Playing Games with your Mind



Me (walking a course): “This isn’t going to go well.” 

Friend: “Be positive!” 

Me: “OK, I’m positive this isn’t going to go well.”

Today is Dog Agility Blogger action day, and the topic is The Mental Game. As you might guess, from my little exchange above, I am not the best person to speak to mental management–basically because I don’t have any. I cannot pretend that I don’t care about the Q, and while I can rejoice in great parts of a beautiful run with one minor mistake, frankly I would rather have a messy Q. To me, telling me to stop caring about the Q is right up there with “try not to think about an elephant.” (this, by the way, is known as “ironic process theory” , now my second favorite name for anything right after “Munchausen’s By Proxy”)   So why am I participating in this blogging day, then? Because even though I sneakily feel that “mental game” = “magical thinking”, there are some things that CAN help us get through a day with somewhat less pain and suffering than we otherwise might have. I mean, this IS (for most of us) a hobby, and it IS supposed to be fun. This list is geared towards novice handlers, but I earned my first title in 1996 and I have to remind myself sometimes too.


  1. Go to the bathroom before you walk your course. Particularly if there are only, like, 2 stalls in the women’s room and you are in the FAR ring. There is usually a rush to the bathroom in the 5 minutes between walk through and first dog on line, so unless you are the 40th dog in the ring, that’s the wrong time to have to stand in line. Even if you don’t THINK you have to go–go. (yes, men, this may not apply to you. Or it might?)
  2. If you can (and it doesn’t cut in to your bathroom time), volunteer for the class before yours. Often courses are nested these days (even if the course is a completely different class) and you can get an idea of what’s working and what isn’t. Plus it’s a nice thing to do.
  3. If you are nervous, have a mint. It will help settle your stomach, and it seems to mask the smell of fear!
  4. This should be obvious, but make time to take your DOG for a potty break also.


  1. Be prepared to punt. If that front cross doesn’t work out, know what you’ll do to get your dog to the next obstacle. Know what MIGHT need extra support. Example: I was the chute straightener for Ex/Masters 20″ recently, and saw many dogs pulled off the chute because the handlers moved early on a lateral send. I had a 12″ Open dog with basically the same sequence, so I made sure I gave her extra support at the chute–we wasted a little yardage, but did not get a refusal (and did qualify).
  2. Don’t assume that your handling choice is wrong just because nobody else is making the same choice. On the other hand, DO take into account why the handlers are making that choice. Hopefully someone you know is there–ask them!
  3. Don’t obsess over off-course possibilities. Think about what you would do if you DID want that off-course obstacle–then don’t do that! Many handlers CAUSE off-courses by trying to block the off-course obstacle.


  1. DON’T let anyone rush you, but DO be prepared. Make sure you check the running order right after walk throughs. The order usually changes. If the person before you has a conflict, you might have to run sooner than you think. If the person before you leaves the course for one reason or another, you might have to run sooner than you think. If the person before you MACHs, you might have to wait longer than you think. If the person before you has trouble catching their dog, or many bars go down, or there is a jump height change, you might have to wait longer than you think. Know where you can drop your toys/treats, and be aware of how that might affect your dog. Make sure the gate steward knows where you are, and be aware that although your dog is a special snowflake, if he’s a black and white Border Collie or a sable Sheltie, the gate steward likely isn’t going to be able to tell your dog from all the other ones there. If you are nearby and paying attention, the gate steward is much less likely to start screaming at you! Feeling flustered and rushed is not good for your mental game.
  2. By the same token, if you are planning to leave the ring early for whatever reason, or if you have a MACH on the line, kindly let the person after you know about that so that THEY can be prepared.
  3. If your dog has an odd name (particularly if it’s a language other than the gate steward’s native tongue), tell the gate steward how to pronounce it so that you actually KNOW when you are called.
  4. Make sure your dog has a legal leash and collar for the venue you are competing in. More times than I can count I have seen nice runs NQ’d due to tags, or due to a collar when the rules require that no collar be worn.


  1. Walk on, take a breath. Scan the course for dropped bars, displaced tunnel entrances, messed-up weaves, out of place ring crew. You want to focus on your dog, but it is the competitor’s responsibility to know that the course is OK before they start, and the timer might not see what you see.
  2. DON’T give up on your dog. Sometimes when a run has gone completely south and you are totally out of sync, the best thing to do is to leave, but if mistakes happen, keep handling! You can often pull something great out of a not-so-great run–and sometimes you get a gift.
  3. It bears repeating–99% of the time, anything that goes wrong was caused by you. 1% of the time, stuff happens.


  1. Don’t obsess over what went wrong. Think about how to fix it.
  2. Love your dog.

One Response to “Playing Games with your Mind”

  1. tundrah Says:

    Great advice, all of it! I’ve been doing this not as long as you, but long enough to “know better”, and I still forget some of these things. I have always been vigilant about pottying my dogs throughout the day, but recently we were at a new site, was a bit off my usual routine, and totally forgot to let one of my dogs have the chance to go. Luckily I pulled him before he went in the ring but I felt really bad about it. We all need a reminder sometimes.

    Also love your “special snowflake” comment. Made me laugh out loud. Right now my dogs dont look like ANY others, so we usually get identified pretty quick. Someday I won’t have that luxury I am sure. 😉

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