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Why Elite Runners Make Great Dog Trainers
Going the distance

I should have realized right away that something special was going on in a group dog-training session last spring. When I asked the participants to call their dogs to come and then run away, they all did, and with Whippet-like speed. Most people need lots of encouragement to run, and even then — looking sheepish — they tend to take a few half-hearted jogging steps at most. This was no ordinary group, but rather, some of the world’s best distance runners, athletes so good they are sponsored by the likes of Adidas, New Balance, Nike, Mizuno, Brooks and Reebok. They’re living and training in Flagstaff, Ariz., in pursuit of their Olympic dreams because this mountain town’s high altitude, abundant trails and sunny weather provide the perfect conditions for distance running.

Since that day, I’ve worked with other local elite runners, helping them teach their dogs to conquer fears of unfamiliar people, cars and leashes; stop chasing bikes; greet visitors politely at the door; walk nicely on leash; perform tricks like crawl, high-five, shake, spin and roll over; and continue running rather than be distracted by other dogs. The successes they have as trainers have everything to do with their success as athletes: they take what they already know about training to be world-class runners and apply it to training their dogs. The following principles apply equally to dog training and running.

 

Value consistent practice.
Runners understand that it’s the work they put in daily that leads to success. Similarly, dog trainers know that you have to practice skills with your dog every day.

It’s not how fast you run in training, it’s more a consistency, those back-to-back 100-mile weeks.
— Martin Fagan, Reebok-sponsored 2008 Olympic Marathoner and two-time Irish 5K Champion

Recognize that progress is incremental.

In dog training, there can be 100 steps from the starting point to the end point. Step one in recall work may be calling your dog to come when you’re standing in your distraction-free living room holding cooked chicken. Step 100 is calling your dog to come when he is chasing a rabbit with his best canine buddy. Small changes over time lead to success — a familiar concept for runners, who take years to build the fitness, technique and strategy required to race successfully at the international level.

Each workout seems to be building on the last.
— Andrew Middleton, All American and course record-holder at the Sedona and Tucson Half- Marathons, and
guardian of Poodle mix Scooter

Be goal oriented.

I often ask clients what they think success would look like. Do they want to be able to walk their reactive dog on leash through the neighborhood, or are they hoping to turn their little firecracker into a therapy dog? Do they want their dog to do a downstay when people enter the house, or is any behavior that involves keeping all four paws on the floor acceptable? Runners set goals, whether it’s running a personal-best time, following their race plan or winning an Olympic medal.

Setting an ultimate goal and stepping- stone goals help you to commit and make the ultimate goal tangible in your mind, which reflects in your daily actions, leading to success.
— Emily Harrison, Adidas-sponsored 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier

Welcome coaching and ideas for improvement.

Part of my job as a dog trainer and canine behaviorist is coaching — suggesting ways skills can be improved. I remind people to say a cue only once, help them with their timing, instruct them on modulating the pitch of their voice and guide them on giving clear visual signals. Coaches also give advice on modifications of everything from running form and breathing to when to make a move in a race. Athletes are accustomed to responding to their coaches, so they easily respond to my coaching, too.

Having a coach makes all the difference in the world, to offer outside advice with inside knowledge.
— Trina Painter, former U.S. 20K Champion and four-time Olympic Trials finalist

Know that little things matter.
When training a dog, the volume and pitch of your voice, where you’re looking, the direction your toes are pointing, when you stand still and when you move, whether you lean away from or toward the dog, and fractions of a second in reaction time all make the difference between progress and frustration. For elite runners, details matter, too, including those concerning workout duration and intensity, type of workout, nutrition, sleep, stretching and race strategy.

Attention to detail, making sure to do all the little things right, is at a premium.
— Ian Burrell, three-time All American and five-time top-five finisher in U.S. Road Championships, and guardian of mixed-breed Chili Dog

Understand that every situation is different.
Runners work hard to prepare for race day by simulating as many aspects of the competition as they can. However, at a race, the atmosphere, people, running surface, time of day, location and weather may all be different than they were during daily workouts. Knowing that differences and distractions affect performance allows elite runners to understand that dogs may also be thrown off by the presence of strange smells, a crowd of people, squirrels, loud noises, wind or anything else that is new and different. They also know that giving dogs experience with as many of these factors as possible is going to improve the dog’s performance when it really counts.

Training Lucy is a lot like training for a big race that doesn’t quite work out. Training her one-on-one always goes really smoothly, like running a workout I’ve done a dozen times. In practice, everything goes fine, but race day can be a different story.
— Vince Sherry, NCAA Championship qualifier and guardian of Lab/Border Collie cross Lucy and Border Collie/Chow cross Baxter

Accept setbacks as part of the process.

Progress is not always smooth. Setbacks teach us what we need to do to move forward. Accepting this as part of achieving goals is a trait these runners carry with them from their professional lives into their other pursuits, including dog training.

Setbacks are bound to happen, but if you approach it properly, I think you can come away much stronger and much smarter.
— Brett Gotcher, Adidas-sponsored 2009 U.S. 20K Champion and 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, and guardian of mixed-breed Taz

Want success.

Elite runners love to win and hate to lose. In dog training, as in all endeavors, actively pursuing success makes its achievement more likely.

Times are nice, but I want that first place, that gold medal!
— Jordan Horn, Adidas-sponsored sub-four-minute miler and guardian of mixed-breed Wicket

 

It’s a joy to associate with people who are so talented and willing to sacrifice so much in pursuit of their Olympic dreams. Yet, what I love most about working with elite runners is what I love about working with all of my clients: they love their dogs. “Many of the athletes and all of the coaches have dogs that we love like children,” says Trina Painter, assistant coach of Team USA Arizona, which includes many of these athletes. “They protect us, love us when we’re happy and sad, greet us with licks whether we’re sweaty or clean. They run with us and play with us. They keep us laughing with their silly faces and tricks and speak to us with their expressive eyes and body language. They are, for many of the runners, their best friend and source of unconditional love each day, and a wonderful warm and furry positive distraction from running.”

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 65: Jun/Aug 2011

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

Photograph by Karen B. London

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