Pressure is a sign of having something to lose
"I hear that word pressure all the time..... I don't put a lot of pressure on myself. I feel if I play my game, it will take care of itself."
Winnie and I were fortunate enough to participate in a Nose Work seminar instructed by Jill Marie O'Brien, one of the founding members of NACSW. Having had a one day seminar with Jill at Colorado K9 NoseWork Camp in October, I was familiar with her teaching style and eager to learn more. The searches were challenging and fun, the advice and instruction was clear and where there were doubts or questions, the information was presented in a different way or elaborated upon. Jill patiently took time to address everyone's issues tactfully and with skill based upon her vast knowledge and broad experience. Jill offers instruction during the searches and even narrates the action to keep auditors and other working team handlers interested and included. The support is gladly accepted as Jill aptly orchestrates the dance, even telling us when to reward intending to catch the dog at the exact point of understanding maximizing the dog and handler's learning.
I stayed focused, took in as much information as I could during our searches and learned a lot watching other teams. Towards the end of day two, I began to feel increasingly discombobulated and confused. Winnie was doing things during her searches that I just didn't recognize. Winnie was continuing to search but not in her usual style and I was still hearing and seeing what Jill was saying, but felt detached. I was fumbling with the leash, awkward with treats and my timing was a disaster. When I tried to articulate a question that didn't really identify my feelings, my questions were answered but it didn’t really remove from my mind the confusion.
In the past, I have expressed my enjoyment of trialing. I enjoy it with Winnie because it’s our adventure. I enjoy trials, lessons, classes, all of it with equality. I don’t think of trialing in a competitive nature. I don’t even think about the judges, I just think about me and Winnie spending a day having fun. I have heard handlers express feelings of pressure, and I have observed instructors help with advice on managing said pressures. After attending the weekend's Nose Work seminar I was miffed by the fact that it left me feeling unfamiliarly down, confused, deflated. I think I was feeling pressure. I know myself well enough to understand the chemistry that was happening, tired and hungry are my worst enemies. I have coached myself into allowing time for everything to soak in after an intense learning event . Usually a meal, a good night's sleep and then my mind begins to process.
When I look back at the videos from that weekend, Winnie's and my searches don't look at all like they felt. The searches felt clumsy and awkward and frustrating, but that’s not how they looked, Winnie looked like she always does during the first few searches. But what was happening were changes based on the learning I was doing while Winnie searched. I was doing different things, changing the leash from one hand or the other, reaching into my pocket or holding treats in my hand, things that Winnie hadn’t had me do before and search by search it was effecting Winnie. The last two searches, we didn't have someone videoing but I saw in real time an unrecognizable Winnie during the searches. She continued seemingly to regress and began doing undesirable behaviors I have worked to change like pawing on containers or alerting at distractors. She was staying at found hides refusing to move on like she used to do when we were learning multiple hide searches. Winnie was reverting to things that had gotten attention before because maybe she didn't know what else to do. How befuddled were we both.
I, too, had reverted to some of my bad habits; stopping my movement, staring at Winnie, fumbling with the treats. I was listening to Jill and wasn't fully focused on Winnie. I felt for the first time ever completely disconnect from Winnie. Maybe I should have stopped Winnie. My instinct was to gracefully excuse us from the last searches, but I ignored it. In retrospect, it may have been the best thing for Winnie to opt out of the final search and quit while we're ahead, or stop before we both fell completely apart. In steps that familiar twist of fate where you had such a good day skiing and decide to squeeze in one more run before you quit for the day and that's the run when you break your leg!
Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, shoulda, woulda, coulda. Truth be told, as painful as it was, I learned a lot in those last two searches. I saw what Winnie looks like when she's tired or confused, or concerned because I'm confused. I have an idea of how some handlers feel with dogs that are distracted by the floor in an Interior search or a flock of grazing geese in a field beyond a vehicle search. I will no longer feel sympathy, but rather the much more productive empathy and I will have a deeper appreciation for those working with their dog thru all kinda things. I can see how one can go from feeling pressure to feeling nervous and it is a vicious downward circle. Now, I understand why some of us feel pressure at a trial.
It is my belief that pressure is what we feel when we resist change and pressure comes from our fear of an outcome beyond our control. I know it is easier said than done, but let go of the need to control things, forget about the end results and just enjoy the process. Forget about your peers, or judges or the need to have a ribbon or title because you spent money on entry fees, gasoline, hotel accommodations. We are setting ourselves up for disappointment by placing value on the outcome.
It's been a few weeks since the seminar and Winnie and I have continued on. I find my enthusiasm renewed by the support of the trainers we are lucky enough to have on a weekly basis. For Winnie and I, I can feel our development as a sniffing dog team has moved again forward. The study of physics of odor and mechanics of handling continue to be exercised for maximum fitness and now we add in some mental aspects, too. Our mental fitness has only been challenged a few times; there was the excessive pawing at source we will always have to revisit with strong practices to counter it. Then there was buried in the ground hides. We had to work thru that which didn't just become fixed with a lesson or two. Our connection as a team became stronger when together we figured it out.
So on we go together in bliss, holding on to our lackadaisical attitude that serves us well. Learning as we go, always taking in as much knowledge as we can, applying to ourselves what fits, filing away for future use the rest. Grateful am I we are still a pair of seriously silly sniffers who will enjoy sniffing another day. Happy Holidays to all and happy sniffing in the coming year!