with her over the last few years, I’ve learned a ton about dog training, learning theory and animal behavior. While discussing how upset I was about my swim in my first open-water triathlon I just completed, all the lessons I THOUGHT were for my dogs started seeming very applicable to ME! So, here’s what I learned… Dog Training Rule #1: Dogs don’t generalize. A dog may know how to sit for mom in the living room, but sitting for dad in the park is an entirely different thing to the dog. To her, it is a completely new task. With practice and repetition, she’ll eventually learn that “sit” means “put your tushie on the ground” in any situation. But to begin with, you’ve got to have quite a bit of patience. The dog isn’t being stubborn. She just really doesn’t know the two things are the same. Triathlon Translation: I’d been swimming like a maniac in the pool. I knew that open water swimming would be more difficult, so I’d been swimming longer distances than my race distance. Here’s the thing, though: swimming in open water isn’t just harder, it’s completely different. OK, Misty. Lesson learned. Some of the skills of pool swimming can be translated to the lake, but there will be no substitute for practicing in the actual conditions in which I’ll be racing. Dog Training Rule #2: A dog cannot perform when they are stressed or frightened. No matter what kind of treat or reward you offer a dog, if he’s stressed or scared, he is unable to learn and he won’t be able to do what you are asking of him. You’re going to have to get him in a calm, relaxed state before he can learn and do any task you might request. Triathlon Translation: I had a giant panic attack in the water. It wasn’t that I was not physically capable of moving my arms and legs through the water or that the conditions were too difficult for me, but I was so frightened and stressed that I couldn’t think clearly enough to remember how to swim and breathe properly. I’m going to need to practice keeping myself in a calm and relaxed frame of mind while in the water. Perhaps the goal for my next tri swim should simply be to stay calm and breathe in a steady, relaxed fashion throughout the swim, no matter how fast or slow I go. Dog Training Rule #3: Adding distractions to a task your dog already knows increases the level of difficulty. Take the “sit” example. Your dog might know how to sit for you in the living room. But try asking him to do it while another dog is in the room, or another person, or a new smell, or a ringing cell phone is going off, or the doorbell rings, or the TV is on, or there is food on the table. All of the sudden, the very simple task of sitting on cue can become much more difficult. You need to remember to add in distractions gradually. Triathlon Translation: Going from swimming alone in a pool to swimming with 100 other people in a lake was too drastic of a change. To progress more realistically, I should have tried swimming with a few other people in the pool. Then swimming with perhaps one other person in the lake and then swimming with a group in the lake. I was on a little bit of sensory overload on race day – different clothes, different location, more people, being timed, having friends and family watching, etc. To plan for future success, I need to remember to start introducing the various elements of race day to my training gradually. Dog Training Rule #4: A dog will pick up on your state of mind. If you are nervous, angry, sad, frustrated, impatient, etc., expect to see a correlating response from your dog. A dog who always comes when you call her might turn and run away if you ask her to come to you while you are angry. She’ll pick up on your tone of voice, your body language and possibly even a change in your scent. That’s why it’s important to always use your “happy voice” when dog training, especially with the “come” command. Would you want to run towards someone who was screaming, “MISTY, GET YOUR BUTT OVER HERE RIGHT NOW!” Probably not. But if you heard your name called in a high-pitched, happy voice, “Misty, come here, good girl! Let’s get a cookie!” you’d be more likely to run in that person’s direction. Triathlon Translation: I think part of my panic issue stemmed from the fact that other people around me were also panicking. I can’t blame my issues on anyone else. I’d never been around other frightened swimmers before, and I let myself get more involved in their swim than my own swim. As a newbie, I figured every other swimmer there was more experienced than I was (and that might be the case,) so I figured if anyone else was struggling, they had a good reason, and I should be worried. Maybe I would have been scared anyway? I still think something about the energy around me had an effect though. So for the future, I need to remind myself to focus on my own swim. This is something I’ve always been able to do during running races, and I need to apply the same skill to the water. There are experts on the course to assist swimmers in distress. I do not need to be overly concerned with how anyone other than me is swimming. Dog Training Rule #5: If your dog simply isn’t able to do what you are asking, go back and do the thing you know they can be successful at before ending your training session. For example, if you’ve been training your dog to go in her crate, and all of the sudden she just REFUSES to go in. Even for a cookie...or a piece of chicken...or a steak, instead of getting frustrated or angry or just shoving your dog in the crate, take a break. Ask her to do something you KNOW she can do – sit, come, shake hands, whatever. Then give her a big cookie and a cuddle and take a break. You can go back to working with the crate next time. Triathlon Translation: So my swim performance sucked this week. I had a great weight training session the very next day. I ran a mile at a 15% incline on the treadmill while my trainer stood next to me and kept inching up my speed. Then I did circuits of squats, push-ups, pull-ups and Turkish sit-ups. (Last Fall I couldn’t even do a push up, by the way.) I killed it! I AM a competent athlete. It is probably a good idea to take a few days or a few weeks and focus on some training that makes me feel powerful and successful. Then when I start my swim training again, I will go back to the beginning and take more baby steps. One friend suggested I register for a triathlon I did last year where the swim took place in a pool. I had a great time at that race. I felt good about my swim there. It will probably be a good stepping stone to another open-water swim. Obviously, my previous swim training plan wasn’t right for me, so I’ll make some adjustments. Go back to square one, learn from my mistakes and keep at it. By the way, that’s another great lesson to learn from dogs. They live in the moment. I CAN let Sunday’s swim performance stay in the past where it belongs. I CAN focus on all the small successes I just know are coming my way, and be proud of those. Dog Training Rule #6: Train what is important to YOU, not everyone else. Some people despise the thought of dogs on their furniture, and other families can’t imagine their dogs sleeping anywhere but in bed with them. Some people want to run with their dogs. Some people want to travel with their dogs. Some people insist their dogs not bark. Certain dogs are great at agility, and others just don’t want to even move around the back yard. I’ve seen dogs who can sniff out ANYTHING and dogs that work great in a team sport like fly ball. Here’s the thing though, train your dog so the two of you can have a happy life together. You don’t have to train you dog a certain way just because an “expert” says so. You have to live with your dog, so ultimately the goal should be for you and your dog to be happy. (So long as you aren’t breaking any laws or irritating the people and dogs around you.) Triathlon Translation: I might not want to compete in triathlons to win first prize or do an Iron Man (or I might, who knows?) Right now, the sport appeals to me because it gives me a goal to focus my regular fitness training. I get to spend time with some amazing women who also like to be active. Occasionally, it’s a good excuse to travel to a new place or visit friends I don’t get to see very often. It helps me fight a family tendency towards high cholesterol and being overweight. I do triathlons to have FUN. If I compete, I compete against my previous performances, not against anyone else. So, I need to train for this purpose. My goal for my next tri swim needs to be to simply improve over my last swim. Although I was disappointed with my swim performance recently, I’ve got to remember to keep training in a way that is fun and pushes me enough to improve. No more, no less. Dog Training Rules #7: Love your dog. Training is hard work, but it should be fun. It should be part of your everyday life. You’re going to have a life-long relationship with your dog, so you should enjoy it. Your dog should be happy and comfortable when you’re together, and so should you. Keep this in mind whenever you’re interacting with your pet, not just when you’re training. Triathlon Translation: I’ve got to remember to be as kind to myself as I am to my dogs. I am slow to anger and quick to forgive when it comes to them. And I would never force them to do anything if it made them panic the same way I panicked during my recent tri swim. If they’ve got to do something that scares them, like clipping their nails, we work slowly to desensitize them to the thing that frightens them. We play together a lot. I feed them healthy food. There are certain rules that are hard and fast (no human food from the table) and others that are flexible (don’t bark at the doorbell.) I don’t let my dogs obsess over any one thing – agility, a toy, a person. I’ve got to remember there are lots of things in life I enjoy besides racing, although racing is certainly high on the list. I like to bake. I like to knit. I like independent, foreign films. I love time with my girlfriends. My tri training needs to have its appropriate priority, one where I enjoy my training but the training doesn’t take over my life. Footnote: After about 24 hours of depression and despair after this race, things seem to be back in their proper perspective, and I’m looking forward to tri-ing again later this summer. And maybe if anyone else had a difficult tri swim experience lately, my dog training/tri training revelations will help them, too.