Thursday, August 25, 2016

Recruit Your Glutes!

"Any dog can do it." That's what everyone always says about nose work, and it is true, any dog can detect odor - they do it all the time just for kicks or because of biological imperatives; and, sometimes, they use their noses for survival. Many dogs become truly amazing detectors of specific target odors that we have made important to them to find for reward. These dogs often excel at the sport of nose work. "Nose work is easy." That's what some people say. Well, yes and no. Nose work is often very easy for dogs, getting harder the more we humans get involved. Most people can manage to handle a dog doing nose work, some can really skillfully partner with a nose work dog. When everything is going right and the dog is fully focused and on task, it's not terribly hard for the team to get out there and search well. Sometimes, there are challenges facing the dog and he can't be at the top of his game, likewise, there can be challenges facing the human - like, being a human - and the team may have a tough time searching. If you've ever searched where both dog and human are challenged, you know nose work is not easy, and sometimes it's downright humbling. Consistently doing well in nose work requires a dog at the top of his game and a handler at the top of her game, working together, like peanut butter and chocolate work together to become a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. Two awesome things making a third, even more awesome thing. Only science can tell us which is the dog - peanut butter or chocolate - and which is the handler, and just because you have the raw ingredients, doesn't mean you have the finished product. It turns out, combining a dog and handler to make a nose work peanut butter cup is more art than science, and may just require unicorns and rainbows - or glutes. That's not a typo. I said glutes. Derrière muscles. Butt biceps. Yes, the key to greatness has been right behind you all this time. Don't turn around... no, it's still right behind you. Ok, now you're chasing your tail... Stop it. Sit down.

Stay with me now, people.

A while back, my wife convinced me to attend a BodyPump class at the local YMCA. BodyPump is an instructor led, group workout class, focusing on strength training. Over the course of one hour, various muscle groups are targeted with specific workout routines timed to the beat of catchy dance songs. Let me repeat, my wife convinced me to try this.

I'm no stranger to working out. I learned all about it in high school playing baseball and football. You put way too much weight on a bar, grunt and snort a lot and you throw your back into it or whatever it takes to prove you can lift that weight at least once ("maxing out" is what we used to call it). High fives from your bros. Done. Did it for years. I lifted weights to music: AC/DC, Mettalica, ABBA - you name it, I'll do a seated overhead tricep press to it. I lifted weights in front of a mirror. Bend at the elbow, lift up, resist on the way down. Suck in that gut, puff out that chest. Looks good. I worked out next to other people - we looked very similar, working against gravity to keep heavy things from crashing back down to earth's surface. Walking back and forth, "gettin' loose" and stretching out, sneakily pulling at pesky sweaty workout wedgies and pretend kissing our biceps so we could sniff test for B.O. We've all done it. Point is, I know what I'm doing. No need for an instructor or a group class.

So, when I arrive at this BodyPump class, I have to descend from my metaphorical pedestal of strength training superiority to enter the so-called "workout space", but instead of passing through the double doors like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, I shuffle in like a pebble, awash in a mixture of fear and anger, or "fanger". Fear, because, what if I don't actually know what I'm doing, and anger, because, I don't actually know what I'm doing. I don't know what to expect, I don't know what good BodyPumping is, I don't know what the instructor will think of me, I don't know if the 60 year old lady next to me will put me to shame; I just know I don't want to fail.

The instructor, a bubbly, super fit, smile-talking elementary school teacher (clearly she lifts the kids all day long and loves it) singles me out as the new guy and warns me to go light on the weight (challenge understood and accepted). Long gone are the days of me and a bunch of muscle heads listening to AC/DC, slinging weights until our forehead veins pop. Now, it's me and a bunch of people who look like they belong at a town hall meeting, listening to pop/dance tunes with our step/benches, purple foam coated dumbbells and microban infused yoga mats. I am out of my element.

The class begins. The instructor cues a song and calls for everyone to perform a sequence of lifts with the weight bar. She's counting reps and reminding everyone to follow her lead. We're mere moments into this class, and my fangery feelings are frustratingly high. I'm not struggling to lift the weight bar, but I am displaying - for all to see - a staggeringly sad and amusing lack of musicality and rhythm. I am unable to move in unison with the rest of the class. And I am alone in this struggle, save for the few people around me who are taxed with ignoring my awful timing and remaining on the beat of the song. Let me be clear, I can march to the beat of my own drum (assuming I'm not responsible for keeping a beat or using a drum or actually marching), but keeping in sync with a bunch of strangers in a public setting, I can not do; and, besides, that kind of conformism is a slippery slope to flash mobs, or worse, doing the wave at sporting events, so I could really consider this my strength and everyone else's weakness. As the first song finishes, I entertain the possibility that the next song and exercises will be better. The music starts. Things do not improve. My up is still everyone else's down. In the face of total failure, and unable to pick up the beat no matter how many times I speed up or slow down, or stop and restart, I choose to load up on weight - obviously, one can't be bothered to be rhythmic when hoisting the equivalent of a Chevy Nova above one's shoulders. For the rest of the class, I show an uncanny ability to be in direct opposition to the beat set by the instructor, the beat the entire rest of the class follows. I fail to get my timing right even once, even accidentally. What's worse, I struggle to perform the exercises - surprise, I'm using too much weight. And this instructor explicitly says, no throwing your back into these lifts. Crap. I'm on the ropes. All engines are flaming out. I'm in crisis mode.

By the end of this class, I'm down to just a weight bar, which is like, 5 pounds, and I'm flitting in and out of consciousness as the instructor happily calls out, "just 16 more!" Just 16 more lunges. Kill me now. I have to give up. My wife looks over at me with pity and concern - and I think a veiled smirk, for which I cannot judge her. I see my own face in the mirror smirking at my own body, whatever it is I am now doing demands to be met with smirking and pity. This is not exercise. I'm actually good at exercising. Something is wrong with this class and all of these people. I briefly consider staging a walkout, but I'm only partially conscious and I can barely move my legs after the lunges. The class finishes with a cool down, but for me it's more of a hot, itchy, shame spiral. The 60 year old lady next to me offers to carry my weights back to the storage rack. I don't have the heart (or the grip strength) to turn her down, after all, I wouldn't want her to think she's no longer a valued member of society.

Because I have no shame, and I hate to lose, I agree to return to a second BodyPump class two days later. On my way out of the YMCA, I realize something is terribly wrong with my body. Over the next two days, the extreme soreness in my legs results in one fall down the stairs and one failed attempt to get out of a chair and move across a room to stop a decorative partition wall from falling on my nephew (don't worry, a normal person got up and walked to his rescue, no one was harmed). I question wether I am indeed still an able-bodied, relatively young human being or if the government has secretly stolen my youthfulness and replaced my innards with margarine. No clear answer presents itself, so I resolve to show up to the second BodyPump class and hope for a miraculously different outcome.

At this second class, I feel a little less fangery and I work a little harder to listen to the instructor to get the timing of the exercises down, and I go easy on the weights. It's still tough as hell. Even though there are 20+ people in the class, I feel like the instructor is talking about me when she says things like, "loosen your grip on the bar" and, "drive those heels into the ground". Either way, I incorporate these tips and they seem benign enough. Fifteen minutes into the class, we start the song to work squats and lunges - the exercises that almost turned my lights out last time. I struggle to stay upright and conscious as she pushes us to go extra deep with squats. I'm feeling like this is the end of my foray into BodyPump, but I can't give up. That's when the instructor, super happy, smiling, not a drop of sweat on her face, chirps out, "Recruit your glutes!"

The last thing I need to hear bubbling forth all sing-songy and fresh from the smiling mouth of my way too fit Body Pump instructor while I struggle to stay upright and conscious as we power through extra deep squats with extended pauses is, "Recruit your glutes!"

How exactly do I recruit my glutes? Is this a gr-ass roots movement I've not yet heard about? Can I get their support with robocalls? I need more than a cheeky phrase shouted over a Jason Derulo track while I try to come out of a deep lunge without tipping over and skewering the person next to me with my weight bar.

As if reading my mind - more likely witnessing my physical ineptitude - the instructor guides us through exactly how to recruit our glutes. Surprisingly, I immediately feel reinforcements coming in from the rear. The next few lunges are easier and my body is no longer a rep away from a Chernobyl style meltdown. I'm considering more weight for the next song, and most of my fanger is gone, replaced with cautious optimism, or cauptimism.

Learning to use my glutes was a turning point for me, and made future BodyPump classes useful, and - unexpectedly - fun. It made me think of how I could recruit other parts of my body in other exercises to increase my stamina and strength. I still remained perfectly out of sync with the rest of the class, but my weight load increased and I finally felt like all the parts of my body were working together to reach peanut butter cup perfection - so, I treated myself to a bag of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (which I packed away in double-fisted, polyrhythmic style).

Many teams in nose work could take advantage of their "glutes" to reach their full potential. Here are some key ideas to help you and your dog maximize your search performance:

Get Help Identifying Your Team's "Glutes": In nose work, "glutes" are those underutilized, overlooked attributes in disguise that every team has, but few teams actually take advantage of to help them reach success. It can be as simple as changing leash length, or as complex as learning how to move your dog through a search area with your body pressure and position, while letting him stay in control of finding the hides. It's very difficult to self-evaluate and identify your own team's hidden attributes, which is where an outside observer comes in handy. In addition to a sharp, third-party evaluation, getting outside of your comfort zone is a key step towards activating your nose work "glutes". Be willing to do things that don't come naturally, that haven't become habit, and you'll begin to see a clearer picture of what your team is doing well, what you're struggling with, and how you and your dog could do better.

Start Working All of Your Team's Nose Work Muscle Groups More Often: Most teams are faced with opportunities to improve their performance and achieve more success (a lightbulb moment in class reveals your dog is cueing on your hand moving to your bait pouch), but often, it requires hard work and dedication. It's easier to explain why I can't do something than it is to put in the work that will eventually result in me doing that something. If I avoid working on my dog's "stickiness" to odor because I don't know where to start or it's hard for me to see progress, we won't grow as a team. If I accept that my dog is just "methodical" and loves to sniff everything before finding the hide, I may be missing out on some major opportunities for increasing my dog's efficiency and joy for the task of searching for a valuable scent. If I become accustomed to playing the clueless handler, I may never be confident enough to call finish in a search without making my dog re-check everything three times over. Working on different skills in nose work means taking a more deliberate approach to training, not just doing what feels easy and explaining away your dogs' and your shortcomings as a result of outside forces acting on your team. If I'm utilizing environment for learning (placing threshold hides every time I train) or maybe I'm honing my reward timing and criteria (paying for drive to odor), I should see results from my deliberate use of different nose work muscle groups. If I'm not seeing results, maybe I need to work on my understanding of the concepts and my use of the tools for learning. Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice - or even good practice - makes perfect.

Set Goals, But Have Fun on the Path to Success: Progress and growth do not mean slogging through a checklist of training tasks. If your team is healthy, able, and willing, then reaching your goals should be challenging, but fun. I could have chosen to brute force my way through BodyPump with way too much weight on my bar and a sour, pained look on my face; instead, I reduced the weight load, listened to the advice of the instructor and focused on feeling good and building upon my skills (remember, I had strength training experience and athleticism prior to the class, but that wasn't enough). I accepted that the challenges of the class were going to require a different approach, using my abilities in ways I'd never considered. The challenges of nose work require the dog to use his natural abilities for a specific purpose: find a target odor or odors under time pressure in varying environments. This is not easy for all dogs. Handlers also need to develop skills - mostly so they don't make the search extra hard for the dog, but ultimately so they can actually provide some support that helps the team reach success. Handlers and dogs should feel comfortable, eager, and confident when searching. If you or your dog is not having fun and achieving success, take a step back and figure out how to make it happen. There should always be more gain than pain.

Find Your Team's Rhythm in Nose Work: As you identify dormant nose work training muscles that can be activated to increase your team's success and enjoyment, you also need to understand that every team is unique and every team walks their own path to success. When trying to find your unique path to success, think of it as a spirograph of ever increasing size. You will always be walking forward, but you will sometimes return to the beginning of your journey, you will gain knowledge and increase skills, but you will often re-learn things as if for the first time, you will reach new horizons viewed with wonderment, but just as often you will find yourself on familiar ground that appears new as viewed through wiser eyes, you will experience the same searches, but in different ways. As your spirograph increases in size you gain more clarity, but face more complexity. If your spirograph is not expanding or if you are not on such a path, you will experience lack of growth, lack of stimulation, and an increasing weight on your team to perform in order to have fun. Fun is the key. Performance improves when the task is fun and engaging.

Remember That Your Team's Story is Still Being Written: Sometimes a nose work team is destined for greatness and it's undeniable from the first time the dog sniffs out primary reward. Just as often a team surprises everyone and goes from worst to first or a dog changes from a scaredy cat searcher to a brave and confident sniffer and it's unbelievably awesome. In order to become great, you need to believe that anything is possible. You can't feed a narrative that limits the growth of your team ("my dog can't focus on searching when he's outside because he loves critters too much"). And, even though it's important to get to know your dog, it's vital to expect your dog to surprise you ("I never knew my slow moving searcher was actually just moving at the pace I set, and was more than happy to search with more pep in his step when I started moving faster"). Good stories have twists and turns and surprise endings, but not by accident. You are largely in control of your dog's training experiences, so make sure when you're doing new and different things, that you help your dog close out each chapter with confidence, motivation, and clarity for the task of seeking out target odors.

After my situation with BodyPump improved and I was having fun and reaching my goals, my wife convinced me to try BodyStep (basically a repackaging of Jazzercise), and I did... once. It was like a mixture of River Dance and the torture scene from Braveheart. My glutes were powerless to help. I vowed never to go back, but recently, a friend was telling me how I could use my hips to make the steps easier. Hmm. Recruit my hips or stick to rhythm based strength training and nose work. Maybe I'll ponder this over a few peanut butter cups.

Happy Sniffing!