What To Do When It All Goes Wrong: Dealing with Frustration & Failure in Dog Sports

Dealing with disappointment in the heat of the moment is tough. 

When you expect success and glory and are instead embarrassed, mortified, or otherwise upset it's a pretty human reaction to get upset, distressed, angry or uncomfortable. 

There are a whole lot of techniques and tools that we can apply to the aftermath of such a stressful moment. In that exact moment, though, when you look at your canine partner and think "WHO ARE YOU?" or "I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS" or whatever other negative thought stops your brain from functioning — well what can you do?

Frustration & Failure Happen. To Everyone.

When your dog poops on the dog walk, barks at the judge in the hat, or runs off to visit everyone in sight, it's pretty natural to want the earth to open up and swallow you.

BUT — and I offer you this but with all kinds of understanding and appreciation that you will want to argue with me about this — being upset won't help you, or your dog, move forward, achieve your goals or otherwise improve your performance.

It might, in the very short term make you feel a little bit better – but anger won't help you for long.

Stress hormones shut down the rational and thinking parts of the brain, which is where your distress sits. If you are angry, you won't feel the same way you would if you were thinking.

But we get to control our reactions. We get to control our thoughts. We are adults and we are doing something we love. Remember that.

This is a game, a sport, a passion. No one makes us live with or love dogs.

Dealing With Frustration & Failure In the Moment

How can we remember that even in the heat of the moment? By thinking it through ahead of time and having a plan in place. By practicing these steps when the stakes are less high. By experimenting to see which of these techniques will work best for you and your dog.

You might find all the steps helpful and sequential. Or, you might prefer to pick two or three out and use them in your own order. Whatever works for you is fine.

  1. Head it off – you know you are upset. Find space, put your dog up in their crate with a bone. Do whatever it takes to remember you control your emotions. In this moment, don't take it out on yourself or your dog. You likely know it won't be pretty. Protect yourself and your canine.
  2. Accept the truth – it wasn't nice. It might have been awful. You might even have been sure it was going to suck ahead of time. No matter now. It's happened. But making excuses to yourself likely won't help you feel better.
  3. Don't take it personally – this is always a tough one. This thing, whatever it is, simply is. You do not need to disparage yourself, or your dog. Things happen. And, when "our ball has brains," to quote one of my first agility coaches, things happen that are beyond our control. More often than we would like. 
  4. Don't listen to the critics. If it was bad enough, they'll be waiting for you with comments. Some of the comments may be said with the best of intentions, but might still wound you. There is nothing wrong with telling EVERYONE that right now is not the time for a conversation. You can say thank you and keep moving, or plug in ear buds. There is no one you must listen to immediately except yourself and your dog.
  5. Recognize that you have choices – you are not a victim. There are solutions to the issues that came up. You have the skills and knowledge to work through them – with your partner, friends, and support. You get to chose to be graceful and gracious. Use this ability.
  6. Breathe - take a few (3-5) deep breaths, in through your nose and exhale slowly. This dissipates cortisol (stress hormone) by oxygenating your blood and reduces your reactivity. It kicks your brain back into thinking mode! In the heat of the moment you want to be thinking – you can cry on the way home if you need to!
  7. Is there a silver lining you can see? Check. If you can't find something in the moment that's ok – but if you can so much the better! What have you learned? What thoughtfulness have you been shown? Who were you able to connect with? Has there been any progress at all? Sometimes when we are upset it's easy to forget that there has been growth. Look for it. Perhaps you were both more relaxed on the way to the show. It could be the warm up was smooth. These improvements can get lost and even forgotten in the heat of a bad moment or run.
  8. Be kind to yourself, and your canine. You've done the best you were able to do in this specific moment, at this specific time. You experienced something, quite possibly something you had no intention of learning, but you still got educated. You put yourself out there and tested your readiness and preparation. There will be another opportunity for success after you take the lessons of the day and develop a plan to address the gaps and needs you identified.

Things do go wrong. Your dog is not always the partner dreamt of. You are human, this is life. Recognizing these facts as truth can help prepare you for the rough days, patches, and dogs that help us become the very best trainers we can be.

E103: Deb Jones - "Train it before you need it"
E102: Hannah Branigan - "Awesome Obedience"