On Good Form

When you work out, there is a fine line between improvement (yay!) and injury (boo!). Pushing yourself just outside your comfort zone is often where the improvement happens, right? If 5 pushups are easy for you – going a little beyond that can help you develop.

But if you push yourself too far beyond your existing physical limits – so if you do 20 pushup repetitions in a row when you’ve only ever comfortably sustained 5 or 6 – your form may deteriorate. That’s when you might end up using your body in a less than optimal way and/or risking injury.

Establishing and then maintaining good form, while gently nudging for progression and improvement, is what I focus on keenly during the training of my young dog, Clyde. He’s currently 21 months.

In our agility training sessions, I watch him constantly for feedback from his body. (I’m talking about the physical in this blog. Of course there is an interplay between behavioural and physical, but I’ll focus here on the physical.)

To improve, he does sometimes need to be pushed beyond what would be a breeze for him. But it’s a balance between progression and the preservation of form. If he gets overly tired, if we do too many repetitions, we’ll lose the form we want – he’ll use his body sub-optimally.

This is not something I have been so aware of with my previous youngsters. I’ve been more aware of what I am trying to achieve and of my dog’s performance of a behaviour. So for example historically I would have focused more on whether my dog was turning tightly around a wing. Now I pay less attention to the wing turn and more attention to how Clyde uses his body to execute the turn. I guess it’s comparable to focusing less on how long you can hold a plank and more on how good your position is and whether you’re engaged correctly during the plank.

I don’t have specific session goals. I have broader goals of skills or behaviours that we’re tackling over a period of weeks or months – but within each session I am constantly observing his form to give me feeback. The question in my head is constantly: how is he using his body and is that the way I want him to use it – a way that will be sustainable and competitive for him as an individual?

As a result, we definitely mix up our sessions quite a lot. We vary what we cover within a session because by changing behaviours we are often giving some parts of his body a break and working other parts.

This also means that we change what we’re doing equipment-wise in line with his physical feedback. So… we might do some exercises on micro-height even though we are typically jumping a higher height for less demanding behaviours. If he’s starting to tire we might stop altogether or move on to an alternative behaviour. I don’t concentrate on “getting it right” or “finishing on a ‘good’ note”.

Tiny things indicate when a dog’s tiring or losing form, if you watch closely enough. The last time I agility trained Clyde I asked him to do a lie down at one point. He placed one fore slightly before the other fore. So I did 2 more downs and in 1 he again dropped one fore marginally before the other fore. That was my cue to think about calling it a day. Obsessive? Probably.

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