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Above photo by Emily Shirey.

About a month ago, Zara and I attended the Vizsla Club of America’s National Field Trial. This event is held once a year at various locations around the U.S. It’s somewhat similar to the National Gun Dog Championship, although participants handle their dogs off horseback and the format is different. This event attracts the best field trial vizslas from around the country and winning (or placing in) the event is a high honor. Like many of things Zara and I have done together, participating in this trial was something I never would have considered even a few years ago.

I was sitting next to my car an hour or so before Zara was scheduled to run and I was fighting off major anxiety. The negative thoughts would not stop. I can’t do this, I thought. Zara had met the qualifications to be at this event, even though it was maybe a little bit of a stretch of her abilities. I entered her knowing that the odds were probably not in our favor, but I wanted to give her the chance at this prestigious event. I could have taken her to a local trial that weekend instead, where the competition was likely not as high. But that would have been the easy route.

I found myself thinking, I can see why people hire professional handlers. If someone else was running my dog, it would take the pressure off of me. This pre-performance anxiety was almost too much to bear. I couldn’t wait to get the run over with to stop the sensation.

I wrote about this anxiety a while ago, but as I’ve become more familiar with it, I thought it was worth revisiting. There are ways to talk yourself off the ledge if you find the same thing happening to you.

Zara and I waiting to do duck search during her December 2022 NAVHDA Utility Test. Even though this was my sixth(!) time handling her in the UT test, I felt the familiar sense of doubt at the beginning of the day.

Acknowledge Your Thoughts/Feelings

Nerves and anxiety are very real. You’re not a “weak” person if you feel nervous and there’s certainly nothing wrong with you. It’s totally okay! If this is a common occurrence for you, recognize the pattern. For me, I know that I will always feel anxious before some sort of dog competition. I will also doubt myself every time. Just knowing that helps me work through these feelings.

Even though I always feel nervous, it does get easier the more you compete/run your dog/participate in events. You become more experienced and you have a better sense of what to expect. Also, on your second, third, or fourteenth time, you know that you will ultimately make it through like you have in the past. But what if this is your first time?

Take Care of Yourself Physically

Even if your mind is running with negative thoughts, there are steps in your control to help make it a little easier. Taking care of your physical needs is important. It’s certainly not going to help your mental state if you are hungry, tired, hot, cold, or have to use the bathroom. So get enough sleep the night before. I realize this can be a challenge sometimes. When Zara and I went to the NAVHDA Invitational this year, I was so anxious I felt like I didn’t sleep well for three days. Getting up at 5am every morning didn’t help either. But do your best to go to bed early so you’re not super tired.

When I attend field trials or NAVHDA events where I’m on my feet most of the day and running around, I find that I don’t have the patience to sit down and eat a proper meal. Instead, I try to eat a lot of snacks and small meals. There’s certain foods that I’ve found to be easier to stomach when I’m nervous than others and I stick to those. It may take you a while to figure out what foods work best, but you definitely want to try to eat something before you run your dog. Feeling faint is definitely not going to help your anxiety.

You should also take care to dress appropriately. Wear comfortable shoes. This applies whether you are running around the conformation ring or walking on uneven ground at a field trial. For field events, always pack a raincoat and a hat. Wear layers. If you’re walking, you will likely get hot during the run even if it’s cold out. For example, if you’re comfortable in a medium weight jacket and vest while standing around, you’ll probably want to take off the jacket when it’s your turn to run your dog – otherwise you’ll likely be sweating by the end.

Conformation has been a difficult sport for me to learn. There’s been a lot of self-doubt since we have lost so many times. At this event, Colombo was awarded Winner’s Dog and Best of Winners, however! 

Reason With Yourself

When you find yourself feeling anxious, reason with yourself. You have to try to conquer the negative internal voice. First of all, it helps to be prepared for whatever event you find yourself at. Make sure you put the effort in ahead of time, so that you can reassure yourself that you and your dog are ready. “Trust your dog” is a mantra I think about a lot when I handle Zara in field events. My rational side understands that Zara knows what to do and that we have put in plenty of preparation. I have to convince my irrational side that this is the case.

Think about the consequences if things don’t go as well as you’d like. What’s the worst that will happen? If Zara makes a mistake and we get picked up at a field trial, so what? We will be in the same place we were before the field trial. She’s still my best girl. You should also allow yourself to think, what if things go well? What if we win? That is certainly possible too! I try to think about past successes we’ve had, which can help turn off the negative voice.

I also know that as much as the pre-run thoughts are hard to deal with, I always feel better once the event has started and I’m in the moment. I may still be nervous, but it’s less pronounced, because I’m concentrating on what I’m doing.

Don’t Let the Competition Intimidate You

It’s a different world participating in competitive instead of noncompetitive events. When I’m at a NAVHDA test, everyone is very supportive and cheering each other on. If every single handler got a Prize 1 (which is the highest) that day, everyone would be thrilled! But a field trial or a conformation show is much different. The other handlers are your competition. Even if your dog gives their best performance, it still may not be enough to beat the other dogs.

Sometimes, reading the running order or looking at the catalog of entries is a bad idea. While it’s probably necessary so you know when you will be competing, seeing who else is going to be there can psych you out. I’ve certainly felt this. I will feel prepared and like we have a chance, and then after looking at the list, I’ll think, there’s no way we can win now. 

To deal with this, I try to have several goals for an event. My main goal is something I can control or has nothing to do with the other competitors. If Colombo and I are in the show ring, my main goal might be to have him focus on me and eat food when I offer it. If Zara and I are at a field trial, my main goal might be to make sure she’s standing staunch and solid before I call a point. My second goal might be to make it around clean without any errors that would cause us to get picked up. And my “reach” goal might be to win the stake or earn a placement. If you have multiple goals like this, you won’t be as disappointed if you don’t win. Chances are, even if you met your baseline goal, the event can be viewed as a success.

Another piece of advice I try to remind myself is to keep my head in the game. It’s often not over til it’s over. What do I mean by that? Something may happen when you are handling your dog that is less than ideal. Maybe your dog took an extra step or two when the bird flushed at a trial or your dog wouldn’t put his ears up in the conformation ring when the judge was looking. It’s easy to focus on the negative, but you don’t always know how the other dogs are performing. Maybe despite that “error”, the judge still thinks your dog is the best. Keep going and finish your performance strong even if you think you are out.

This applies to noncompetitive NAVHDA tests too. All NAVHDA tests are all-day events with multiple sections. If something doesn’t go right at the first event, you should still try your best at everything else. Your dog may not have performed as poorly as you thought and you could still get the score you want if everything else goes well.

I hope this post is helpful. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

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