I have been watching agility for years now. Most of the time, I am watching so I can assess how the a course or surface will impact my clients’ bodies. But, when I have time, I watch as a sport psychologist (academic training). The human/canine athletic team bond is like no other. Dogs are not only in tune with their teammates’ body language, but also their smells and their mental and emotional states. This means that if you have been having teeter issues and you conciously or unconciously anticipate “the teeter,” your dog will pickup on some body movement, odor, or aura that then creates anxiety in the dog. And more times than not, the teeter will continue to be a problem until one time you run the course and “just go for it, instead of signalling to your dog “course anxiety.” Many times, people bring their dogs to me because “they are not right.” They seem anxious. People need to assess their own anxiety levels. Most of the dogs are so in tume with their owners that they pickup on the anxiety of an upcoming MACH, PACH, last few points for Nationals, etc.
The unique thing about the canine/human bond is that the dog is so in tune with you that their anxiety levels can mimic yours. Hence, if you are worried about the course, the “Q”, etc., the dog feels it prior to going in. If you shrug your shoulders, raise your voice, or show dismay during the run, the dog may shut down or loose focus. A good example, of how your mental and emotional states influence your dog’s mental and emotional states, is the dog that I massage regularly. I can tell by the feel of his neck if he and his owner have had a good run. He holds his stress in his neck. I will jokingly mention that obviously the owner was not happy with the run. She now will tell me ahead of time what I might find. Another example of how important understanding how your anxiety level can impact your dog is the comment I hear regularly, “He always does it in practice. I don’t understand.” My first thought is that when you are in practice, neither you or your dog are running under competition circumstances. Those circumstances for your dog include noises, close proximity to dogs, distractions not in practice, and your reaction to being in a competitive situation. I would recommend if this happens frequently, that you have your trainer or someone video you at practice without you knowing when they do it. Then buy or video your runs and compare the two videos to see if your body language, tone of voice, and general behavior is different. If so, you need to try to identify your mental and emotional states in practice and try to develop those for competition But you also have to be in tune with your dog’s anxiety level too before you start to develop a program to get you and your dog to the team optimal anxiety level for performance. Developing good mental skills takes the same amount of repetitve practice that one engages in to learn handling skills. If you would like more information on developing a program to develop your mental skills, feel free to contact me.