You don't have to be a great physical athlete to have great timing.
And I've seen two of the best in the world prove it.
I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, during the era of Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oiler NHL hockey dynasty, and watched the hockey legend magically appear in the right place night after night.
In university, I played pick-up basketball at lunch hour against a young high school kid named Steve Nash, who turned out to be one of the NBA greats.
Both of these players seemed pretty average from a physical perspective. They were both relatively small guys, not remarkable athletes to look at, yet somehow managed to stand out among other athletes who were incredible physical specimens.
How did they do it?
Both Gretzky and Nash were 'students of the game'.
They saw the play developing well before other players did and could anticipate what was going to happen, so they could get places quicker and make decisions sooner than others.
They were always two steps ahead of everyone else and had incredible timing.
As a result, both players created easy scoring opportunities for teammates even when the teammate didn't always see it.
(Teammates often got hit in the head with the ball if they weren't ready for some unbelievable pass from Nash, both in the pick-up games and in the NBA. Gretzky's teammates could often have a puck land unexpectedly right on their stick blade for an easy shot on net.)
So, great idea, right? But how does this relate to you?
You may not be the youngest, the quickest, or the most graceful athlete on the agility field, but if you can be two steps mentally ahead of your dog, you can still have incredible reaction time and brilliant timing.
So how do you get two steps ahead?
Become a student of your dog. Get inside your dog's head. Learn to anticipate what he's going to do.
A top handler in another dog sport once said to me, "It's not so much that dogs mature at 5 years old, it's more a matter of that's when the handler finally figures the dog out."
Top handlers see hints and signs of what the dog is thinking well before average handlers do.
This ability to anticipate is almost like looking into the future — when you can guess what your dog is going to do, you get a head start, a bigger window of time to react and handle appropriately.
It's similar to good car drivers who look far up the road and make subtle corrections as opposed to poor drivers who over-correct or react late (or don't react at all) because they only look at what's right in front of them and don't see situations developing ahead.
You need to really 'see' your dog, so you can learn his cues and anticipate what he might do.
When you're inside your own head, you can't 'see' — you aren't aware of what's happening right in front you. Most handlers are too busy trying to run the course "right", and they're lucky to see a fuzzy blur, never mind actually seeing the dog's beady little eyes and what off-course obstacle he might be contemplating.
The more you study the game, the more familiar you get with what YOU are doing, the more brain space you have for your dog.
Sure, he needs to be well-trained, but that's only part of the equation.
The more aware you are of your dog, the better your timing will be, so you can be a great teammate to the living, breathing individual in front of you, able to balance between trusting what he knows and helping when he has questions.
Do you see the signs your dog gives you?
Is he confident, worried, over-stimulated? Can you see that he's asking a question?
A stuttering dog is not a committed dog. A dog that's watching you is not a committed dog. A dog that is worried and hesitant will not commit as early as a dog that feels confident blasting through a line of jumps toward a tunnel.
Watch videos of your runs and your training to learn when YOUR dog is committed or not committed to an obstacle.
"Running a dog well is an organic thing, a conversation between two living beings. You've got to be fully present to be connected. Get out of your head. There's no time for analysis or judgment." - Kathy Keats
By the way, the commitment point is not just a location, it is an intention or decision to follow through with a behaviour.
The commitment point is that instant when the dog commits to his INTENT to do a behaviour such as take a jump. (This can also be to commit to the gap between obstacles as in a threadle, or a commitment to stay with the handler.)
A dog that commits well is a key component for you to be able to handle with great timing. It gives you a window of opportunity to move to your next handling position.
If you have to babysit to guarantee your dog's commitment, you are a prisoner — doomed to be consistently late.
Commitment is a dynamic thing and changes with speed, level of excitement, angle of approach and handler intent, among other things. Once he truly commits, it usually takes an extreme act on the part of the handler to change the dog's mind (and some cases not even then).
You need to learn the physical cues your dog gives when he DECIDES to take the obstacle, such as eyes snapping forward to the obstacle, a strong confident stride to the take-off point, speed toward the obstacle, and other more subtle signs.
Study what situations cause him to refuse or go off-course.
It's often (but not always) more complicated than simply 'there was a tunnel'. Some dogs commit sooner than others, some like certain obstacles more than others, some are more affected by speed, or obstacles location and angles.
High dogs often run better in technical sequences because it keeps them collected. Dogs with lower motivation tend to do better on open courses. The timing of their commitment to obstacles will change based on the speed, flow and technical difficulty of the course.
Where do you need to pay attention and where can you let go a bit?
Knowing these things helps you to anticipate what your dog is going to do, and can speed up your reaction time.
But it can also cause you to ASSUME (when you assume, you disconnect with your dog and don't give him enough information because you assume he knows what you're thinking without seeing the early signals).
When you anticipate, you are ready, but still flexible to respond. You stay connected.
You don't need to be a brilliant athlete to be a brilliant handler. You need to be a student of the game and of your dog.
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