Today is “Bell’s Let’s Talk Day” where the Bell company does a media blitz to increase social awareness of mental health, and to promote people disclosing mental health challenges.
As a Business Professor with a background in Psychology, I have researched the impact of harassment on mental health, the impact of physical and mental health on employee knowledge sharing and job engagement type behaviors. I have also witnessed the impact of mental health on my university students’ productivity, focus and well-being in my classrooms over the years.
However, what is important yet not discussed often is the role of mental health in agility. Having gone through my own mental health challenge in 2006-2009 (chronic post-traumatic stress symptoms from a work incident), I know how it impacted my ability to focus and achieve things in the sport of agility. At the same time, I know how important agility was for me as a safe haven to find a reprieve and glimpses of joy during that time of “Hell on Earth.” For that reason, my boy Baxter (who passed away at the young age of 9, seen in the feature painting above) has a very dear and important space in my heart. He was my protector of joy.
Over the years, I have noticed that dogs are an excellent mirror for handlers’ mental health challenges. Sometimes training challenges or stress-related behaviours exhibited by the dog may stem from the handler’s hidden challenges. While, as the instructor, it is not my job to be a therapist. In fact it would be highly irresponsible and negligent of me to try and play that role; however, as a Mental Health First Aider, I find it important to have a safe environment for students, and to be open to listening or asking about things that are not agility.
Providing support for the handler to access appropriate help or assistance, and even simply listening without judgment can reduce the stress or strain of carrying mental health challenges. This is turn may help their agility time be more enjoyable and successful.
To all agility instructors and to those who serve as fellow training companions, I highly recommend you not only have canine and human first aid training, but also to get Mental Health First Aid training.
Creating a positive, safe and open environment not only helps improve handlers’ success in learning the sport, but it can also provide an avenue for mental wellness.
We know positive reinforcement and non-force training works well for the mental health of our dogs. We also need to remember the same applies to the humans around us.
For more information on Mental Health First Aid, please refer to the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s website. It is highly informative and it may even help save a life.