OK, I get that everyone else talks about “getting in the zone” and so you’re probably thinking I’m being my wonderfully bizarre self (sometimes I just need to pump myself up with happy thoughts) flipping phrases around, and meanwhile you really want to shout out “hey dummy, why are you talking about getting in the bubble, it’s supposed to be zone” – am I right? I mean, really, a bubble is mostly just hot air (if blown by mouth), which means it is hot air surrounded by soap. Yuck, hot breath and soap? Bubble? Really?
Well, the answer is simple, I had these really neat bubble photos by Susan Roy Nelson and I wanted to share them somewhere on my blog with you. So, for purposes of this article we’re going to be talking about “getting into the bubble” because I think bubbles are pretty, they float, they make me think of lightness and air, they are calm and serene, but mostly because I have photos of bubbles to share that Susan took and they are awesomely fun! Besides, what’s a stupid zone look like anyway? A No Parking Zone? A Loading Zone? Those aren’t cute visions and the photos would be boring and probably ugly to boot. So bubbles it is – we’ll be “getting in the bubble’ to show our dogs.
I’m no stranger to ring nerves and with just a bit of thought I can still recall the terror of my early days in the sport. Yep, it was terror I experienced back then and it felt something like a panic attack magnified by an earthquake with chasms in the earth opening all around me. You’ll never get me to believe there is anyone who has never had that rolling stomach madness – “oh my God I’m going to puke” – “just whose bright idea was this?” – “what the hell am I doing here and damn, where is that exit sign ’cause I gotta run?” scrambling through their brain in thin, never wavering, ever-increasing lines like ants racing to a picnic. And, despite my agonizing and growing panic attack my Gordon would be gazing up at me with those ever adoring eyes, drool hanging from his lip or flipped cavalierly over his muzzle , his nose and inch from my pocket just pleading with all his heart and soul for those special cookies I’d tucked in there. He didn’t care much about the ants running around in my brain. “Frankly Scarlett, I don’t give a damn, not about your ants or your exploding brain”. That might just have been his actual thought, if dogs could have thoughts in people talk. What do dogs think I wonder? What does it sound like to them when they think a thought? Is it like the little voices I hear in my head when I’m thinking? …oh, wait, that’s another story!
Now then, what are we going to do to get the ants out of your head, and bubbles on your brain instead when you’re heading into the ring with that Gordon Setter of yours?
Well, there’s an old wives tale that’s told ’round the show ring, kind of like the tales of the wild west told ’round the campfire, that goes “if you get nervous it will travel straight down the lead to the dog”. I ask you, if our dogs are that good at reading our feelings through the lead, then how the heck is it, that my Gordon Setter, who has decided to drag me willy nilly down the street as he plunges after the streaking stray cat that ran across the road front of us, how is it that he doesn’t know that I’m mad as hell? I mean, if my feelings are traveling down the lead shouldn’t he be just a little bit frightened by the murderous feeling that erupted the instant he ripped my arm from its socket when he dove madly after the cat? See now, you’re smiling at how absurd that all sounded – that’s the bubble stuff working – focusing on the here and now – focusing on bubbles and breathing – yes breathing too – breathing is good so we’ll throw that in there for good measure.
Focus on the NOW (the bubble) and not the “WHAT IF”(that bubble popping thingamajiggy) if you want to overcome ring nerves
The “what if” thoughts are the nasty, biting, little red ant trails that got in your head. See it’s like this, you have one ant trail heading north screaming “will Gordon behave, what if he acts up?” Another ant trail heading east crossing the northbound lane that’s hollering “what if he trips me and I fall” while a third ant trail heads southwest chattering “I sure hope my underwear don’t show when I bend over in this tight skirt” and – ok – well – you get the picture, you’re head’s full of “what if” thoughts and none of them are pretty. Hey, it’s completely natural for handlers, especially new owner handlers, to feel nervous or apprehensive before going in the ring, but I can promise you for sure that even if something were to go wrong for you, it’s already happened a couple hundred million times before, and everyone before you survived to tell the tale…around the campfire, out west, if that’s your preferred story telling spot! So let’s get out the “Brain Raid” and spray those nasty little ant trail thoughts until they’re all dead, crunchy, little bodies and your brain is free again and floating in a clear bubble.
I get it, it’s not that easy and there is no such thing as Brain Raid so how’s that going to work? You’re right, it was probably a stupid idea to use Raid. Yes, I know it’s true that no matter how much you practice outside the ring you can still get really, really nervous in the ring, and when you get nervous you change, even if it’s only fractionally, the way you do things. And when you change things up a bit, that my friends is what goes down the lead to the dog, a new and different signal, and that is what gets the dog confused about your intentions. He’s not sure anymore what you want from him, so then he behaves differently than you wanted him to, and from there the whole thing can take a downward spiral into a mixed up, jumbled up mess fulfilling your worst nightmare. What travels down the lead to the dog are your intentions, and if they are the same signals inside the ring that you gave him outside the ring you’re in the bubble. If they’re not the same signals because you’re nervous, well then you’re in trouble. Not nearly as pretty to see as a bubble.
Think about this. How many times have you seen someone outside the ring stacking or letting their dog self stack, gaiting the dog up and back, that kind of thing? Well that’s what I mean about practicing signals with a dog. Handler does this, dog does that, the world’s a happy place. And when the dog did what that handler wanted they rewarded the dog with a big hug, loads of praise or a crazy, wild, happy “atta boy”! They reward the dog with GUSTO to reinforce the good behavior! But then, the steward calls their number, that handler goes in the ring with that same dog and suddenly you can hear a pin drop around that person! No verbal words of encouragement, no sweet talking, no whispering in the dog’s ear “you’re my baby” and no handy, dandy liver treats. Not even a pat on the head. Total silence and just physical contact from the handler via the lead. Now, since the dog doesn’t know why their handler is giving them the silent treatment nor why they put away the cookie jar, the dog can get pretty confused. These aren’t the signals he’s used to. And that is the turning point, when it starts to show in how the dog performs. Think your dog is ring smart, turning off the minute they walk in the ring? Sorry, but it may have been you who taught him to do just that.
Guess what? The solution to this problem is simple! You don’t need to teach your dog new tricks, you’re going to teach yourself a few instead. Start with keeping your focus on what you need to do and stop allowing your thoughts to stray to worrying about the judge, your peers, or all the things that might go wrong. I know, I know, it sounds simpler than it is, but really it’s not that hard…just picture yourself, focus your thoughts, on being in the bubble, right then at that very moment!
No switching persona when you walk in the ring, just you, your dog, the judge – oh, and your bubble! What you do outside the ring, at class, at home, where ever and when ever you practice with your dog, well for crying out loud just continue to communicate that way with your dog in the ring, do what you do when training your dog, do the things you do to let him know he’s responding as you want, don’t change a thing (well handstands, handstands might have to be left off if you do those to reward your dog. And maybe back flips, those might look out of place in the ring also so maybe your dog can do without those happy gestures, but besides for those two things don’t change a thing). If you act the same, send the same signals and communicate with your dog the same way in the ring as you do outside of it, your dog will respond just like you expect him to – well most of the time anyway; sometimes there are butterflies to chase, birds overhead, a flipping, floating plastic bag, or some crazy good-looking bitch two rings down! But crazy, funny happenstance aside, by concentrating on being in the bubble, with that bubble being your goal and the signals you need to send for you and your dog to achieve that goal. Concentrate on your bubble and you will find that you automatically focus yourself on the task at hand rather than on those ants in your head, you’ll be “in the bubble.” And bubbles are marvelous, and bubbles can win!
…for those moments of extreme duress
sing a little song
In the wine
Make me happy
Make me feel fine
drink a little wine!
Sally Gift, Mesa AZ
Photos by Susan Roy Nelson, WY
Song lyrics – Tiny Bubbles by Don Ho