I have always been an anxious person. In high school, this anxiety was detrimental and impacted my ability to give presentations in front of my classmates or succeed at auditions. By the time I was finished with college and graduate school, I’d learned how to harness the anxiety and keep it in check. Even so, when I used to compete in triathlons and running races, I often found myself wracked with nerves before the race would start. This would often affect my breathing and ability to maintain a fast pace. I’m not even sure why I felt so nervous as I’m not a competitive person. I’d be fine any day I was simply training, but race day was a different story.
After getting into dog sports, some of that anxiety has gone away, I think partially because the focus is not entirely on me. While I’m a big part of whatever Zara or Colombo is doing, most of the time, people are watching them, not their handler. That’s not to say that I’m not feeling anxious when we compete. Last year, when I was at a Senior Hunt Test with Zara, I texted a friend who also competes with her dogs to tell her how nervous I was feeling. “Why do we even do these events?” I asked wryly. I found the nervousness to be uncomfortable and unpleasant. It made my hands sweaty and I feared I was going to screw Zara up. I felt the same way when I started showing Colombo, surrounded by professional handlers and women wearing suits way fancier than what I had on.
I’ve since changed my mind about this feeling, however.
Zara and I before we ran in the NAVHDA Utility Test for the first time. I felt extremely nervous beforehand. Photo by Emily Shirey.
In many of the hunting events I’ve done with Zara, I’ve gone into the day not knowing how she will do. She’s often been right on the edge of reliability, hovering in the space between a great performance or a complete disaster. This was part of the reason I’ve felt so anxious. Will we ever get to the point where it’s just easy? I’d think with dismay. I always (and still do, often) felt like I had done everything wrong in her training and we would never be able to get past a certain level.
With Colombo, we have gone to an almost countless number of shows where he has lost and I have walked away without a good idea of why. In fact, the few times he has won, I’ve been so shocked that I’ve looked at the judge with a dumbfounded stare on my face and thought, Wait, me? He is often very apathetic in the ring and before we go in, I’m worrying about whether he will let me stack him or if he’ll decide to be fidgety and ignore all the treats in my pocket.
But what will it be like to compete with a dog who’s not on edge? Who is so solid that a hunt test title or a field trial win or a conformation major is just inevitable? Who doesn’t make me nervous every time we step up to the plate?
I’m not sure I want to get to the point where entering a hunt test or a field trial or a conformation event is just a mundane experience, where I’m not nervous at all and I’m 100% confident that my dog will pass or place. Will it really be that much better? While winning is certainly nice, there’s something to be said for the hard-earned wins, which come after failing or falling short time and again.
While preparation and training go a long way, they are just dogs, and sometimes you don’t know how the result will play out. I now expect the anxiety going into an event. I know it’s going to happen and it’s part of the day. I try to appreciate the nerves and understand that it’s okay to be anxious. Being anxious signifies that the event means something. It’s not just any other day.
Do you experience nerves before competing with your dog? Leave me a comment below!