Un-Still Life With Cavaliers: What Lies Within Us (The Mental Game)

Posted by on Dec 4, 2013 in Blog, Training | 7 comments

The title quote, from Ralph Waldo Emerson, is “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”  Welcome to another Dog Agility Blog Event.  The topic this time is “The Mental Game.”  Some of you may find it a little ironic that I am writing about this.  Kind of like me writing about human hair care products.  Perhaps a better mental game quote for me would be “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

You can find a link to all of today’s mental game blogs here, and I highly recommend checking out these blogs.  You will definitely be entertained, and you may find something to help you in dog agility, which most certainly is, as Yogi Berra famously said about baseball, “90 percent mental and the other half is physical.”

brainI don’t think I’m particularly known for the sharpness of my mental game, so I can probably tell you everything I know in five words:  Don’t Give Up, Give In.  Or three words:  Don’t Fight It.   I have learned this the hard way, and I have seen it in countless others.  Let me elaborate on my five plus three words with a couple of examples.

AKC people, it’s the almighty Double Q, right?  Two perfect Masters runs in the same day, and you have to do it 20 times to earn a MACH.  One refusal, no QQ.  Dog slips and knocks a bar?  No QQ.  Exit the weave poles a little early?  Miss a contact zone with a toenail?  4.99 instead of five seconds on the pause table?  Seesaw didn’t quite hit the ground?  Didn’t get your dog’s leash on after the run?  (Ouch, that’s a painful one, just saw that last weekend!)  Yup, no QQ.  How many people have you seen fight so hard, making so many tiny mistakes, to get those Double Q’s, particularly #18 through #20, only to continue to do it again so effortlessly after they have earned the MACH title?

USDAA people, the Snooker SuperQ.  Need to finish in the top 15% of your class, and if you are unlucky enough to run very small or very large dogs, then sometimes you have to win someone else’s class as well as your own to get a Super Q.  And you need three of them.  There are a lot of ways to screw this up too, and then you can be near perfect and still lose to a faster dog or better handler.  How many people finally spend years trying to get that third Super Q, finally earn that ADCH, and then they start falling on you like rain?  I think I once got one with a score of 37 (the minimum qualifying score) once I didn’t need it anymore.  Yeah that’s not luck or coincidence.  Snook1

There’s really no such thing as coincidence, you know.  No way that things just magically click into place the minute you earn that champion title.  Your dog doesn’t know s/he earned that title.  Your dog just knows you stopped being a freakin’ mental case and you both can finally enjoy agility again.  So what I’m trying to say is, let go of results but not your goals, let go of what you think the outcome should be but not execution, give in but don’t give up.  Whatever is going to happen in the end will happen, there is only so much you can do.  Train.  Prepare.  Know the course.  Know your plan.  Follow a routine that helps you and your dog get ready before the run.  And then, as the sneaker company says:  Just Do It!  Only don’t take performance enhancing drugs.  Except maybe caffeine.  Caffeine is always appropriate and sometimes critical.

And don’t obsess on the micro too much either.  See the big picture.  How many times have you fretted over a particular part of the course, spending most of your walk through in that area, only to screw up somewhere else?  Or you nail the tough part and then completely forget where to go next?  I have seen “Paralysis By Analysis,” where a handler stares at an obstacle for minutes on end, turning their big toe 3 degrees to the right to check if that will make the turn tighter.  It won’t, it will make you completely mess up the obvious.

So I guess what I’m telling you is that “The Mental Game” is not about getting yourself as worked up as possible, visualizing yourself finally earning that big ribbon and sticking your tongue out at that lady with the really fast Sheltie.  You can’t control that fast Sheltie’s run.  You and your dog cannot be perfect, and it’s unreasonable to expect it.  You must get your mind around the fact that you can control the inputs but not always the output.  Every once in a while somebody throws a red sweater into your white laundry and it all comes out pink.  Not that that’s always bad either.  Change the things you can.  Accept the things you cannot change.  Know the difference.   Wait, that sounds kind of familiar.


Patience, Grasshopper!

I am not telling you to give up, you cannot succeed.  I am not telling you not to train.  It’s not random.  You must prepare yourself for success, including believing in yourself and that you have in fact prepared your team for success.  But then let go and RUN!!!

Now, a bit of self-disclosure.  Look at something around you that is green, like a houseplant, or last night’s split pea soup, or your grandmother’s Sears refrigerator.  That was the color of my face right before my first ever MACH run with Elmo!  I didn’t know you could get seasick hundreds of miles from the coast.  It really didn’t help anything at the time, we barely made course time and I never posted the video, but I learned a lot from that experience and now I can laugh at myself when I’m too uptight.

Again, I urge you to read all of today’s Mental Game blogs HERE and I will leave you with one last awesome quote:

“We are dying from overthinking.  We are slowly killing ourselves by thinking about everything.  Think.  Think.  Think.  You can never trust the human mind anyway, it’s a death trap.”  – Anthony Hopkins

Comments (moderated) will be open for 7 days following date of publication.




  1. For me its all about the “Personal Q” :-)
    Like when Pemi launched her teeter, then “took me out at the heels” in USDAA Standard last sunday — FACEPLANT!!! But I got up, and executed a perfect ketscher right where I had planned to! Yahoo for Personal Q’s!
    Nice blog post! :-)

  2. Awesome post! Enjoyed reading every last piece of it :)

  3. “You can control the inputs, but not always the outputs.”
    Isn’t that the truth!

  4. Well said John. It has taken me years to not sweat it (much) when stepping in to the ring. I agree you can’t obsesses over the tiny details or you *will* screw up the “easy” part(s)!

    The super Q thing is so true and so much mental! Meeker and I were 0 for 8 in snooker Qs until I realized I should treat it as a numbered run and prepare/execute like the numbers were there. Then things went a lot better! The SQs will often come when you take the pressure off (yourself!)

    Really enjoyed your article!

    • Thanks Steve. Great subject to write on, so many different perspectives out there!

  5. ” Your dog doesn’t know s/he earned that title. Your dog just knows you stopped being a freakin’ mental case and you both can finally enjoy agility again.”

    Love it. This is pretty much what I had to say too. Stop worrying about the Q and just run for the love of running your dog. Otherwise, if you’re making yourself sick trying to get that qualifying score, how is that fun? What’s the point of being there, spending all that time and money, if it’s not fun?

  6. ” So what I’m trying to say is, let go of results but not your goals, let go of what you think the outcome should be but not execution, give in but don’t give up. ”

    Love this! Thank you for another great viewpoint, good stuff.


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