What is the zone?
To a batter in baseball, sometimes the ball seems as large as a basketball— to a Mason laying stone, every stone he reaches for is the right one— and to a trainer working with an animal, sometimes it feels like you both speak the same language. Although originally a sports term, “being in the zone” is something that I think we have all experienced at one time or another. It is that place where everything seems to come effortlessly; a place where time is slowed, our thinking is crystal, and our actions are second nature.
The psychology of getting into the zone is a multimillion (if not billion) dollar industry and it reaches across all areas of endeavor. Sports psychologists are paid millions of dollars every year to help athletes attain this Zen like state. A quick search of “how do I get into the zone” on Google yields 317,000,000 hits for books, articles, websites, psychologists, videos, and other resources about the subject. I definitely think it is a worthwhile subject of study for us as trainers, and I’d like to share some practical things that we can do as dog trainers to help us attain this state more often.
Have a plan for the unplanned.
The best trainers know that although we often have plan for “formal” training sessions, having a plan for our impromptu sessions is also key. In reality a training “event” can last only a few seconds, knowing exactly what you are going to do when your dog jumps on you, prevents reaction on your part. Instead you will start to notice the subtle cues that precede your dog jumping up and will be able to act as if you knew it was coming (because you did).
Avoid being hyper focused on the dog.
I know this sounds like a contradiction but hear me out. Sometimes we get so locked into the dog, analyzing their body language and actions, that we forget that they are reacting to us. Be aware of your own body language and movement— remember that even the slightest change in our body posture or gestures can be a huge difference to an animal that discerns tiny movements for a living.
Hand in hand with being aware of our body language is being aware of our emotional state. While I don’t agree with Cesar Milan that dogs sense energy vibrations; I do believe that they can see tension in our bodies and that they can smell changes in our body odor given off by the chemicals produced by emotions. We all feel tense, angry, and frustrated at times and avoiding training during those times will lead to more times in the zone.
Visualize your weak points as well as your good.
Many people think that visualizing anything negative is counter-productive but I strongly disagree. I have always been a person that is quick to anger. It is something that I work on constantly as I try and develop new habits to replace my old ones, but it is not something I will accomplish overnight. I have found that by visualizing unwanted responses as well as wanted responses, I am better able to deal with them; and by having more positive outcomes with these frustrating situations, both dog and trainer become reinforced and begin to trust in each other as partners.
Above all, realize that the zone is not reached by chance.
Being in the zone is not something that happens by accident, it is the result of being prepared both physically and mentally for the challenges you face when training. Through thoughtful and deliberate preparation on our part, the training zone will be reached more and more often and both we and our dogs will be the better for it.
We would love to hear your stories of training success. Tell us how you prepare to get into the training zone.
Kevin, Jackie, Gavin, Annie, Tosha, Elbee