Lessons from Our Canine Friends

            After a long-standing streak of living a petless existence, I recently joined the ranks of the dog people.

            I had always favored a carefree life, without dependents, over that of unconditional love. Now I’m a proud dog owner with many of the behaviors that I used to make fun of. I smile at cute dog posts, and I can no longer listen to Sarah McLachlan music because of those gut-wrenching, ASPCA commercials. I’d like to think that I’ve evolved, but I’m probably just a hypocrite. But a hypocrite with standards. I still frown upon those who anthropomorphize their pets and bumper stickers that specify what particular dog breed is favored by a motorist.

            As a recent convert, I’m not ready to elevate a dog’s status or overstate the level of their abilities. They certainly exhibit signs of intelligence, and their cognitive abilities continue to impress us, but are we setting the bar too low? Sure, they’re fantastic escape artists and adept at attaining things that are seemingly inaccessible, but you wouldn’t want one performing surgery on you.

            On the other hand, humans have split the atom and traveled to the moon and back, yet we’re notoriously bad decision-makers. Maybe we’re too smart for our own good or perhaps intelligence is overrated.

            In any case, I screw up more on a daily basis than my dog (who is, by far, the cutest dog of all time). As humbling as it may be to take our lead from a lower order of species, we can learn a lot from dogs, particularly when it comes to exercise.

            In my casual observations, I’ve found that my dog Nicu has certain practices that could benefit us two-legged overlords. His exceptionalism is no coincidence; he’s named after a world champion weightlifter (Nicu Vlad). After all, to whom much is given, much is expected.

            Nicu always stretches when transitioning from a lounging position to a migratory endeavor. His favorite go-to stretch is downward dog, and he does it almost every time unless someone accidentally steps on a squeaky toy. How many times do we cut corners and skip warmups to properly ready our bodies before a workout or game?

            He’s also very good about pacing himself. He has the unmistakable exuberance of a puppy, but he also knows when to take a self-imposed break. He chases a ball with fury but grabs a rest period every now and again, finds some shade, and recharges the batteries.

            It may seem a little strange to segue into us humans overdoing it and not budgeting our energy when we have a significant obesity problem in this country, but it’s a fair point. It applies to both the hardcore fanatics and the exercise-phobic who at times dip their toes in the water. We live in a country of extremes where people do too much or too little, with a small splinter group that does everything just right.

            One of the qualities of many high-performance athletes is the ability to play through pain. It’s partly a tough-guy badge of honor, but it’s also the ability to consciously override our body’s built-in safety mechanisms. There are too many stories of heat-related fatalities while participating in sports and exercising in extreme conditions. Dizziness, nausea, and muscle cramps among other things are indicators that should not be ignored. Some athletes vying for a contract, trying to make a team or win a coach’s respect will push through until their core temperature is in the red zone and sometimes too late for treatment.

            If going into renal failure while practicing on a hot day isn’t a scary-enough cautionary tale for you, there are even athletes such as swimmers who train themselves to resist the urge to breathe. Pushing the limits of breath-holding can be extremely dangerous and sometimes deadly, known in the aquatic world as shallow-water blackout. It’s a fine-line between excessive motivation that shapes champions and misplaced determination that costs people their lives.

            The idea of listening to your body gets tossed around a lot, and though it’s not foolproof it’s a good place to start. Our bodies usually warn us about things like heavy squats with crippling back pain and depriving the brain of oxygen, and they’re usually right.

            Nicu seems to be more in tune with his body than his human counterparts.

            Dogs are natural pullers who live for a game of tug of war. Us humans are far more push-centric when we’re in a weight room. A big bench press is a bragging-rights sort of exploit, but no one boasts about a heavy reverse fly or bent-over row. Most of our pulling muscles are posterior muscles of the body, which are often neglected. We tend to focus on our mirror muscles and overlook those that don’t appear during our reflective-viewing disappointment, not to mention the unhealthy self-evaluation that follows.

            Dogs seem less preoccupied with their appearance, which might explain why their workouts are more functional and less cosmetic. My dog is completely unfazed by a bad haircut, residual food stuck in his whiskers, or walking around with his ears turned inside out.

            Like his namesake, Nicu has substantial strength-to-bodyweight ratio, but he also exhibits great flexibility. When grooming himself, he hits some spots that humans could only dream of, other than a few gymnasts. We should all be so well-rounded, but weight rooms are often fraught with one-trick ponies.

            I’m not suggesting that we emulate dogs in every way. Incontinence during periods of excitement and fear of vacuum cleaners wouldn’t be very helpful. But some of their behaviors make a lot of sense for their physical well-being. Not because they read it in a book or hired a personal trainer – or the vet told them so – but because they listen to their bodies. It’s hardwired, and I’d like to think that we have some of that as well. Perhaps lost somewhere in the recesses of our overloaded brains and overly scheduled culture, that’s become our manic reality where so many of us have crowded ourselves out of our own lives.

            Nicu has a Zen-like appreciation of nature. Not only does he stop for recovery, but he also stops to smell the roses, among many other things. Dogs experience true bliss over the simple things in life, such as a family member returning home. They’re unrelenting optimists, thinking that they’re going for a walk every time you go near the door. They find great joy in the prospect of just going outside or for a car ride.

            It’s a dog’s world and we’re just living in it!

            — Certified strength and conditioning coach Norman Meltzer, the owner/operator of MW Strength and Conditioning in New Bedford, was known during his competitive weight-lifting career as “the Muscless Wonder” for his lean, mean physique lacking in the traditional bulk associated with strength training. Meltzer’s experience and knowledge has helped pro, college and high school athletes and teams and even regular people improve their strength and performance.

Schvitz’n with Norm

By Norm Meltzer

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