When we begun our collaboration with Mia, we had many long talks regarding her unique way of training dogs. We spent countless hours discussing about dog training: the importance of emotions, why we should understand the individuality of our dogs and the important role of the handler. Once we started to prepare our online lecture about her training methods, it became clear that Mia was actually talking about the flow in dog training.
The flow state1 (also often called as the zone) is a psychological state, which is described by athletes as an almost euphoric state of joy and pleasure. We are completely involved in the activity for its own sake. In a flow state we are so deeply focused on a task that everything else disappears, including the worrying about failure. A flow state is almost automatic, effortless, and at the same time a highly focused state of consciousness.
Figure 1. This picture illustrates how flow contributes to the optimal learning experiences and optimal performances regardless of the task. The flow state can be achieved when the task demands and the skill level are in balance. Adapted from Csikszentmihalyi (1990).
There is much research available about the flow state in different sports. Some researchers claim that flow happens more often in sports than in other activities or tasks. One reason is that all sport have clear structure, rules, and criteria for the exercises; these makes it somewhat easier to reach the flow.
Whether we are at a competition or doing our daily training with our dogs, we would like them to perform enthusiastically, feeling confident and totally focused on the task, and to consider the exercises rewarding. We do our best to provide clear feedback and to use the best possible reward. We plan our training according to our dog’s skill level, and the same time keeping in mind our dog’s individuality. These elements are needed for excellent performance, and all these are perquisites of the flow state.
How can you help your dog reach flow while training?
- Choose a challenging enough task that requires your dog’s intense concentration and commitment
- Keep task demands and skill level in balance:
Too demanding task – dog might get confused and insecure
Too easy task – dog might get bored and loose interest
- Task needs to be clear for the dog – make sure you have clear criteria and goals. Remember to provide immediate feedback. If the task is unclear your dog might need to spend most of it’s mental energy trying to understand what you are asking it to do. The dog might end up being discouraged, if it does not know what it needs to do.
- When teaching new things – clear away any distractions and start the training when your dog is good with energy and is able to concentrate.
- The dog’s emotional state needs to be positive and enthusiastic – you can teach the dog to love the work you do together.
- The dog needs to feel confident – you can strengthen your dog’s confidence by planning the trainings according to your dog’s skill level and keeping the trainings inspiring and rewarding. A confident and committed dog knows exactly what it needs do, and it does not fear failure.
Success in dog training does not only require a highly trained dog, equally important is the mindset and skills of the handler. If you would like to hear more about Mia’s training methods and to understand how to reach flow with your dog, you can find our lecture about this here.
Flow state enables high performance, this is however not the only reason why I consider flow to be important in dog sports. Flow state has many positive side-effects. When we are aiming to reach the flow, we are enhancing the focus, confidence and positive emotional state of our dog. This benefits the connection with our dog, making the exercises even more inspiring and rewarding for our dog.
Here we have almost solely focused on the dog. However, I would state that a flow state in dog sport actually relates to the entire training philosophy. By following this path we are in fact increasing the possibility to reach the flow as a team. And trust me – when you have been once able to reach the flow, you most definitely want to experience it again.
1Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (Vol. 1990). New York: Harper & Row.
2Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sports. Human Kinetics.
3Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (Eds.). (1992). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge university press.