The Karate Kid Method
Featured article, Bay Woof February 2016.
Whether it’s building stronger legs in the gym, teaching your dog new behaviors, or learning karate to fight in a local tournament against your bullies from the belligerent Cobra Kai dojo, principled methods produce better results. Just like karate, to strengthen your dog training take some advice from one of the greatest teachers in cinematic history, Mr. Miyagi.
In “The Karate Kid,” (1984) Daniel, a teenager at a new school becomes the target of a group of bullies that all belong to a local dojo with a hostile instructor. He enlists the help of an unlikely and judicious sensei, his building’s handyman, to learn karate and win back some respect by entering a local karate tournament against the boys. Mr. Miyagi has unconventional methods, filled with powerful wisdom, and Daniel goes on to defeat his stronger and more experienced nemesis in the tournament.
As a professional dog walker who runs group off leash adventures it’s imperative that every dog I take out is well versed in a set of behaviors that amount to off leash voice command. When I start out with a puppy pupil my eventual goal is off leash control. Adhering to Mr. Miyagi’s lessons, I have dubbed my method The Karate Dog Method. In short: Define your goal. Master the basics. Take small steps. Experience little victories. Utilize repetitions. Don’t forget to balance training with fun.
“First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule, Daniel-san, not mine.”
Daniel is frustrated to learn that his lessons with Mr. Miyagi begin with washing and waxing all the cars in his lot, and what’s more, Mr. Miyagi perplexingly wants these menial tasks done with great care for form. “Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breathe, very important.” Day in and day out, over and over again, Daniel must take great care to properly paint the fence, sand the floors, and so on, with just the right movements until his muscles ached. Until one day it’s revealed that the entire time he’d been learning the fundamentals of good defensive blocking. As with anything it’s important to master the basics first. “First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule, Daniel-san, not mine.” Learning the basics can be frustrating, but without the proper foundation the house crumbles easily.
In puppies my basics involve impulse control behaviors: stay, leave it, drop it, eye contact, coming when called, and walking on leash properly. I can’t express enough how much I think polite leash walking correlates with better behaved dogs. Learning proper techniques and mastering form starts with finding a trustworthy source and my favorite uber-accessible sensei is YouTube user Tab289. Visit http://www.citizenhoundsf.com/#!Training-Material/zjizd/56a997c30cf229630719a374 for video links.
Repetition. Repetion. Repetition.
Once you’ve got your form perfect, and only then, repeat, repeat, repeat. It’s not because Daniel knew the defensive moves that he was so effective, it’s because his muscles and bones knew the moves from days of repetition. Everything became second nature. Everything became “bulletproof.” In dog training we strengthen through reps just as you’d strengthen through reps in the gym. We add difficulty and distraction just as you’d add weight to your weight racks. Bulletproofing is the process of taking a behavior the dog has learned in an easy setting and moving it outdoors, then into the park, then closer to other dogs, then amongst the other dogs, then in the middle of play, slowly over days and weeks. Repetition, repetition, repetition, and never sacrifice form.
“But, when do I learn how to punch?”
Just like in the Karate Kid it's important to fully develop some foundation behaviors before you can successfully employ them in a working repertoire. One of Mr. Miyagi’s most powerful moves is the Crane Kick, which Daniel desperately wants to learn. Had Mr. Miyagi tried to teach that move before anything else, Daniel might have failed miserably and given up. Instead, he taught progressively more difficult strikes, balancing techniques, and blocks, built up his confidence, and only then did he allow Daniel-san to learn the Crane Kick. This is one of the fundamentals of dog training. Allow the dog to experience small successes that build on each other toward the end goal, instead of asking for too much out of the gate and expecting dogs to learn from failures. Learning from failures will be a detriment to their enjoying training and wanting to work with you. Daniel wanted to learn how to punch, but when he asked Miyagi about it, his teacher responded, “Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home. Understand?”
“Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance, everything be better.”
Mr. Miyagi said he learned two things from his father, karate and fishing. He spent his life mastering both, along with trimming bonsai trees and refurbishing old cars for fun, because of the importance of finding a balance in everything you do, lest quality suffer. Similarly in dog training you must balance work and play. “Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance, everything be better.” When you train mix up your rewards; mix up your treats, mix in some toys, and mix in some play. Take breaks often. Leave them wanting more. Have fun! “Banzai!”
David Levin is the owner of Citizen Hound, voted Best Dog Walker San Francisco 2015 by Bay Woof Magazine, and Top 5 in the Bay Area by the Bay Area A-List three years running. David has a passion for teaching, and teaches dog walkers through his SF Commercial Dog Walker Certification Course, and clients through his training company, Dog & Owner Training. Visit www.citizenhoundsf.com for more info.