Originally Published in
American Border Collie Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
One of the most difficult experiences for the new handler is getting up in front of the whole world, at a trial, to run your dog. While walking to the post, you feel the butterflies so intensely in your own stomach that, you can't imagine anyone else being as nervous as you are. Let me tell you, almost everyone who runs a dog and runs well is, at least, a little nervous. Most of us, and I include myself in that group, can be really nervous the minutes before our run.
The difference between handlers and their anxieties is that good handlers are able to block out the distractions that are bothering them and CONCENTRATE on running their dog. Many times I've had someone say to me "you are so calm, I wish I could stay that calm when I run a dog." Believe me I might appear to be calm, but down inside I have a whole butterfly collection stirring in my stomach. However, once I send my dog on the outrun I'm concentrating on nothing but my run.
Total concentration is not as easy as it sounds. Too many people are concerned not about what is actually happening, but what other people think is happening. They worry their dog looks weak or out of control. They should be concentrating on how to pull their dog out of the situation and get back into scoring the highest possible points on the run. Many times I've seen one of the great handlers have a wreck at the very beginning of their run and be able to collect themselves and put their team back into a high scoring run. This takes concentration.
"What if?" This is the most common question or concern I hear from people as they prepare to run their dog. What if my dog runs too wide? What if my dog doesn't find the sheep? What if my dog gets stuck? If you have those doubts in your mind you aren't concentrating and you're certainly not expecting to do well. You are putting a negative thought in your mind and you will more than likely apply that negative thought to your run. A person needs to picture a good run in their mind and leave the negative thoughts at home.
I always say to myself if I have any doubts about an upcoming run, "if it gets bad, I can always walk off." This seems to take most of the pressure off that I may feel before a run that I might have a doubt about. I find that there is no disgrace in coming off the field with a run that I don't think is the quality that I committed to running. Too many people feel that a trial is a place to train or get experience with their poor run. A trial is a place to exhibit the progress and experience of you and your dog. Training should take place at home.
To relieve some of my nerves before my run, I try to spend some time with my dog. I take it out a few runs before my turn and spend time thinking on possibilities about the run. Remember not to think negative or "what if,' thoughts, but how to handle situations as they might arise. Your dog probably knows they're about to run at a trial. Your teammate might need some help from you, the team captain, to help calm their own nerves. Here's a tip! I find that if the dog is extremely nervous, that it sometimes helps to get your dog out early and then put them back in their crate before the run. This way they are never quite sure when their run is.
Most people get upset if they are the first dog to run in the running order. Running first has both its advantages and disadvantages. However to relieve that anxiety about running first, I usually expect to run first when I show up to the trial. Then when I get the program and I am listed first, it's "ok" because that's what I expected. If I am listed down the running order -- then I consider that to be a bonus. Try not to worry about where you are in the running order.
Each lot of sheep is usually different; you try to do the best you can with what you have. Don't worry about the packet you have drawn. Get on with the task at hand. As you prepare to take your dog out on the course you should always remember the basics. For example, it is obvious that you do not want them seeing the sheep, from the previous run, going into the exhaust pen. I find, with experience, the dog learns that when you face your body toward the sheep that they learn the sheep are in that general direction. They should actually start to trust that you know what are doing. Remember to keep your body facing the sheep even if your dog is having difficulties finding the sheep. Usually getting a dog to its sheep is a matter of experience and the dog learning to trust your judgment.
Hopefully with experience you can learn to relax as you prepare to go out on the field. Trials are a competition based on teamwork. Your thoughts as you go out onto the trial field should be focused on your team, not the other teams in the competition. If you can learn to concentrate and focus on what is happening during your run, you can start to leave your nerves back at the pickup where they belong.