The Last Nerve: 11 Tools for Tackling Handler Show Stress Head On

Dogs are fun right? Showing, and seminars and workshops should be a time to relax and enjoy – the time we get paid back for all the hard work we do the rest of the time.

A celebration of all that is good, as it were.

We are learning, and sharing our passion with our best friends. Even through the stress and worry it's often glorious and educational and all the things we love most about having dogs in our life.

Sometimes though it feels like we have Pavlov sitting on one shoulder ( aka bob bailey) and nerves and anxiety sitting on the other.

Why not tackle the ring nerves and show stress head on and see what you can do to reduce them? 

Sources of Show Stress & Handler Nerves

One of the first things you can do is to identify the source of your stress – can you describe your stress in a few words? How few (reduce it to as few as you can)? What causes you to have these negative feelings? What does anxiety feel like to you?

This distillation will give you something specific to work on rather than simply worrying in a cyclical spiral.

I highly recommend testing and becoming familiar with what methods work for you when you are only slightly stressed – not in the middle of a full blown anxiety attack!

This requires awareness of the onset of nerves though – if a show makes you very nervous and posting a video on YouTube set to public makes you a little nervous, aim to get those nerves under control first!

3 Ways to Reduce Physical Symptoms of Show Stress

Physical signs of stress may include sweaty palms, racing heart, dry mouth, feeling dizzy or sick to your stomach, wanting to eat everything in sight or losing your appetite.

Three tips to experiment with in this domain are:

  1. Eating – there have been some studies shown that the action of chewing and the flavour of peppermint both have calming effects on the body. Use Science on yourself, not just in training!!
  2. Breathing – an easy and quick breathing exercise is to breathe in for the count of four and out for the count of five. Repeat. Any grounding breathing you are familiar with may be useful to rehearse here too.
  3. Practice Good Self Care – eating, sleep, hygiene, positive thinking are all elements of positive self care that can reduce stress significantly. 

5 Techniques for Reducing Emotional Symptoms of Show Stress

Emotional indicators may include being on the edge of tears, more forgetful than usual, being disorganized or falling into negative thought spirals.

If this is where you get the strongest reactions you might want to test some of these techniques:

  1. The fine art of visualizing – capture the good that happens; this could be a moment or a piece of praise from someone; and then create a mental snapshot or video you can pull out and look at when stress or nerves threaten to erupt. To start, work on recreating a good moment – eventually if it's a tool that works well, you can build your own creative visualizations of things you have yet to experience. That takes skill though, so don't get frustrated with little steps.
  2. Confidence Corner/Inspiration board – create a book, poster, bulletin board, shoe box (whatever works for you) of things that boost your morale and confidence. Photos, quotes, memories – you know what makes you feel better, so use it to benefit yourself. Refer to it when you need a boost.
  3. Move to the Music – create a playlist that will inspire you, make you happy, or remind you of good times. Use your list(s) when you train or when you do things you enjoy, so that you can associate the songs more and more with good feelings. Then use it on show or clinic days. Driving to the event, at the event, and as a boost on your way home are all times to consider using music.
  4. Finding Joy/Fun/Gratitude – it is always appropriate to stop and appreciate what is right and working in your world – whether it's connected to your dog sports or not. Write it down, say it out loud or mull it over ... challenge yourself to find pleasure in little things – then, when nerves threaten to overwhelm, you will have "STOP, and be grateful" well practiced.
  5. Record Keep – and check your records when you need a confidence boost. Remember record keeping has many uses – an important one is noting what is going well! 

3 Tips to Tackle the Social Aspects of Show Stress

Social aspects of nerves may include a strong desire to be with and engaged with people (especially if you tend to extraversion) or an equally strong desire to hide in your car or vehicle (for those with introverted tendencies). You may also be less patient and angrier or distressed than normal, quicker to blame others. 

If this is how you feel stress you will need to do a little research and see what works for you. Here are some strategies students find helpful:

  1. Fake it until you make it – you are nervous and don't want to be? Plaster a smile on your face and up your helpful, thoughtful side. Be present in the moment and push your nerves back. If they drift up to the forefront of your brain, push them back again, and again, and again until you have the habit of locking them away, well under wraps. This method is not effective for everyone, in part because it's hard work. It requires much practice before you are at threshold or beyond it.
  2. Find your Focus – thinking about your nerves can create a tail spin of negative energy – but thinking about the goals and plans you have established for your partnership can ground you and help you keep moving forwards. Planning and goal setting have a place in any work plan.
  3. Use your support group - love them, cherish them and talk to them about what worries you and brainstorm solutions with them. A journal can be a fine support group of one for one too! 

Tackle Show Stress Head On

Overall, no matter which of these strategies have resonance for you, it's important to challenge your anxious thoughts directly.

Thoughts are guests in your body (you knew I was going to fit that in somewhere didn't you??) — they are not you! You are not nervous, but rather you feel nervous. Truly, I mean this – the sooner you can accept and understand this odd concept the less nerves will run you.

Accept that you have cause to be anxious and will likely have flare ups of stress – it is going to happen.

Reframe your stress (for example nerves truly affect people who care and want to be successful – and how can wanting to be good at something be a bad thing?) and train your brain to think positively.

It will help check the stress you feel.

Keep in mind too that stress is both good and bad. Through stress you can find motivation, inspiration and power. Don't be afraid to pay attention to your body and mind, and take care of you! It's an important step to being the best partner you can be!

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