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Ridding Ring Nerves - Siccing The Dogs On Performance Anxiety
by Charlotte Mielziner

Admittedly, getting over ring nerves is easier said than done. Nervousness shoots down the lead to your dog and notifies him we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. There are a lucky few who feel calm as a cow in clover prior to a competition. There is a larger group with anxiety that ranges from a minor jitters to being late because they are chucking up their cookies in the restroom. Then, there are those who recognize ring nerves and do something about them.

If you have performance anxiety, do what is needed to get over it, even if it requires the help of a professional. Preparing yourself for the ring is as important a part of the trial experience as proofing the dog. If this is a real problem for you, it is negatively impacting your performance and level of fun. Train you just as you do your dog.

Mental preparedness is necessary for all sports and is often neglected in canine events. It is part of leadership to reassure and control yourself. It is the same duty as keeping your dog well fed, healthy and safe from harm. It allows you the best chance of having a consistent performance during a trial. It involves improving self image, running positive mental scenarios, giving commands in a positive way. Choose to think, talk and write about what you want to happen. Walk away both physically and mentally from negative thinkers and speakers. You work too hard to have them implant a new fear or image in your mind.

Research shows dogs are the best species at reading our body language, including ourselves. Erase or minimize as many nervous physical cues as possible. Train as you show. A great eye opener to your behavior is to video tape your training sessions and show sessions and look for body language changes, such as the head tilt or facial expressions. Rate your pace; is it slower in the show? Are you distracted and fiddle with the lead? To start, pick the things you can most easily eliminate, such as poor posture or the lack of briskness and work on those. Then, assess yourself on video again. Have you improved? Good. Now what can you work on?

Recognize that stuff happens. It will. List things might pop up unexpectedly; decide how you will handle them. If there may be spots on the floor, work Leave It and Attention exercises. If your dog is auditory sensitive, gradually desensitize to clapping and other show ring sounds.

Don’t enter a trial until your dog is ready. This constitutes the entire range of learning for your pack of two, you and the dog. Most people tend to rush this phase. Fluffy may not have a solid sit-stay in class, much less a noisy auditorium, or may be unused to a scary, dog eating judge lurking behind carrying a suspicious looking clipboard, but her handler wants to get Novice out of the way so she can start working on that pesky OTCH. Not being ready terminates confidence like an assassin.

Make a few training sessions like a trial. Organize your equipment. Dress as you would for a trial. Take your dog out of the crate, warm up outside of the ring, have a volunteer with a clipboard follow you around and call a really difficult heeling pattern. Work the rest of the behaviors one time only and leave the ring. Then assess the run. Where were you mentally? Do you need to improve set ups, stand for examination, or attention? Make a list and fix the bits and pieces.

At the show, watch the heeling pattern demonstration. The heeling pattern will be the same for everyone at your level. Go and practice heeling footwork without your dog. Know it well before you go in the ring. This trick alone will raise your comfort level.

For Gosh sakes, remember to breathe. This is probably the most essential part of your last minute check list before you tell the judge "Ready." Research has shown controlling breathing calms the limbic system, relaxes the body, increases circulation to the brain, improves pain tolerance and helps people face frightening situations, like when the judge says, “Forward.”

This tip I give with love in my heart…get over yourself. This is about the dog, not you. It’s not about winning the class, or showing off, or fear of making a fool of yourself. It’s about demonstrating the beautiful human-animal bond that has developed. It is a test of where your training stands at this moment. Yesterday, it was not the same, tomorrow will be different. Remember, there is the dog, and only the dog. While you are getting ready to enter the ring and while you are in the ring there is the dog and only the dog. Make this your mantra to repeat to yourself, there is the dog and only the dog.

Don’t judge today’s performance by the last one or how your dog works in the yard or in class. When a mistake occurs and they will, treat it as an opportunity and lucky break. Now you know what to train for in the next several training sessions.

Remember to reinforce yourself for your successes. Self-reward is important to make a memorable positive impression in your brain. Most people with ring nerves tend to focus on what went wrong in a previous session and even denigrate their successes. Accept praise others offer and thank them without qualifications. You’ve earned it, truly allow yourself to enjoy it. Good luck and happy heeling!

Published: Oct 26,2008 16:12
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