Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What Ring Nerves Have Taught Me About Reactivity

I have really bad ring nerves. I know everybody gets nervous to some degree before competition, but I’ve got it bad. In the interests of keeping this blog tasteful, I won’t explain my problems in detail, but suffice it to say, stomach medication has a prominent place on my trial packing list.

Although I’ve been working hard on curbing my ring nerves, after our last trial, I realized that ring nerves are a lot like reactivity. This realization has brought me to a whole new level of understanding of what reactivity is like, and great empathy for my dog. Today, I’m going to present you my list of how ring nerves are like reactivity.

It’s different for everyone.
It goes without saying that every person experiences ring nerves differently, both in intensity and the symptoms experienced. I have pretty intense ring nerves- I’m physically nauseous, and desperately wish I was anywhere but the trial.

It’s the same way for our dogs. Maisy’s reactivity is, thankfully, pretty mild at this point, and while she does still lunge at other dogs, a lot of the growling and barking has faded away. I believe dogs can express “reactivity” in other ways, too, but when I say this, what I really mean is that they can express their anxiety in other ways. I know it’s a fine distinction, but the term “reactivity” has come to be shorthand for “this dog lunges, barks and growls at other dogs.” Certainly, this is a part of how reactive dogs act, but the other symptoms of stress- such as physically shaking or getting the zoomies- is often overlooked as a result. I could probably write an entire post on this alone, so let’s just leave it at the idea that reactivity is different for every dog, and move on.

Even if it’s a “silly” fear, you can’t rationalize with it.
Look, I get that my performance anxiety is a bit ridiculous. At the end of the day, I still get to go home with the best dog… sometimes literally! Maisy consistently scores well, places in the ribbons, and has won her fair share of first places and high scoring ribbons. I have nothing to worry about, and heck, it’s all in fun anyway, right?

In the same manner, I can’t get upset with Maisy when she’s being reactive. I know she’s trying really hard to use the skills I’ve taught her, but sometimes whatever has triggered her is physically and emotionally out of her control. I can’t stop my stomach from hurting at a trial, and she can’t always stop herself from lunging.

You can’t “just get over it.”
And if you can, could someone please tell me how? I’ve been working really hard on conquering my ring nerves. I’ve read books, done visualization exercises, practiced deep breathing, used supplements, and even got hypnotized all in an effort to combat my anxiety. All of this has helped, but it takes time.

This realization really brought me the most empathy for my dog. I have no idea why she fears some of the things she does, but I know that I can’t force her to get over it anymore than I can make my own anxiety disappear. Instead, like with my ring nerves, we can chip away at her fears a little bit at a time using counter-conditioning. I can teach her other things to do, and reward the brilliant responses. But it takes time and patience.

Sometimes, the best you can get is less.
Inevitably, whenever you start discussing ring nerves, someone will say that when you no longer feel nervous at a trial, it’s time to stop competing. The argument is that everyone who is invested in the sport will have at least a little flutter of anxiety once in awhile. Although I don’t know that I agree with the implication- that if you aren’t nervous, you don’t care- I understand the sentiment: fear and anxiety are normal. We were designed to biologically respond to perceived threats. If we didn’t, we’d be dead. If you don’t automatically jerk your hand away from a hot stove, you’d get badly injured. Every living being has this self-protective instinct.

Over-reacting is a problem, it’s true, but most of our dogs can learn to curb their reactive impulses enough to pass as “normal.” Still, I think some of our dogs will always have reactive tendencies. Maybe they’ll never get stressed enough to fall back on their old coping strategies, but even if they do, the goal of training is to reduce both the intensity and frequency of those reactions. My dog might not ever be bomb-proof, but lessening her anxiety is certainly a worthy goal.

Comparing my ring nerves to Maisy’s reactivity has really given me a new understanding of her behavior. Although I intellectually understood all of these things, I never really got it on an emotional level. After I stopped to reflect on what my own ring nerves could teach me, I developed a new empathy for Maisy. I love my dog to pieces, and I have to trust that she’s working on her issues (with my help) as much as I’m working on mine. Together, we’re going to make it!


Jules said...

Very good post - it is an excellent parallel.

Bella and Barry the Beagles said...

Very insightful post - I've never really considered it that way but it makes so much sense.

Kristen said...

As usual, fabulous post and fabulous writing.

It's been incredibly amusing to find that I'm incredibly nervous with Griffin when all has been well with my other dogs. Taking him to -puppy- class had me shaking and feeling sick!

It's not got a lot better over time and somehow my schedule has made it impossible to get to group classes anyways...but.... trials are likely going to be a challenge.

Dawn said...

Crystal, if there is anything I can do to help, just let me know. Sometimes, having someone ringside who you can share feelings or laughter with can help. Sometimes keeping all the feelings internal can allow them to build, but expressing them can allow them to slide on by.
I do much better with my nerves when I am actively socializing than when I am trialing more by myself, I find I am less focused on the fear when I have others to watch, comment and joke with etc.

Crystal said...

Dawn, I wish I could take you up on this! You're right- being able to chat definitely helps me relax. The problem is, in part, that Maisy needs my full attention in order to remain calm and under threshold. I've found it very difficult to juggle my needs and hers while at trials. In the end, her needs win out, because she didn't choose to do this, and I did.

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

very interesting post! I am sure the 2 of you are going to great at your next trial, I cant wait to see!