sparring like a dog


Last week my girlfriend Liz and I adopted a 5 month old Beagle/Sheppard mixed puppy and named her Moksha. At a mere 20 pounds she is bursting with energy and although we are good at entertaining her, it’s clear that she is a dog who needs time with other dogs. We’ve had several friends already say that they want set up play dates with us, it was really just about who’s schedules would come together first.

           After having pizza with Liz’s family, we invited her sister Kate, brother-in-law Nick, and their 60-pound, 2-year old pit-bull Sheba over to our house for a meeting with Moksha. Now I know what you are probably thinking. Why would we bring a 60-pound Pitt over to play with a little puppy? I wondered that myself as this muscle bound tank of a dog came lumbering into our home this past weekend. I thought that this encounter could end one of two ways. Either they get along wonderfully, or Sheba would eat our little Moksha for dinner.

Soon after they walked in, I noticed the distinct similarity between our pups meeting and, of course, martial arts. After all, dogs play fight in order to learn how to hunt prey and to protect their masters. Martial Artists spar, or simulate combat in order to learn how to fight in a ring or on a battlefield.

Their playing reminded me of a common scenario: Two students meeting to spar for the first time with one another. One is a new, nervously anxious pup, the other is a seasoned, salty pit-bull of a veteran. As I watched our little Moksha bark and nip at the heels of Sheba, It reminded me of how less experienced students spar. They move unsurely, overreacting to every punch and kick thrown their way. They usually don’t mean any harm. Like a puppy, they don’t know any better. It is my job as a coach to ensure them that they are safe and to remind them to relax, just like it is my responsibility as a Moksha’s owner to calm her when she is over-aggressive with the clearly larger Sheba.

Conversely, I watched Sheba excitingly answer the enthusiasm of our little four legged fur child. While wagging her tail and barking, Sheba eagerly and happily pounced at Moksha. The problem was that Sheba wanted to play with Moksha as if she were a big dog like her. When Moksha nipped at her, Sheba immediately nipped back, not realizing that she is way bigger than her little counterpart. Often seasoned fighters do the same with newbies. They start off light with their exchanges back and forth, until the rookie hits them harder than expected. This triggers the veteran practitioner to swing back harder than they should, as if they were sparring with another pro rather than a new amateur. Once again, as a coach, it is my responsibility to remind the advanced fighter to bring the intensity down a few notches when the pressure escalates. Nick, Sheba’s “dad”, held onto her leash the entire time that the two dogs played. He would pull on her harness when she got too excited, reminding her that Moksha is just a puppy who doesn’t know any better. Similarly, as a coach, I find myself having to metaphorically reign in more advanced students who are working with beginners.

In my Sparring Courses we address the roles of the beginner, intermediate and advanced practitioner. I teach, “Drills for Skills” that allow student’s of all levels to learn, progress and grow quickly while keeping everyone safe. Parameters are set to avoid the puppy dog or the pit-bull scenario so that fighters essentially learn how to play rather than “fight.” Simply put, my students spar like my dogs, and they are better off because of it.