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Doing It All: Handling Secrets

Imagery is the art of visualizing how to run a course and practicing that performance mentally before going to the line. Here I am ‘practicing.’

I just finished my spring show/hunt test campaign and am very happy with our accomplishments, which included four Major Reserves (my bridesmaid), Group placements, and six hunt test titles from Junior to Master. Our pass rate at hunt tests was the highest it’s ever been. Always in the ribbons in the Conformation ring with Group placements. What’s the difference from previous years to this one? Since I want to continue with such high success rates, I decided to reflect on the differences and do some research, this time on me, the handler. What am I doing that has changed?

In past years, as I was learning to handle my dogs at hunt tests or shows, I can remember looking at my competition and telling myself there was no way my dog would beat that one! In the field, I would go to the handlers’ meeting, look at the test, watch the test dog, and tell myself, “My dog can’t do that.” And you know, I was right in both scenarios. In Agility, instructor Merrielle Turnbull relates experiences in which a novice handler looked at an Agility sequence and stated that their dog couldn’t do that. Her most effective response has been to take the handler’s dog and run the obstacles herself to show the owner the difference a confident handler can make.

Handling secrets
The dog who couldn’t, according to her handler, but did with her instructor.

These experiences display the importance of making “Self-Talks” a key ingredient to succeed. I now realize that I have changed my Self-Talks and my attitude from “we can’t” to “we can.” I believe that with a new attitude and a couple of other mental tools, I have become a much better handler. The two tools I am now using are IMAGERY and TELEPATHY. How do they work?

What is Mental Imagery? In competitive sports, imagery is the process of imaging one’s performance from start to finish, employing all the senses to visualize accomplishing a goal. These techniques heighten one’s state of mind which can boost confidence and overall well-being, thus, enhancing performance. This multisensory process helps one create a vivid mental image of one’s performance in their given sport. The senses are not only mental pictures of what one is about to perform, but also a kinesthetic experience, which means one can actually feel the movement associated with performance.

How does Imagery effect performance? According to Elizabeth Quinn, MS, imagery or visualization is often referred to as “mental rehearsal or guided meditation.” This process helps one create a mental image of what you want to happen or what you want to feel in reality. I believe this can work in dog sports too, as I am now picturing my dogs running the course or hunt test as I await our turn. The more I “practice” before our turn, the more confident I feel by the time it’s our turn.

Unlike in human sports, though, there are two components to our team’s success: me and the dog. I cannot control the dog completely, but if I am mentally prepared and confident, that set of parameters can be communicated to the dog. When that confidence and mental preparation has not taken place, I tend to go to the “line” or into the ring disorganized in my thinking. My dogs sense that, and often “assume” I am in a weak state of mind, and thus, incapable of playing my part in our team’s efforts.

This is when my dogs assume a leadership role and “take over” running the test as they see fit. In that state of mind, many of my high-drive, confident dogs take charge, performing as they think best. If my luck is good that day, the dog gets it done without me; but if we have any bad luck, I am not in a position (weak, per the dog) to influence my dog effectively because I have not displayed the confidence that the dog needs to trust and believe me. Fascinating, huh?

Handling secrets
Imagery is the art of visualizing how to run a course and practicing that performance mentally before going to the line. Here I am ‘practicing.’

Preparing for events is crucial for one to develop skill at imagery so that it becomes second nature when going to events. Repetition is the only way one can fine-tune imagery skills and communicate to your doggie team member that you are confident and prepared to guide them through their course or test. It is actually more than the mental process. It is also the physical movements and timing of your nonverbal signals to your dog. Being nonverbal communicators, dogs can read your body language extremely well and far beyond what most people realize. Therefore, practicing between events and while awaiting one’s turn allows one to hone nonverbal communication skills that include the confidence and positive “Self-Talk” that will serve the team well during any canine performance sport you enjoy. Try it. Now to research Telepathy for the next issue.

Being nonverbal communicators, dogs can read your body language extremely well and far beyond what most people realize.



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