What are YOU talking about?
There is no substitute for a thorough training program. Shaping a behavior, putting a name to it, reinforcing the behavior, possibly chaining it with other behaviors, proofing in a variety of settings … all these steps in the process are what help a dog understand their “job” or what behaviors are desired. Once you have been through those phases of training, however, there is another layer that often gets forgotten, neglected, or never even considered. There have been many studies released in the past year or so that validate this “final piece of the puzzle” is essential. That layer is: your expectation.
The Harold Hill “Think System” is not at all a reliable means to training basic skills. It’s not the “start to finish solution” as it was portrayed in the show, but as validated by Jay Friedman, the principal trombonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and professional golf instructor, mental visualization does reinforce in your own mind what the desired outcome looks and feels like … and it truly enhances the likelihood of a successful performance of a well trained task. So when that perfect weave pole entrance comes along and your dog stays in the poles to the end, you had better be running your “mental DVR”. Capture every vivid detail of how it looked from your perspective, how it felt to guide them on that perfect path, what your pace and stride felt like – where was your hand in relation to the dog’s nose? Capture it all. Then most importantly … replay that in your head ten times a day … NOT the missed entrance or your team mate popping out after pole #4. The perfect performance is what you need to burn in to your memory!
At this point you may be thinking “What does it matter how I think about the course or a piece of equipment? It’s my dog that has to go out there and do it!” Have you noticed that there are two members of an agility team? You don’t simply take the leash off before #1 and put it back on after the finish. Have you ever read about a dog that could sense chemical changes in the human they are bonded to, detecting and giving early warning of an impending medical emergency? Have you ever heard the phrase “Stress runs down the leash”? Your mindset has a tremendous impact on your dog’s performance. And that’s just the intangible side. When you are working with your dog on course, you are communicating with them in many more physical ways than you are with the verbal cues you are giving. Your movement, position, where you are looking, how your body is pointing and so forth should be controlled by your subconscious, all supporting the mental image that you are currently thinking about. Wait, are you thinking about the perfect performance, or the flawed one from last month? THAT’s the point. Your dog is influenced in many direct and indirect ways by what’s in your head.
Olympic Gold Medalist Lannie Bassham (1976 – Montreal) now coaches athletes from a great variety of sports as well as high performers in many other walks of life. His program includes reinforcement of successful performances through mental visualization because, as he explains to his clients, science has proven that our brain literally forms “railroad tracks” to the things we think about most and gets us there faster with greater reliably than the things we recall less often. This not only includes the conscious thought of the moment that things went well, but all the subconscious ‘muscle memory’ actions taken while in the process of performing the task at hand.
Taking this one step further, Mr. Bassham also encourages his clients to watch what they talk about as well. Continually talking about flaws in a performance causes an obsession with the imperfect and makes attaining the desired performance more difficult. So when someone asks you how you ran on a course, rather than immediately going in to all the details of how and why the off course tunnel got taken at #7, the response which could be more self-beneficial might be to focus on the things that went well and if you must, mention that you’ll be better prepared for the 5 – 6 – 7 sequence when something like that comes up again in the future.
Both personal experience and recently published studies validate the need to regulate negative chatter. You can probably recall a time in your own agility journey (or perhaps that of a friend) where a class, a piece of equipment, a sequence just got “so in their head” that seeing that “thing” on the course almost certainly meant NQ. The longer it goes on and the more that “thing” gets talked about, the tougher it gets to break of the downward spiral. Thinking and speaking positively while remaining laser focused on “process” over “outcome” isn’t going to guarantee a perfect performance every time, but it surely will cut down on the length of time and amount of effort necessary to improve your consistency and get things back to where they should be.
The voice you use to communicate with your dog and with others is a powerful tool. The voice in your head is even more powerful since it’s talking to you just about every waking minute. If you keep control of what those voices are saying and how they are delivering those messages, you are likely to have a smoother path for developing in your training, better results in the ring, and happier creatures at both ends of the leash!