My husband and I have truly been blessed with two wonderful daughters, Alexis (14) and Carley (12). Gosh, just writing those ages down … oh how time does fly! Our girls have grown into the type of young ladies parents dream to have. They are Honor Students, social with their peers, adore and respect animals, they’re helpful around the house (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration), and they absolutely LOVE softball. Interestingly, both of them have excelled as pitchers. Each has a natural talent within themselves, (it helps that their Dad has always been Mr. Athlete) and a drive to continue learning and getting better each time they play.
This great love and determination they have within them to build their skill, motivated us to enroll them in a once in a lifetime opportunity – the Jennie Finch Softball Camp in Williamsport, Pennsylvania early last December.
The Camp was held over a two-day period. It was “staffed” by instructors who are not only good in their field; these girls are the best in the world – Olympic Gold medalists! These Olympians were imparting their knowledge and experience on our kids! Again, it was the opportunity of a lifetime!
As we progressed through the clinic, I gained a greater understanding of softball and the mechanics necessary to help further success and encourage better performance within a player. However, what really resonated, what the big surprise, the icing on the cake turned out to be for me, were the constant parallels I found myself drawing to dog training!
The feelings of Motivation and Invigoration were coursing through my every vein! I felt as though I’d just been hit in the face with awareness that, though the sports were different, the foundation remained the same! The principles which allowed these softball Olympians to have peak, stellar performances were indeed the same principles that make for great and progressive dog training! The experience was extraordinary – inspiring, inclusive, binding – so much so I wanted to share with my dog friends some key points to take away for your own training if you aren’t already implementing them. If you find that you use them already, kudos to you and consider this validation of your fantastic choices and wise training protocols!
Some of the broad, generalized ideas that I’ll jot down are as follows:
- Practice like it’s competition; compete like it’s practice. In softball, a fellow player telling her teammate, “If this were a real game, I’d have dove for the ball.” The translation for dog training might be, “If you want focused heeling, straight fronts, and square sits, practice them that way! Insist on that precision, only “pay” or reinforce the behaviors you want to see more of. Just because it’s practice or training doesn’t mean you should settle for less! Stop allowing crooked fronts or sloppy finishes to earn reinforcement! Help your dog get it right, or fix it when it happens!
- Don’t settle, train it right!
- Practice at 110%. Bring your A game! Practice with gusto. Make practice harder than the real thing! Put the challenge into your workout! Make your brain and body expect greater difficulty. The translation for dog training might be, “Add challenge to the exercises your dog knows well.” If he knows how to Sit/Stay in the living room on the rug, practice a Sit/Stay with his leash underneath him, or on some damp grass, or a slightly sloping hill. The point being, make it more difficult than it will be in the formality of competition. That way he’ll be so accustomed to these added challenges, when he gets to compete in the ring it will feel like a breeze!
- Small Pieces! The stride a pitcher takes often attracts attention. If a pitcher has a great big stride, they often have intense power behind the ball when it is released. Many coaches encourage the girls to take a great big stride (for the glam and the Wow factor) not realizing many of the other components which make a good pitch may be compromised because of this big stride. They want that glamorous, finished look before the pitcher is truly ready to make it all come together and work. It was advised at the clinic to keep the girl’s stride short, to get her really comfortable and reliable with her pitches using the short stride, and then add some length. With this approach, if a problem occurs, it is much easier to locate the error and fix it. The comparison for dog training might be heeling. Heeling was glaring at me with this one! I have often witnessed handlers taking dozens, if not hundreds of steps in heeling, when the reality is, the dog can barely execute proper heel position for three steps. Working forward in small increments of heeling is critical for your dog’s understanding and success. Taking it literally one step at a time, and adding to those steps only when you see the perfection you wish to see as the finished product, will you add another step. If at any time you encounter a problem with focus or proper position, it is much easier to identify it and pinpoint the moment it happens when using the small pieces approach!
- Muscle Memory. Practice in batting, pitching, catching. There are specific mechanics a player must perform to get the best results. Practicing over and over again in poor form or incorrect position will only create a bad swing, poor pitches, missed balls, etc. Whatever muscle movement you are working on is precisely what the memory of the muscles adopts. I think the translation for dog training is obvious! If we want our dogs to have nice square sits when we halt in heel, then we must practice those square sits each and every time we train! Create that muscle memory. Make it happen. Point out the position to the dog, lure them there, do what it takes to get their posture as perfect as you wish it to be. Then this is the posture the muscles will assume with ease. Take advantage of the programming that is happening each and every time you perform a repetition. Use it to your advantage; avoid having to go in later and fix the established poor behavior.
These are just a few examples of the common threads I couldn’t help but notice. There are many more that my wonderful students have listened to me carry on about! They have indulged me selflessly, allowing me to express the excitement and inspiration I experienced. I honestly feel a renewed sense of commitment. A sense of: “Hey! I was actually doing something right!” The experience left me with the urge and commitment to carry on applying these sound foundational skills to our dog training! I felt honored to be in the presence of such greatness, talent and dedication, and I was truly inspired. I hope you can feel some of the same validation and encouragement in your own training just by reading this passage. To say it was encouraging being in the presence of these women who sought, found and continue striving for perfection is an understatement.
Enjoy your training adventures! Keep reaching for the best performance you can imagine, and you will get there!