The great American novelist Mark Twain once said “The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven, not man’s.” Many people inherently love dogs, and I find it difficult to trust those who don’t. Their loyalty and enthusiasm know no bounds, and their ability to love unconditionally is inspiring. Apart from all that, there’s an aspect of life where we can learn much from dogs, which is very applicable to BJJ training. Namely, dogs are the masters of Play. Not to win; we humans too often fall into the rut of thinking that all play must be to win, Play is much more profound for dogs. Dogs Play for development, and they play for the pure joy of playing as such. The game itself is both the striving, and the reward. It is both the investment and the return. It is both the journey, and the destination. So it is, or it should be, for the good jiu-jitsu player. We should always be striving to Play in order to develop, and Play for the love of the Play itself, rather than to win.
Puppies jump all over each other, flail with their paws in every which direction, and playfully bite at each other for hours on end. When the play goes a bit far, one puppy will yelp or bark, and the other will back off. They do this to become more aware of themselves, their bodies, and their abilities to move and interact. It is tantamount to their development and socialization, as well as being tremendously fun and rewarding. In this way, beginner jiu-jitsu players should playfully roll, to become aware of the amazing and vast color palette of interaction that BJJ offers. When the play goes far enough, and someone is caught in a submission, they simply tap and the play resets. Neither party should ever feel afraid to try something new, or reach for something a bit out of their bounds. As with the puppies, the only consequence is that the play resets.
More than anything, there is one particular game dogs love to play which has much to teach us in our quest to be the perfect BJJ training partner. Truth be told, the lesson is in the way they play it. Every dog I’ve ever met loves a good game of tug. Never has that been truer than with my German Shepherd, Nike (the Greek goddess of victory, not the shoe.) Countless times a day she walks up with her rope toy dangling from her snout, super excited, just waiting with incredible anticipation for me to grab the other end. An important aside here is to consider what a German Shepherd dog is; they’re typically quite large, incredibly strong and hardworking, and incredibly intelligent. They also have the 2nd strongest bite force of any dog breed on Earth. Realistically, Nike could tug me to Kingdom Come, tearing both the rope toy and myself to pieces every single time we play tug. Therein lies the magic, and the lesson. Nike’s aim is to play, and to get me or my wife to be willing to play as often as she possibly can. To meet that aim, she “throttles” her tug force to essentially keep the toy in the middle between us, and thereby the “game” stays in balance. She uses completely different amounts of force for myself vs my wife, because she understands our disparities in strength. These dogs, as much as we think of them as being leagues behind us in intelligence, innately understand the fact that nobody is willing to play a game they will constantly lose at for very long. Not only that, but they apply that knowledge in real-time to keep the game constantly even. For the dog, the game, and the ability to keep you engaged in it, is the “win.”
This tendency of the dog to keep the game fair, while also being engaging and challenging, is exactly what we should carry over to our bjj training. On the mats, the diversity of abilities, body types, fitness levels, creativity, intelligence, and physicality is amazing. This is wonderful because it makes it imperative to play as the dog plays. More experienced grapplers must “throttle” the “tug” to keep the game fair. Beginners (puppies, as it were), have to be given the opportunity to flail and flounder and bite with their adolescent teeth, while keeping strict limits in place that must be respected in order to avoid injury. Everyone must feel safe in trying new things, learning new movements with their bodies, “sharpening their teeth”, and ultimately developing. Be as the dog, Play for the joy of the Play and development, rather than for the “win.” See the game itself and the fun therein, as the “win.”
Now, for a bit of housekeeping to wrap this up, there is a time and a place for everything. Nike has an amazing personality and is immensely fun to play with. At the end of the day, though, Nike is a well-socialized German Shepherd. I pity the fool that tries to break into my house while she roams within. They are likely to meet a particularly brutal fate at the business end of the majestic Deutscher Schäferhund. In the same way, BJJ used by a responsible practitioner in a real-world self-defense scenario should be anything but playful. Threats should be effectively neutralized, and safety ensured. Competition is also its own world. If you give any shepherd dog a flock of sheep, there is a defined “win” that the dog will seek. As the name suggests, they will keep the sheep gathered in a herd, and safe in the group. The single dog will take on dozens of sheep, with all of the tricks in its back pocket, and keep them in a herd (I bet you weren’t aware your dog has a back pocket, don’t take my word for it, go check!) So it is in competition that the BJJ practitioner should seek to gather a herd of wins, with all the tricks in their back pocket, and keep the medals safe on their neck. With that, I’ll see you on the mats. Remember; keep your tails wagging and your BJJ playful!