The Best in Show ring had seven marvelous dogs handled by seven experienced handlers, but one, a friend, was in trouble. She was uncharacteristically sweaty and grim-faced, and her intensity was throwing her off her game. This was a new and unexpected look for a person who had as many Best in Show rosettes at home as I had fingers and toes. She wasn’t ill, I later learned, she was beset with nerves.
Performance anxiety could be called “The Great Equalizer,“ the one thing that can undo a nervous competitor with a good dog while giving the advantage to a calmer handler with a weaker entry. As my friend proved, it can strike the most seasoned handler – but why? Why would an professional handler, or an amateur showing their dog at a professional level, succumb to an emotion usually seen in beginners?
Newcomers to the sport are often intimidated by their professional counterparts in the ring. What they see are seasoned handlers used to being scrutinized, while for many “newbies,” the breed ring is the only time they’re required to “perform” in public. In the eyes of an awe struck beginner, pros have the great dogs, are ring savvy, comfortable with judges and seem oblivious to getting nervous. How is a novice ever expected to beat that “package?” But is this view of the expert handler always accurate?
Research gives us insights into the “science of winning and losing,” some of it gleaned from, of all things, ballroom dancing which has more parallels to showing a dog than one might think. In one study, competitive dancers were divided into three groups sorted by their level of experience. Dancers who’d been in fewer than 80 competitions were in one group, while dancers who had competed over 80 times were in another. The third group was comprised of dancers who’d been in more than 173 competitions, seasoned partners who had practiced and performed repeatedly for years. That last group of dancers should have been able to perform, figuratively speaking, in their sleep since muscle memory alone would take over, but that’s not what saliva samples taken from the dancers during competition revealed. The saliva extracted from sponges the dancers chewed on measured cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormones, and the biochemistry indicated that intense stress reaction was the same across the board regardless of experience: The competitors didn’t habituate to being judged no matter how long they’d been competing. Scientists learned from this and similar experiments that everyone has stress response, but it’s how a competitor interprets the stress that can put a beginner with a good dog on equal footing with a pro also handling a good dog.
When it comes to how we react to stress, not everything is in our control. Some researchers have suggested that each of us is either a “worrier” or a “warrior” as determined by the dopamine in our bodies, and how efficiently our enzymes manage excess levels of it. Volumes of self-help books have been written about how to cope with performance anxiety, including how to handle stress if we are a “worrier” or a “warrior.” What I find more interesting, however, is that much about winning and losing in a show ring can be learned by studying other sports. Researchers know from studying NASCAR races, for example, that the more frequently people compete against the same field of competitors, the lower the psychological value of bragging rights are from having won that race. This could explain why most professional handlers are unfazed in a group or Best in Show ring: It’s just another day at the office for them, and their “co-workers” (other handlers) are people they expect to see. This can change, however, when the prize (or the particular dog show) has a high emotional value to the competitor.
The Best in Show ring in which my friend from the first paragraph was competing was on the floor of Madison Square Garden, and the show was Westminster, arguably the Super Bowl of dog shows in this country. My friend later said (only half jokingly, I think) that had the floor been anything other than the famous green carpet of Westminster, she might have fared better and avoided the, “OMG, I’m in Best in Show at Westminster” moment. Instead, the green carpeting evoked in her a visceral reaction to the significance of her surroundings, and turned the spectators, her friends among them (and normally a part of competition that always “juiced her up”) into a crowd of expert evaluators there to judge her without mercy. Instead of visualizing the audience in their underwear, as public speaking coaches often advise their clients, my friend felt as if the spectators were fully clothed, but she was the one running around in her Victoria’s Secrets. A novice in the same position might have viewed having friends in the audience as a supportive comfort, but for some expert handlers, having friends in the audience at an important show only increases their sense of having high expectations that are harder to meet. As a professional handler once told me, high expectations can force a competitor to think too much rather rely on “going through the motions,” a level of predictability that a dog needs from its handler. Trying too hard can sabotage the handler and their dog. The bigger the emotional value of a show is to a handler, the greater the potential for the handler to feel nervous while a novice might just be happy to be there.
I love the fact that ours is one of the few sports where a beginner can compete with experts, but I vividly recall my own days as a clueless novice, and that compels me to offer encouragement to the “newbies” reading this. Seasoned handlers tend to have better dogs because they’ve learned how to evaluate them; Because of this, these handlers also know how to accentuate their dog’s attributes while minimizing faults. Experienced handlers know how to encounter different scenarios in the ring because they’ve handled long enough to have encountered, and overcome, most of them before. If it seems that seasoned handlers handle their dogs in the ring seamlessly, it’s because they do it a lot.
That said, and with all other things being equal, they don’t always win the war of nerves, and that is a battle a novice can win.
This article first appeared in Dogs in Review, September 2015, under the title, “Performance Anxiety in the Ring”