Have you ever wished you could go back and tell your past self all the things you learned about a new activity? As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20 and sometimes the best way to learn is to try, fail, and grow from the experience. However, there is a workaround to this and that’s to ask for guidance from people who have already walked the same path!
That’s why I took some time to ask the trainers and pro-canine conditioners in my Facebook group the Canine Athlete Pack for their number one piece of advice they wished they knew when they first started out. We got some excellent feedback! So much in fact that we had to write TWO blogs on all the great advice. In our first blog we reviewed the first 5 top tips (you can read more about those here). In this week’s blog we’ll review 5 more common pieces of advice that will help you on your conditioning journey.
1) Keep it Simple
The best way to structure your training session is to keep it simple and find an organized way of selecting the exercises you want to work on. To help achieve a higher level of organization, I like to incorporate my recently developed traffic light training system. This system is a way of colour coding your exercises based on the training level that it is at.
In a conditioning training session, I like to choose 1 exercise from each colour of the traffic light – a green one, a yellow one and a red one. By selecting exercises this way, we have a nice balance of exercises in our session. Imagine we only chose brand new exercises – that is a lot for both our dog and us to process!! This can lead to failure and frustration!! IF we only chose exercises that we are good at, we start to lack challenge to both our dog and our training and plateau with the desired effects. Our ideal training session has a good mixture of green, yellow, and red exercises as this will strike a nice balance.
I want you to take a look at the exercises you and your dog are currently doing and start to organize them into a list of Green, Yellow, and Red exercises. Once you’ve done that you can plan your upcoming training sessions
2) Don't be afraid to wait it out
Let your dog think their way through an exercise! Give them a chance to figure things out before stepping in and providing additional guidance. You want to avoid micromanaging your dog, by letting your dog think you also let them learn. Think back to your own schooling – did you learn better when someone showed you how to do it or did you find more success when you could come to the answer on your own?
One of the best methods to train your dog a new exercise is to shape it! When shaping we gradually teach our dog a new action or behaviour by rewarding them during each step. This way, you can break up potentially complicated actions into smaller parts that your dog will learn and understand more quickly. In addition to learning benefits, shaping also helps to encode better motor pathways. If exercises are completed with correct posture and excellent control, the body will encode a high-quality pattern and in time, will carry this understanding to other activities. If the exercises are completed with poor posture and control OR with handler involvement (e.g. picking up a limb vs the dog independently placing it), the body will encode a lower quality pattern. Whether high or low-quality neural encoding has occurred, it takes a tremendous amount of consistent effort to overcome this pattern.
3) Progress slowly
There are a variety of ways to add challenge to your conditioning routine but you want to make sure you’re adding challenge safely! There are several ways to add variations and challenges to your exercises including:
When adding challenges make sure you layer up slowly. Don’t select 2-3 challenges from the above list at the same time. Instead, select one to work on with your dog. As you progress your variables and increase the challenge on your dog’s body, NEVER compromise form and posture for increased challenge. Meaning, your criteria in maintaining proper form and posture during each exercise must always be met. This will avoid any potential injury to your dog. If you alter one variable and find the increased challenge is too hard on the dog, simply pull back a layer (as you would with your dog training), make it easier and try again. Our goal is to make our dogs successful!! If after 3-4 repetitions the dog is still struggling with an exercise, make it easier.
4) Beware the online video!
Not all exercises are created equally and you may be surprised to learn that some exercise looks easy but are actually incredibly difficult to do in practice. How often have you seen a video of a dog performing conditioning work and thought – my dog can do that?!? The challenge with online videos is we’re often seeing the impressive end result of a specific conditioning exercise that has multiple layers to it. Remember, just because you saw it online doesn’t mean it’s appropriate and SAFE for your dog. In the video below, my young dog Keeper was attempting an unstable challenge to a behaviour she understood well. When attempting a new challenge, it’s important to recognize when to stop. In the video below, there are a number of clear hints that the attempted challenge was too hard for Keeper. When working with your dog monitoring for these signs in your training session is key! Each dog with have different fatigue and stress signals so learning your dog's signs will be an important part in finding success in your foundation training.
5) Don't be afraid to ask for help
Finally, the best thing you can do to find success in foundation training is to get some help! Many of the members of the Canine Athlete Pack stressed the importance of finding a coach or external support! When you’re first starting out it’s incredibly easy to become overwhelmed with all the exercises available to you, knowing the right handler mechanic, and figuring out what’s appropriate for your dog. A coach or a conditioning training program is a great resource to have help you feel comfortable in your conditioning journey.
If you’re looking for some additional support in your conditioning training and want to make a noticeable change in your training habits, handler mechanics, and start making some positive progress I’m happy to help! I recently launched a self-guided conditioning foundations course that’s suitable for dogs and handlers at all stages of their journey. If you would like to learn more about the course visit From the Ground Up.
Remember, canine conditioning is something that will take a little bit of time and effort to become skilled at but you are more than capable! If you need help or guidance I’m always available to answer any question or concern you have. I also have a number of resources available for you on my social platform where you can connect with me and other experienced trainers!