It is inspiring to follow training and competition performances of famous handlers around the world. We admire their achievements. We might wonder how they became so successful. How much time do they spend on training? What does their training routine look like? How come they are not affected by the pressure? How often do they do physical exercises with their dog?
What we see in championships is just a small glance of the hard work they have done for many many years.
But what actually makes a talented handler?
I have listed here my view of the top ten skills and abilities of a good dog handler. These skills can be present and trained at any level. You can become a talented dog handler even before your first competition. You will notice that some of these skill you probably already have, and luckily all these elements are something we can improve and train.
1. Love and respect your dog. The relationship with our dog is unique, and many studies have shown what we already know by experience: the attachment and affective bond between owner and dog is strong. The will to succeed should not blur your empathy or override your love for your dog.
2. Understand your dogs individuality. Learning to understand your dog’s personality is one of the intriguing challenges of dog sports.
3. Clear and consistent communication between a dog and handler is highly important. And this applies to both verbal and non-verbal communication. If your dog doesn’t understand you, he won’t be able to work with you.
4. Use every opportunity to gain more experience. Great dog handlers aren’t just born that way! It is often helpful to observe other handlers when they are interacting with their dogs, maybe you can copy something from them. Also use critique and feedback wisely to evaluate your behaviors. Consider feedback as a tool to improve your performance and behaviour, rather than getting defensive or upset.
5. Cherish a growth mindset. Great handlers understand that there is still much to learn. Be curious and excited about learning more, and dedicate yourself to knowledge and improvement.
6. Cultivate self-reflection and responsibility. Don’t just blame others when things don’t go as planned; look at yourself also. Frequently the mistakes are ours, not that of the dog or anyone else for that matter. If we accept our responsibility when things go wrong, then we can improve and take whatever actions needed to correct our performance.
7. Train mental skill. Training your dog can be sometimes stressful and competitions can increase your tension, stress and anxiety even more. You can develop and train coping mechanisms that will help you to deal with the stress of competition.
8. Spend time with your dog! Doing things together also outside the training field will benefit you both. This free time will enhance your connection and the wellbeing of both of you will increase. Surely we all appreciate some leisure time and relaxation.
9. Pay attention to the small details. Use your inner critic intentionally to help you evaluate your training progress and to recognize areas of improvement. Be consistent with your training, but do not forget to build flexibility. Sometimes you might need to adjust your training methods.
10. Have patience. Learning takes time, and teaching processes cannot be rushed. The handler and the dog both need time to learn new things and to get to know each other. The magic lies in the excellent basics. Every day training happens step by step, and some parts might take a very long time.