I'd like to make a wager with you. Following the end of lockdowns and a return to normalcy we'll probably see an influx of injury as dogs return to regular training and sport. The reality is during this pandemic we've all had to adapt to some pretty big changes to our lifestyle and regular habits. Many of our dogs were coming out of winter breaks and before they could gear up for a summer of activity a global pandemic cancelled training class, competitions, and placed restrictions on outdoor activities. As a result, our canine athletes might have experienced a significant down turn in their usual physical activity and as a result, lost muscle tone and strength required for successful completion of their sport endeavours.
I have a lot of students and clients who struggle with staying consistent with their conditioning programs - it's something I've struggled with myself at times. If we struggle to stay on top of conditioning during the best of times then a global pandemic is likely to throw a huge wrench into best laid plans.
I also see a lot of clients whose dog's have an active lifestyle and I often see conditioning programs fall to the wayside as the weather gets nicer and activities such as training classes, and competitions begin in earnest. After all, if my dog is attending training class, running competitions, or going for weekly hikes they probably don't need to workout, right? WRONG! Regular conditioning work is vital to preventing injury and now that many of us are limited in our usual activities it's time to recommit to your conditioning programs!
Good habits take work!
The first few months of the New Year at the gym can be a busy time of year, filled with newcomers with the best intentions but maybe not the lasting power to stay on until March. According to U.S. News & World Report, the failure rate for New Year's resolutions is said to be about 80 per cent, and most people lose their resolve by mid-February. Starting a canine conditioning program is much like starting at a new gym. You need to figure out a routine, have a support plan in place, determine the best times that works for your current schedule and commitments and finally, stick to the plan!! Getting fit, for either you or your dog, is all about developing a habit. Sometimes motivation alone isn’t enough to keep us going. At any given moment, motivation can change. During this pandemic, a lot of us will be faced with a decline in motivation. As trials and major competitions are cancelled or deferred to later in the year the motivation you felt to get your dog ready for a regional or national competition will likely also disappear.
When a new behaviour is really easy, you don’t need much motivation to continue doing it, but when something becomes more difficult, you’ll find your drive to continue will wane. This is true for both you AND your dog!
'Habits are defined as actions that are trigged automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance. Basically, when you are presented with a new situation you have unlimited choices for what you might do in that situation but once you’ve made the same decision a couple of times, there is a paved pathway in your brain that will automatically point you in the direction of that decision. Meaning, you are more likely to make that decision again in the future because you have consistency repeated that same behaviour. Think of the things you do during the day that's automatic. You get into your car and put on your seatbelt, you go to the bathroom and wash your hands.
Repetitions of a simple action in a consistent context is the beginning stage of habit formation. Once initiation of the action is transferred to external cues, the dependence we have on motivational processes starts to reduce. Early on, as we learn a new skill, it is critical to have supports in place to help keep us accountable to our goals. Left to our own devises, it is very easy to fall along the wayside. Unrealistic expectations can lead to one giving up pretty quickly.
Did you know that it takes 66 days to form a habit?? Although there can be variation to this time frame, this is the average number of days it takes to make something part of your routine. Early motivation processes (e.g. excited to start a canine conditioning routine) can be short lived and attention can dissipate. Finding ways to keep yourself accountable to a conditioning program is a great way to develop a habit. Whether it's finding a coach, working through a training program, or having a friend working on the same skills - having external accountability can really keep you out of a motivation slump!
How to Make Canine Conditioning a Habit
There’s a simple psychological “life hack” that can really up your training and conditioning game. All you have to do is unlock your “habit loop” which is a simple 3 step process of cue, routine, and reward!
We can build and incorporate habit loops into our training (sometimes our dogs even teach us the cue!).
Start with finding a trigger to get your conditioning started. One student of mine pairs it with her dog's meals. So when the time comes around to feed her dog's breakfast she takes that cue and begins training. By tying a new habit (e.g. canine conditioning) to an already stable cue in your life you're likely to have more success in incorporating conditioning work to your daily life. If you are trying to set a time to complete your canine conditioning, pair this session with something you already do automatically. E.g. you drop your kids off at school every morning, then immediately plan to come home and complete your canine conditioning routine. Versus, saying at 1pm each day I will complete my routine or saying that you'll "get to it" when the time permits during a given day. With students I encouraged them to start small, with manageable goals. Initially, change needs to be small and manageable because failure can be discouraging and counterproductive. Simple actions become habitual more quickly.
For example, if you are brand new to conditioning, I would advise you aim for one day a week before trying to go for three! This is likely to make you more successful in the long run by slowly building up your new routine versus diving in with two feet! This will also improve your confidence in completing the task if you achieve a small goal, versus going for a huge goal such as 3x a week and realizing it isn’t working out. Luckily for us, conditioning can be done easily from home and we don't need a lot of fancy equipment to have a successful and well-rounded workout.
Household Items You Can Use to Condition
Conditioning from Home
The longer we go with stay at home orders and the longer we're unable to do the regular activities with our dogs (agility training, competition, hikes etc) the more de-conditioned our dogs become. So now, more than ever is it important to stay on top of a conditioning program so your dog is ready to jump back into the things they love. The last thing you or I want is to have our dogs suffer an injury. By staying on top of our conditioning programs we're ensuring that our eventual return to sport can be done safely and with confidence that our dogs are ready for the physical demands we place on them. If you need some help with figuring out what you can do from home make sure to visit the MCR YouTube page for tips and ideas to try!