When I was roughly 5 years old my mother asked me if I would like to take karate classes.
My answer was flat out “No.”
About 6 months later I saw the movie “The Karate Kid,” and suddenly I had a change of heart.
I took my classes pretty seriously for kid. I climbed the ranks, competed at championships, and by the time I was 12, I earned my black belt, the youngest at my school.
I learned many important things during this time, and none of them had to do with fighting. If you were to ask me today, the most important thing I learned was self-discipline.
Merriam Webster defines self-discipline as “correction or regulation of oneself for the sake of improvement”. It often involves controlling one’s emotions, actions, impulses and desires. An extremely valuable skill for a young man to learn.
When I hit my teenage years I discovered girls, skateboards, and cars among other things; and my karate lessons seemed boring in comparison. I quit.
The discipline I learned carried me through many difficult situations and decisions, and helped form the adult I became. When I was 27, I had an itch, I needed martial arts back in my life, so I began taking Kung Fu classes.
When I was searching for a school, I had a particular vision of what I wanted. Again, it had nothing to do with fighting skill. I missed the discipline. I found what I was looking for at the Gold Summit Martial Arts Institute. My teacher, Laoshi Markle is strict in the most traditional sense. She is knows exactly what she expects from her students, and she accepts nothing less. She will not hesitate to scold someone for offering less that their best effort, and compliments are hard to earn. Because of this I find myself working just as hard to please her as I would my own father (I recently completed a class on one foot because I had a sprained ankle), and on the occasion that I receive one of her compliments it fills me with a sense of personal satisfaction that lasts for the remainder of the day.
What she knows is something essential, that great teachers have known throughout the ages. Her firm clear teaching, carefully doled out praise, and clear expectations have taught us to keep ourselves in line. The more advanced students never need scolding, they practice self-discipline.
Now, on to dog training. I am a firm believer that dogs can and do learn self-discipline. Not only that, but the vast majority of problem dogs that come into the K9 Connection dog training center have none of it. Most problem dogs that I see have never learned to regulate their own impulses, emotions, and actions.
This often is a function of either no training, or ineffective training. Many dogs, without learning that negative consequences can result from certain behaviors, never learn to temper their actions; they see no reason to.
If, when I first stepped into Kung Fu class, I saw that Laoshi ran her school following the only praise and reward style of teaching, I would have turned around and left, immediately. I knew that I would only reach my fullest potential with a teacher who will be firm when necessary, even if it is unpleasant in the moment. I crave the balance of reward and consequence, it makes her praise more appealing and it assures me that I am getting the feedback I need to grow as a person. Laoshi isn’t abusive; she never hits us or insults us. She doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear, but she will always tell us what we need to hear.
Your dog craves this balance too. Structure and discipline can help a dog reach a state of peace and fulfillment. Instinctually, I think both you and your dog already know this.
Dog training can be a lot of fun, but it may not always be fun. Sometimes a dog needs to learn to do things that he may not really want to do. We work him through it. These are the moments that develop self-discipline.
There are times when it is preferable to create a situation where the dog wants to do what you are asking. You can add incentives like treats or toys to make the dog enjoy the process. To me however, an equally important part of training is seeing what happens when the dog doesn’t necessarily want to do what you are asking. Will they do it anyway? Will they use self-discipline without there having to be something external ‘in it for them’ such as a treat or toy?
One of the main exercises I use towards this goal is the down-stay position. Not the typical “stay for two minutes and you’ll get a treat” that the average training class teaches. I purposely ask the dog to do this when he knows there is no treat involved, and the minimum I require my students to strive for is a half-hour stay. During this time frame, the dog is going to have many impulses to get up and do other things, but I want to see him begin to control those impulses.
Essentially I want him to think twice before he acts, a habit that can carry over into every other aspect of his life. How great of a skill is that, think twice before you act, can you imagine?