Lessons I’ve Learned from Training the Dog (so far)

It was only hours after we returned from our honeymoon that Cooper officially moved in with us – and it was quickly apparent that the honeymoon was over and we had a major new responsibility at home. Despite being a self-proclaimed “cat person,” I was feeling optimistic about training Cooper – I did, after all, read Dog Training for Dummies on the plane ride to and from St. Kitt’s. How hard could it be if there was a Dummies book about it?

Turns out, it was harder than I thought. About a week into “home schooling” Cooper, I put the book away and decided we needed help. Professional help. We signed up for a weekly training class with Ken Berenson who runs sessions at the Round Hill Community Center in Greenwich for both beginner and novice level dogs. On the first night of school, Ken used his miniature poodle named Bear to demonstrate what we’d be learning during our time in what I took to calling “first grade.” My jaw dropped to the ground as Bear listened and responded to everything Ken said – he stopped on a dime, he sat, he stood, he ran, he retrieved – it was magical. At the same time, I was practically sitting on top of Cooper, a gangly mess of legs, fur, and paws, to keep him in one place. Bear was prim, proper, and well-behaved. In other words, the complete opposite of Cooper. (I suppose that only helped to illustrate Ken’s points about the value of a well-trained dog.)

Over the next few weeks, I was pleasantly surprised that Cooper started to show improvement. On the last night of first grade, we walked in for the test. This was it – Cooper either graduated and moved on to 2nd grade, or he was held back. Not wanting to have spent the last six weeks of training in vain, I tried to reason with Coop and explained that failing was simply not an option. He must have understood me, because we moved through each section of the test rather successfully. I insisted that Cooper give me a high-five, one of his favorite only “tricks,” after he received each passing mark. Ken handed us Cooper’s certificate and I did what any proud dog parent would do: I mailed away to the American Kennel Club for Cooper’s “Puppy Good Citizen” medal. It was $10 well spent on the medal because I honestly believe Cooper enjoys wearing it:

It was a proud day for us.

To date we’re about halfway through the 2nd grade with Cooper, and while he’s still a little pretty crazy, he is a better listener and I no longer have to sit on him to get him to stay still.

All this time that we’ve spent training Cooper got me to thinking that we’re on parallel tracks, really. Cooper’s training wouldn’t be going well if we didn’t put in the effort – which is how I feel about the time I spend at the gym. The more disciplined and committed you are to training, whether at the gym or puppy school, the better the results. It’s helped me realize a few things like:

1. There will be good days, and there will be bad days.

Right after I took the picture of Cooper wearing his medal, we went to our regularly scheduled training class and Cooper was the “bad puppy” in school. I felt like he wasn’t listening and by the time we left, I was mentally and physically exhausted. I had to wonder – did the photo shoot with his new medal go right to his head? Did he think just because he got to wear it, that he could stop paying attention to me? But, after all, I have bad days, too.  Whether I’m preoccupied or just not giving it 110%, not every workout is fantastic. So I cut him some slack – we embraced the bad training session and moved on.

2. There will come a distraction that is too tempting to resist – but there are always consequences.

We installed an electric fence around the property, and Cooper quickly learned about what happens when he gets too close to it. Even knowing this, every once in a while the temptation on the other side is too strong and he hears a fateful warning beep before a little zap. That’s how I feel when I fall off the clean eating wagon. I am completely aware of what I’m doing and I know I’m going to feel bad about it later, but in the moment those [chocolatey deserts/greasy buffalo wings/cheesy nachos] look way too good to pass up. Luckily, those moments are less frequent for both of us. I am learning to train myself to think beyond the immediate satisfaction and have my own warning beep – instead of focusing on how good something tastes in the moment, I think ahead to how I’m going to feel afterwards, both mentally and physically, and it’s easier to say no. 

3. Rewards go a long way.

Cooper cooperates better when there is a reward at stake – usually it’s a tasty treat or his favorite toy. Rewards seem to work the same way for me, but I tend to reward myself with new Lululemon gear rather than food. The more I work out, the better reason I have to replace my sneakers, buy new (smaller!) workout pants or get a fun new workout top.

4. Proper equipment (and form) makes a big difference.

One of my favorite games to play with the Coop is a simple game of chase – I take off running and he chases me. If I get far enough ahead of him, I hide and wait for him to find me. Then we do it all over again.

We were playing the other night and while he was hot on my tail, I took off running, went to make a hard right up the stairs, and completely wiped out on the hardwood floor… because I was wearing socks. I collapsed into a heap, simultaneously crying and laughing, and Cooper came over and started piling his toys on top of me. It was a painful, yet hilarious, reminder not only is playing chase with a 70 pound dog inside the house a terrible idea, but I really should have been wearing sneakers.

To boot, it was bad form of me to try to outrun the dog who has more legs and a lower center of gravity. But, it’s a good reminder to always use good form and the proper equipment, especially at the gym.

5. It’s OK to rest.

Working like a dog.

Everyone needs a little break at some point – and all too often, I find myself pushing through a busy schedule to tick off to-do list items, stay up late to get things done, or cramming way too much into one day. Sometimes the best thing to do is take the lead from Cooper: kick back and take a nap!

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