Competing in agility is like other competitive activities - it has a large mental game component to it. Whether you are competing in Novice A or the World Championships it is very important to be aware of the human mental aspect of competing.
While I coach my students frequently about the mental game and about how their stress and nervousness is conveyed to their dogs and may adversely affect performance, I was recently reminded of how it impacts me. Years ago I had horrible "last leg syndrome" and I would consistently choke when I was needing that "last leg" for a big championship title. It took me almost as long to get the last leg for Bradish's ADCH title as it did to earn all of his USDAA legs - a slight exaggeration but not by much! Then I decided I had to make a change in how I was thinking about these things in order to be able to continue to have fun and success in this game. I started reading about the mental game and I attended a Lanny Bassham seminar and read his books. I also had dogs who really needed me to be calm and to be having fun in order for them to perform well. All of these things combined to help me lower my stress at agility trials no matter what title or leg was on the line. Then last weekend at the Rochester Kennel Club AKC trial I back-slided.
I have set a goal of qualifying for AKC Nationals with Sinco. She just moved into Ex B at the May TCOTC trial and that same day earned her first double Q. Then she was pregnant and had puppies and was out all summer until St. Croix Valley. I have from then until the end of November to earn 6 double Qs and 400 points to qualify. It is a doable goal but it is a bit of a stretch goal. At St. Croix Valley it was fun just to be back running her and we got better as a team as the weekend went on. We had some Qs and some PQs that weekend. Then the next weekend was Rochester and it was the third day of the trial and I had finally Q'd in the first standard run so I had a double Q on the line. I found myself more nervous and stressed walking to the line for that JWW run than I had been in a long time. It was not fun at all. I did not run as smoothly as I wanted. We did earn a double Q on that run but it didn't feel as fun. It felt stressful and on the edge the entire time. It was a wake-up call. I need to relax and focus on what is important - having smooth and fun runs with my canine teammate and doing my part to make the run go well.
We had a weekend off which helped me to train my dog and get myself back on track mentally. This past weekend was the Bloomington trial. I was back to feeling calm and confident running Sinco again. We earned two double Qs - going 4 for 4 that weekend. I did not feel like I was going to be sick at the start line. I felt calm and confident and our runs were smooth and fun. I did my part and she was able to do her part just like we train. It was a huge reminder about the mental game in this sport. If my mental game is on then my dog is more likely to have her mental game on as well.
So things I do before I run my dogs - I visualize our runs being smooth and accurate. I visualize running the course with my eyes close - seeing all my crosses, turns, accelerations and decelerations. I start the runs the same as I do in training. I rarely "fix" things when I run a course so I just keep the flow going for my dogs so they learn running at trials is fast and fun and not stressful. I don't want my dogs to think trialing is a place to worry.
I focus on handling the course and my plan and not on the Q. The Q is the icing on the cake.
Feisty started out on Saturday this past weekend the fastest I've ever seen her at a trial. It totally surprised me and it caused us to have some bobbles but I kept going and I just let her run and we didn't do the course exactly as numbered but Feisty didn't know that. I was just as happy that she wanted to run fast and run with me as if we had Q'd. If I had fixed things or fussed over her I would have deflated her and lost all the speed. She is a very speedy dog but rarely does she show that speed in public. I need to nurture that when she chooses to show it. I know in time she may give me that speed more often and I will learn to be more ready for her to show it and ready to properly handle that fast dog. She is very fast in training so I do know how to handle her.
When we focus too much on the Q we very often create stress not only for ourselves but for our dogs. Our dogs didn't fill out the entry form to be at this trial. They are there because we made them come. Many times they may not really be in the mood to run at an agility trial and yet we make them do it anyway. If we are stressed then our dogs often pick up on our stress and they respond in various ways to our stress. They will often act very differently than they do in training. The more we put them into that situation and it is not enjoyable for the dog the less they will want to play agility at a trial. This is why changing our mindset to doing what is best for our dogs will ultimately improve the performance of our dogs at a trial.
Very often I will do short courses - either as the plan from the start line or as a change of plan based on how the dog is running on the course. With Feisty if she NQs early on a course and it is before the weaves or table I will often abort the run. I know that the table is stressful for her so why do it more than we have to do it? I also know that weaves can be stressful both mentally and physically and I feel dogs only have so many weaves in them for their life time so why waste them when it won't further our agility career. Some dogs of mine may need to practice the weaves in public so I will continue on and have them weave after an NQ. Each of my dogs is different and how I handle things on a course will be different with each of them and it will also vary from run to run and weekend to weekend. I am very sensitive as to whether one of my dogs is sore as well. The last thing I want is to associate agility with pain by running my dog when they are sore.
When my dog appears to be "naughty" I first look at my handling and whether I caused the problem, if not then I look at my stress and the external factors that may be stressing my dog and then I look at my dog's overall demeanor. Was my dog having so much fun and running so fast that they just disconnected from me out of joy for running the obstacles? If that is the case then I'm happy my dog was having fun. Was my dog so high on adrenaline that he was running like a drug addict? If this seems to be the case then I as the trainer need to try to simulate that mental condition in training more to help my dog learn to focus through it. I also need to work harder at trials to prevent that condition from happening prior to our run. Very rarely do dogs do things to intentionally upset us. Most often things happen because of our poor timing/position, of stress (ours or external factors impinging on the dog) or the dog's excitement/adrenaline.
Lastly we never know when the last agility run will be with our canine teammates. I don't want that to be on a run where I have regrets about how I felt about my dog then. I always want to leave feeling happy. Even when one of my dogs is naughty I try to joke about it and focus on the positive in the run. Then I come up with a training plan to work on whatever the problem was, especially if it is becoming a trend. A one-time thing doesn't worry me but a repetive problem becomes a training issue.
This is a game we play with our dogs and the dogs don't get to decide which trials they attend.