Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ring Stress and the Obedience Dog, Part III

Stress and The Handler

Like they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step in solving it. When our dogs fall apart in the ring, it's unfair to place all the blame on them. Most of us deal with varying degrees of stress when we show and it can have a very real effect on our dogs' performances.

Think about what happens when you find yourself in a stressful situation like the show ring or giving a presentation at work or even going to the dentist.

Your heart rate accelerates, adrenaline churns into your bloodstream, your body temperature rises (the ring really is NOT 10 degrees hotter than the rest of the show site) and you may perspire more freely. Your muscles may tense up in response to a possible fight-or-flight reaction built into our DNA by ancestors years ago when being too relaxed or unobservant could lead to being eaten by something faster and more observant than you were.

You know people are watching you and judging your actions or they might do something unpleasant to you (dentist!) so you may have unusual facial expressions and different posture/body language as you try to appear big and bold or wish very hard you could disappear. Stress is obviously more than just “all in your head.” It’s a very real, physical thing.

Stress is not necessarily a BAD thing. It makes us more alert and focused. It may give us a little extra edge. But if you have too much stress or don’t know how to channel and manage it, it can really screw things up when it comes to showing because it changes the picture your dog sees in regular training where you are not a stressball. As you walk into the ring, you may become very strange indeed.

Depending on your level of experience or what you perceive to be “at stake,” you may look so uncomfortable and unhappy your dog may think YOU want to get out of the ring. (Although I loved the point several readers have made about being such newbies that they didn’t know enough to be nervous and worried! Good for you!)

It’s over simplifying things to say “It’s just a dog show, don’t get all freaked out.” Yeah, we all know it’s JUST a dog show, but we also know it’s way more than that! It’s a sport we are passionate about. We want it to be fun. We want to be successful. We want to show the world how awesome our dog is. We don’t want to look like idiots.

Here are a few things that have helped me deal with my own stress level in the days leading up to a show and the hours and minutes before we go into the ring.

• First, define your goals. What do you want to achieve with your dog in the long term (his entire career)? How about short term (the next few months)? What do you want to achieve in the ring today? Breaking your goals down makes them feel more achievable and not so overwhelming. It takes the pressure off. You don’t HAVE to be perfect today in order to still make progress toward your end goal.

• Have a plan. I’ve found that having something specific I want to accomplish in the ring at any given trial, something I have planned to do in advance, makes me feel more like our run is in my control, not like the judge is calling all the shots and I’m only reacting. It can be something as simple as remembering to smile during signals or working on your heeling footwork. If you’re a bit of a control freak like me, this helps A LOT. Even if you fail on the score sheet, you can still feel successful because you did what you set out to do.

• Are you prepared? Being prepared will go a long way to relieving nerves. Training should give both you and your dog the confidence to work as a team no matter where you are. That’s no guarantee you are going to win or even qualify but going into the ring with a mind full of doubts is just asking for trouble.

• Take pressure off yourself. Your dog doesn’t care if he wins the class or NQs. He just wants (even if it doesn’t show at the moment) to have fun with you because you are his world. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Imagine something absolutely ridiculous, like everyone wearing Royal Ascot-style hats to show their dogs in or an exercise where the dog has to herd frogs and have a good laugh.

• What can you learn from your dog today? Instead of going into zombie handler mode, think about what your dog may be telling you at the show, both in and out of the ring. What can you learn from him to make showing a happier and/or more successful experience? What can you change in your training to make you and your dog a better team? Thinking about your dog gives your brain something constructive to do.

• Keep a positive outlook. Speak positively about your dog and how you think you’ll do in the ring. Instead of worrying about a less-than-ideal ring set-up, think about how you could re-create it in training next week. Choose your friends carefully - avoid those people who are chronically unhappy about everything from where they parked to the order of judging in their class. Seriously, if you show long enough, you’ll start to recognize these people. Run, don’t walk, away! Crate with friends who know how to laugh.

• Success breeds success. Think back to a show where everything went right and you had a great time. The weather was great, all your friends were there, your dog was awesome and there were excellent vendors. Remember how you felt that day? Make THAT your happy place and go there as often as you need to. Mentally relive your successes, don’t dwell on failures.

• Reading list: It’s certainly not a new release but Jane Savoie’s “It’s Not Just About The Ribbons” is a great read. It addresses the mental aspect of training and competing and how to develop a positive outlook and get through frustrations and setbacks. There are probably more books available along this line but I really like Jane Savoie’s because they are based on human/animal teamwork.

The next stress post will probably be the most important one: training to prevent stress. It may take me a couple of days to get it written because there are some things I want to say very carefully (to make them clear, not that they are in any way bad thoughts) and they’re still rattling around in my head in a very disorganized order.


  1. You are spot on about being positive and seeing the positives in the performance. I take that one step further and point out the positives to my friends and their performances and when I do that I find that they return the favor! We all know when something goes wrong and the last thing we need is to be reminded of it the second we step out of the ring! Focus on the things that went right and the next time the ones that went wrong will more than likely be right!

  2. what about a dog that seems calm & attentive outside the ring but then falls apart inside ?

  3. I am looking forward to the next installment!