I like the analogy of the conscious/subconscious parts of our minds being like a jockey and a horse (I fully admit this idea came from another hypnotist but I like it so much I'm going to use it here). Our conscious mind is like a jockey, making rational, logical decisions about how to guide the horse around the race track. We like to think that the jockey is in control but the reality is that not so much. The horse of course is the subconscious part of our mind and it's the one who's really in control. It goes around the track because it wants to not because the jockey tells it to. The jockey may encourage and guide it and have the illusion of control but in the end the horse has the final say. And sometimes the horse chooses to defy the jockey. Maybe it develops a fear at a certain part of the racetrack, stopping in its tracks and rearing up, refusing to go any further and the jockey has no idea why because up until today the horse went around that corner of the track without batting an eye. Maybe the jockey communicates poorly or is abusive and the horse decides it's had enough. Or the jockey is afraid and passes his fears onto the horse. Perhaps the jockey is doing everything right but the horse still won't perform for whatever unknown reason. And while it's important to work on the jockey's skills, the key to it all is working with the horse.
There are interesting studies of elite professional baseball hitters that show that the key to their success is not their reflexes, which are average or in some cases below average, but rather their ability to anticipate where the ball will go. They're subconsciously able to read the body language of the pitcher, anticipate where the ball will go and thus prepare for the hit well in advance of the ball reaching them. The process is completely automatic, the hitters don't even realize they're doing it. I suspect those handlers that move like poetry in motion with their dogs are doing the same thing. And our dogs do this as well, sometimes not to our advantage when they anticipate the wrong thing. But how do you build this automatic, subconscious skill if it doesn't come naturally? It's all about working with the horse.
So how do we talk to the horse? Well, there are lots of ways and it depends on the person but with practice it's easy to do. It's all about getting your mind in a relaxed drifty state so that it's very open to suggestion, conscious defenses and self-limiting beliefs fade away, and we can go in and make suggestions to the horse, create some new, better self-beliefs, restore the horse's faith in the jockey, calm the horse's fears. In a clinical office setting this is easy and once you've experienced it it becomes easier each time and you can learn to do it for yourself. However there are some techniques you can do on your own. One thing you can do is to focus on your breathing. Close your eyes and start to pay attention to your breathing, no right way or wrong way to be breathing but rather just focusing your mind on the way your breathing feels. Noticing the way it feels and sounds when the air enters your nostrils. Noticing how it feels as the air fills your lungs, noticing that place where the breath turns around and the feeling of your lungs emptying out, the sound of the air leaving your nostrils. After several breaths you probably notice your heart rate slowing a bit, your breathing becoming heavier and more relaxed and your mind starting to relax and letting go. You feel yourself only in the present moment, thoughts of the past and future drifting away. And then maybe you can start to imagine going through a particular sequence with your dog, every handling move perfectly timed and the dog responding easily, with plenty of time to react. Or perhaps you imagine yourself stepping into the ring and up to the start line brimming with confidence, those chemicals that used to make you nervous and give you butterflies in your stomach now making you feel excited and energized instead.
Getting excited rather than nervous about the mass swim start at Xterra Off-Road Triathlon Nationals.
The Light Switch Technique is another method I use to teach my clients self-hypnosis . The following is the handout I give to clients that explains the technique. It's easier to do if you've already been formally hypnotized in a clinical setting but still you can get the idea.
Light Switch Technique
When you’re first learning self-hypnosis, do this 5 times a day for about a minute. You can leave sticky notes around your house/work/school to remind you to practice.
1. Place your finger up as if on a light switch in the ‘on’ position.
2. Move you finger downward as if flicking off a light switch and close your eyes at the same time.
3. Put yourself into hypnosis by counting yourself down a staircase of 10 stairs to a special place where you feel safe, comfortable and relaxed.
4. When you’re first starting off you can spend the minute putting yourself in hypnosis and enjoying your special place. Eventually you should be able to put yourself into a nice relaxed state more quickly and you can use the remaining time to give yourself positive suggestions.
5. There are 2 rules for the suggestions. They must be positive and they must be for something you want rather than for something you don’t want.
6. At the end of the minute, move your finger up as if turning the light switch back on and open your eyes at the same time.
You can do longer sessions eventually if you like but when you’re first learning it’s better to do more short sessions rather than fewer longer sessions.
There are things that the jockey can do as well. Telling the horse how awesome he is is perhaps the most important thing the jockey can do. Smacking the horse with a whip and telling him how much he sucks is not going to help the horse have faith in the jockey. So be mindful of the negative self talk. Reframe it to positive self talk. Fake and pretend if you have to. Eventually the horse will start believing it and so will the jockey. Look at failures as learning opportunities rather than reasons to smack the horse with the whip.
Another thing the jockey can do is not absorb other people's negative emotions at a trial. Trials are full of all sorts of different people with different ideas of what is the best way to make it through the day. They're not trying to irritate you or purposely screw up your day, they're just going through their day with their own version of the world and this will not always line up with yours. Anybody who's been to more than 2 dog trials knows that at some point somebody is going to do something or say something that pisses you off. Being angry or irritated at some stupid thing that someone did is not going to help the horse. And if someone is having a bad day and intentionally spreading around their unpleasantness, well, it doesn't mean you have to buy into it. Just because someone throws crap at you doesn't mean you have to catch it and put it in your pocket.
And perhaps most importantly of all, make sure to take time before your run to connect with your dog. It's so easy to lose sight of our partner in the chaos of waiting our turn to go into the ring but it's so important to put all the other mental techniques aside and spend that mental energy on connecting with our bestest buddy before going into the ring. It helps prepare your dog mentally because his mental preparation is important too but it also reminds us of that special bond we have and what is really important here. In the grand scheme of things our time with our dogs is so fleeting and special, it's good to take those few moments to look into our dog's eyes and remember to savor every run.
If anybody has any questions about anything or would like to see more posts on this subject leave a note in the comments sections and I'll be happy to answer questions and entertain other posts. And if anybody is interested in exploring sports hypnosis my website is: www.newdayrisinghypno.com I'm happy to answer more involved questions via phone and I do Skype sessions as well.
This post is part of Dog Agility Blog Event Day. Go here to read more posts on the topic.