Focus - something that we always seem to want to work on in our K9 partners. To improve our performance, we frequently strive to improve and maintain our dog’s focus - for us and for the game we are playing together. Body awareness is another path to engaging and building your dog’s focus.
Athletes use visualization as a warm up technique to help them prepare their mind and body for the physical challenge to come. Visualization increases mental awareness as well as confidence, and helps connect the body and mind. Studies show over and over again how visualization - the act of going through each movement, each swing, each run, each jump mentally first - helps elite athletes perform better. Many agility handlers have incorporated visualization into their preparation for running a course. Immersing yourself in the feeling of the moment, the connection with your dog, is also visualization. We know that visualization actually trains the nerves and muscles to perform the visualized movement. So how can we bring some of the benefits we obtain from visualization to our dog? How can we get our dog’s mind connected to her body, especially in performance sports like agility, dock diving, and flyball?
While we aren’t able to get our dogs to go through the visualization process prior to a run in their favorite dog sport (or show), we can help them connect their mind and body. And we can enhance the connection to their human teammate as well. This is done through pre-performance focus drills which are comprised of certain types of body awareness movements. Pre-performance focus drills are designed to warm up the mind. And the mind controls the muscles.
But what are these pre-performance focus drills? They are exercises that require your dog to use her mind to engage her body in demonstrations of control and body awareness. They are exercises that ask your dog to think about how she is using her body. (Sounds a bit like visualization in that aspect, only you are asking your dog to actually do the movements rather than just think about them.) And no equipment is needed to get your dog thinking and connected to her body!
These exercises will warm up the connection with your dog as well. Pre-performance focus drills and body awareness exercises should never become routine. When used as a focus drill, the exercises must be varied every single time to avoid memorization and just going through the movements. The goal is to establish a better connection from you to your dog, and then from your dog’s mind to your dog’s body. Your dog should watch and listen for physical and verbal cues from you as to what to do, and then your dog should execute them with accuracy and precision. This precision demonstrates a solid connection between the mind and body, and between you and your dog.
The focus drills do not replace a physical warm-up, but should be done after a 5-10 minute general warm-up such as brisk walking or trotting. Once your dog’s muscles, tendons and ligaments have warmed up, it's time to warm up and connect the brain. Without the focus component of a warm-up, we are losing out on very real benefits - mental awareness of the body, confidence, and the ability to accurately control the body.