People talk about it all the time; when we are stressed or anxious it affects our dogs. Whether it affects their ring performance or their everyday behavior, dog owners are pretty clear; their own stress appears to create stress in their dogs. We attribute this to a connection we have with them. Like when seeing a loved one upset makes us cry, we believe our dogs become anxious when they observe our anxiety. I remember being taught that my nerves could literally translate straight down my leash; or that my dog could smell my stress on my breath. To combat this I was told just get out of novice (obedience) so you’re not holding that leash anymore, or suck a mint before you go into the ring! The truth is anxiety didn’t travel through a mystical force down my leash anymore than I could mask the scent of stress hormones with a mint (because as a friend so eloquently put it, when you smell apple pie you smell apple pie. Your dog smells every single spice, every single ingredient, all at once. We can not mask scent!). So if it isn’t an unstoppable condition spreading to our dogs like a virus, why do our dogs seem to act so different in the ring when our ring stress is over-the-top?
Common approaches (besides not holding the leash, sucking a mint, burning sage, or chanting) all seem to center on our dogs. We want to teach them not to react to our stress. We want them to perform as we expect them to under any circumstances, including extreme stress emitting from us, their handlers. What if the better way to go is to focus on ourselves?
I can hear it now, “It’s not that easy! I can’t just not be nervous!”
Trust me, if anyone knows how true that statement is, it’s me. I am in no way suggesting that handlers suddenly change their emotional state overnight. I am suggesting that instead we operationalize “nervous” or “stressed” and proceed to change the behaviors that define them. When you are nervous your movements might become dull, or exaggerated. You may mix up your cues, saying “heel” when you mean to say “take it,” or “tunnel” when you mean to say “tire.” You might even have physiological symptoms like a dry mouth, labored breathing, sweaty palms, or affected vision that will all cause subtle (or extreme) changes in your behavior. All of these will certainly affect your dog’s performance because your cues will be inconsistent or unclear–if you were NOT nervous but you were sloppy with your timing or cues your dog’s performance would still suffer. Handlers who are capable of remaining consistent through their very real nerves still get great results in competition.
You’re still saying it. “Sarah! It still sounds like you’re telling me to be less nervous.”
I have a suggestion. Fake it.
Figure out how a non-nervous you acts and then act that way. If non-nervous you breathes at a certain pace, breathe at that pace. If non-nervous you gives your dog direct feedback outside the ring, making eye contact and talking to her, then do that. If non-nervous you uses clear and deliberate movements on course, really work on being able to do that in a nervous state. In short, if you are seeing your nerves affect your dog, stop trying to focus on your nerves and focus on your behavior instead. Give it a shot, let me know how it goes.