What am I doing? I thought, as I gripped the steering wheel in the predawn light. I can’t do this. I am not qualified for this. These people are going to think I’m a fool. They’re going to see right past my NAVHDA T-shirt and Carhartt brush pants and know that I’m not really one of them. Just because I’m wearing the appropriate attire doesn’t mean I have what it takes.
It was 4:45 in the morning. Zara was in the back of my car, curled up in her crate. We were on our way to the NAVHDA Utility Test, the event we’d been preparing for for over a year. I’d built it up in my head as the culmination of my journey from ordinary pet owner to dedicated hunting dog competitor. It was a big deal to me, and I had thrown myself into the training. Zara had come a long way in the past two years and it felt like our hard work was finally paying off. Even so, as the sun peeked over the horizon on that momentous day, I felt like an imposter.
I was not a qualified handler. I had done everything wrong when it came to training Zara; I had started way too late. I have never even shot a gun; I certainly didn’t own one. Zara was not ready for this test, she was going to break her steadiness and everyone would think I was a fool for running her.
These were all the thoughts going through my head the morning of October 3, 2019. It was not the first time I’d experienced them in regards to dog sports, nor would it be the last. But my inexperience was easier to pass off in the show ring or on the lure coursing field, where less specialized training was needed. Dressed up in a fancy skirt at conformation events, I blended in enough if I followed the lead of the older exhibitors and tried not to look too clueless.
But I felt different at hunting events. I didn’t grow up hunting and I knew next to nothing about shotguns or where to locate birds in the wild. Zara and I had stumbled into this realm years after most people start and as a result, I had to do certain things differently. I still felt like an outsider despite the friendliness of everyone in my NAVHDA chapter. My youthful appearance and my compact Honda Fit amongst all the tricked out pickup trucks didn’t help. Even the head judge noticed it the morning of the Utility Test. He asked who was a first time handler and several of us raised our hands. His eyes narrowed in on me and my six-year-old dog. He gave us a knowing smile. “Oh, you’re running Natural Ability (the test for puppies up to 16 months of age that does not require significant training)?” he asked, his voice conveying a tone of isn’t that cute.
“Nope, Utility,” I said, with a touch of self-deprecation. They already know I’m a fake, I worried to myself.
Zara waits for me to flush a bird.
But I had come this far, and by god, I was not going to give up now. I fought back against the voice in my head. At least you are putting yourself out there, I thought forcefully. You are being brave. How many people fail to do something because they are afraid? At least you are giving it a try.
Zara and I did not make fools of ourselves that day. Far from it. As usual, she gave it her all, and I walked away feeling less like an imposter and more like a confident handler. The imposter syndrome does not go away easily. But each time you put yourself out there, you beat it back a little more.
Have you ever felt like you were not qualified for something despite evidence showing otherwise? How did you work through it?