Ep. 9: Confessions of a Nervous Competitor

Nov 28, 2018

Strap in and get ready for some real talk! In this episode, we share the confessions of a nervous competitor...who also happens to be a professional trainer and a trial official. "What, they are not perfect?!" Nope.

By sharing her story, the hope is this will help fellow competitors who are also nervous about competing. This could be their battle with self-doubt, fears of not being flawless when they compete, or their obsession with outside forces that have nothing to do with the quality of their training (what other people think, etc.). Being open and honest about these things will hopefully be a launching point for future conversations we can all have as a community.


  • Dianna L. Santos


Welcome to the All About Scent Work Podcast. This is where we're going to be talking about halting Scent Work. We'll be giving you a behind the scenes look as far as what's your instructor or trial officials may be going through giving you training tips and much more.

In this episode, we're going to be talking about what it's like to be a nervous competitor, particularly when you're already a professional trainer and you've actually worked for a competition organization before and how that could be a little challenging. Before we start diving into the podcast, allow me to do a very quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos, I'm the Owner and Lead Instructor for both Scent Work University and Dog Sport University. These are online dog training platforms that are designed to provide outstanding instruction to as many people as possible regardless of whether they're near a dog trainer or not. I've also been a trial official with United States Canine Scent Sports as well as AKC Scent Work. I'm a Certified Nose Work Instructor through the NACSW and I've been teaching group classes since 2011. So now you know a little bit more about me, let's get started in the podcast.

Now, I don't think that being nervous when you're competing is a rare thing. I think that a lot of people can relate to the fact that you could become nervous when it's your time to step up to the line. Are you going to do well? Is there something you were going to forget? What about your long line? Are you going to be doing patterns? What if you say something incorrect? There's a lot of reasons why you would be nervous, but when you're an instructor and a trial official, I think there's an added level of stress. So in this podcast, what I wanted to do was just to document how I feel about the whole thing and the challenges that I faced that are all put on by myself, no one is causing this to happen to me. This all a personal thing that I'm going through.

But I don't think that it's a strange thing. I don't think that it's an anomaly. I think it's actually fairly common. So my goal is to hopefully help someone else not feel so nervous to realize just how much weight we give to trials and it's not to say the trials aren't important. Is that to say that I'm trying to diminish anyone's training, but at the end of the day, this is a game and if you don't pass a particular trial, it's not the end of the world. Your life is not going to come to an end. It may feel like that at the time, but that's not really the case. So again, the point of this podcast is just to really let you know how I'm dealing with this stuff and try to give you some ideas of how you could avoid some of the pitfalls I've put in for myself because there's no point in me going through stuff and then having you do the same exact thing.

So just for full disclosure, I am a professional trainer. I have been for a while. I have worked for a Scent Work Organization. I am an approved official. I have officiated, I've worked in score room, I've done a variety of different things within Scent Work. I do not think that I am the end all and be all of Scent Work, far from it, but I do feel I know my stuff to a certain degree as much as anyone can know anything, especially related to dog training. If you ever hear someone who says, "I know all the answers", you should take that with a grain of salt. With that being said, I have not trialed as much or as often as some. There are some people who you look at their trialing schedule and you're like, "Wow, that's amazing".

I have a love/hate relationship with trialing and a lot of it has to do with the fact that quite frankly, I'm a sore loser, I will readily admit. It is not something that I'm proud of, it's something that I've had since I was a child, so I don't like the way that it feels when I lose or I don't get a Q. But is also a lot of judgment that I've placed on myself and again, there's no outside force that's doing this. It's all in my head. But I also tend to believe that I'm not the only one who's going through this. So I'll tell you a little bit about my journey as far as Scent Work trialing and where I am right now.

So, my very first trial that I ever did in Scent Work was years and years and years ago, and it was with my first Doberman and it was really my first foray into a dog sport at all. I wasn't a professional dog trainer yet. I was in the process of thinking of becoming one and I had no idea about this whole dogs sport thing. I was completely green, I was like a deer in headlights. So I think I was just so new, I didn't even have an opportunity to be nervous, I was just doing it.

I showed up for the ORT with a dog who never should have went to that ORT and I give a lot of props to the people who hosted the trial. They were very welcoming, they were very understanding, they answered a lot of questions, they made sure everything was safe and my dog happened to pass all three ORTs in that day, which was great. Then we determined this is not a good idea. He's not reactive, he's aggressive. It put him back in his training. It was just not a good idea to do. But that was my first taste of actually trialing. Then from there, I started my professional dog training career and I was doing training for Scent Work.

But when I started trialing again, it was actually for Barn Hunt with my new Doberman who is very social and very happy and very wonderful. We did very well in Barn Hunt, he just seemed to take to it like a fish to water. So that went nicely, "Oh, Q's are good. Q's are fun. Trialing is fun, the ribbons are fun. Oh look, he has little letters behind his name now. That's exciting". I did an ORT and he missed one odor, which was fine. Then we went back and we did it again, which was perfectly fine. Up to this point I'm feeling okay, I'm not feeling too bad yet. We then do our NW1 and he passes it on his very first go and I was elated.

I was so excited and there was a woman sitting next to me in the parking lot and she came out and she was so upset because her dog had missed a hide and she was visibly upset, angry upset. Then she just went into this whole meltdown of first she was angry at life, then she was angry at the officials and then she was angry at herself and she apologized to this dog for the remainder of the day. I think this was her second search that she missed the hide. So basically for a NW1 that means that you're done, you miss a hide, you're all set. That has really seared into my brain that I never wanted to be that person. It's not that I think that she's bad or wrong, I felt bad. I felt really sad for her that she was going through all of this because here I am with my brilliant little dog. We happened to pass everything and we had fun and there she is and she's distraught and I felt awful. It was just gross. It was like, "I hope that that's never me."

I hope that I'd never get to that point because in what's the ... Why would I be doing this trialing thing if it made me miserable? Well, fast forward to, I go to my NW2 and in between that time period, I had done trialing with some other organizations and he had done well. There were searches that several USCSS for instance, you're able to keep all the cues that you earn. So if you miss a search is not the end of the world. But if you pass your others, you still walk away with something, which is really great. It's a great confidence booster. It's just a different dynamic. But for NACSW, it's all or nothing. So we go in for our NW2 and at this point my body is already a mess. I can barely walk. I'm a mess and we go to do our exterior search and it's down a couple, maybe three or four steps and then you get to your start line, then you can go.

So I hobbled down the steps and then I released him for his start line. My long line is all tangled, so he pulls me a little bit and he is not hunting for odor, but there is probably a lizard or something similar within this little garden area and I'm like, "Oh, dear Lord". Now mind you at this point, I'm a professional trainer, I'm a official with another organization, I'm a CNWI, so I'm a certified instructor with NACSW. The person who is judging me is a co-founder of NACSW. I have photographers that I've seen other trials that I was either officiating or I was working with. I have clients who are sitting there and they are volunteering at this trial. Can we say pressure? It's not pressure that any of these people are putting on me. Not one of these people were looking at me saying, "Well, you had better get that hide or I'm going to hate you." But that's what I'm thinking in my head.

So now that he is in lizard mode, I'm thinking "That's it, we're done." So I'm trying to get him to other parts of the search area to make sure at least we covered the whole thing. In my mind, lizard time took 15 hours. When you watch the video, it took a whole of like maybe 15 seconds if that, and right next to that garden area, was a garden hose off by itself and that's where the hide was. Do you think that my dog went to that area or tried to multiple times? Of course he did. Do you think that his mother would let him check that out? Of course she didn't. So we looked at all this other stuff and I timed out and then when they told me where the hide was, I honestly never even saw that garden hose.

I was so up in my head about all this other stuff that I wasn't even in the moment. I was so concerned about, "Oh, now he's going to be just on the lizards. All these people think I don't know what I'm doing. They're going to take away my instructor status". Like none of this is going to happen, but it's what I thought and "Oh, by the way, it's on video. Awesome, I'll make sure that I buy that". So from there, we then go into our container search. Same judge, same co-founder of NACSW, same photographer, and even more people that I know who are volunteering. I'm like, "Great" and it's in a gymnasium and the containers were a collection of different kinds of boxes, but the things that are the most important to the story, are metal lunchboxes.

I set my dog up at the start line, I release him, and he immediately launches himself on top of one the metal lunchboxes and slides down to the very middle part of the gymnasium as he's riding this lunchbox and I know damn well that's not the hide, but I'm so concerned that he's going to destroy this entire search area that I just call it and the judge said "No, but he's having a really great time." So I know I'm done. Like there's no fixing this, we are so not into doing this NW2. But good grief, we then go on because we still have to do everything else. We have an interior search and our interior search is two rooms and I elect to have him off leash for both rooms. So the first room, there's going to be two highs and the second room, there's going to be one hide and they were classroomish kind of things. So I release him to go for the very first room and he buzzes around looking like he's not doing a whole lot of anything. He's just running around, which is a wonderful thing to see.

At this point I'm feeling just resigned to the fact that we haven't passed and kind of just enjoying him being joyful. But then he comes up to a garbage can that has wheels and he sniffs that wheel and in my head, I call alert, but my mouth doesn't say anything and he leaves. Now I'm stuck with this debate of, "Oh no, I was supposed to say alert and I didn't. What do I do? How do I get him back and all?" He's just like ... It's just, it's a mess at this point. We then go to the middle of the room and he's able to work on a hide that was on a chair. Brilliant. Actually called alert for that one. Feed him, fabulous. We got back to where the garbage can is. Do you think that I motioned near the garbage candy? Do you think that I did anything to help my dog? Of course I didn't. So now he's like, "Well clearly you didn't like that hide when I told you about last time. I'm going to go bounce around and go see what other stuff I can find". So I called alert on some sink or something where it would never be in a million years and the poor judge was like, "No". You could just like hear it in her voice like "What are you doing?"

That was where I had the soul crushing feeling of "They're going to take my official card away. I'm not going to be able to be an instructor anymore. I can't be a trial official anymore. They may take my dog away". I mean, none of this is true at all, but it's everything that you're thinking in the moment. So I collect my dog and was like, "Oh, what a good little honey". Here, that's where it was. Like, "Yeah, I know that's where it was" and we do the second room and I have to say, even though everything has been a mess up to this point, he really rocked that second room. It was an inaccessible hide and he told me that it was inaccessible hide, he was bracketing it like it was crazy. So, wouldn't you know, I actually called it and we got a yes. "Woo, yay".

Then we had our vehicle search for our very last search. Once again, our judge is a co-founder for NACSW and there's a bunch of people again that I can recognize who are either filming or they're volunteering. The start line, I believe the vehicle was in something like a tennis court or something similar to that, though was surrounded by fencing. The start line was at the opening of when the gates, but the vehicles are inside. Again, we're in Southern California, it's summertime, so it's hot. Do you think that I would just after they told me that I could go, would walk up to the vehicles and then let him search? Of course not. Why would I do that? That wouldn't make sense. So I released him from the start line, nowhere near the vehicles.

Then eventually we got to the vehicles and he told me about the hide pretty quickly. Do you think that I called it? of course I didn't call it. So now my poor black dog in the middle of Southern California summer is in sweltering heat and burning pause and it's just a mess going around and around and around and finally, he shows me again and I say alert and I get the where and I point and I actually get a yes. Now mind you, this is NW2. Do you think that I said finish? I mean, watching the videos from this trial for me personally is hysterical because it's just such a mess. It's just awful.

But even so, the world didn't end on that day. It was a learning experience. These are all things that I took away saying, you know what? We probably weren't ready for this trial to begin with. He probably is fine, I need help clearly. But it's not that big of a deal and just because these people are there, I'm sure that they would have been delighted to have celebrated in our success if we were successful and I'm sure that some of them were like, "Oh, that's so sad that it didn't go well". We did get called out during the debriefing of the judge for the interior search. The first search said, "Oh yeah, and the lady with the Doberman. That Doberman, what he likes to do is run around, stir the odor up, and then find where the hides are. It's really interesting and fun to watch". It's like, "Yay...".

But the point being is that with that trial, I have not been rushing to go back into another NW2. I've actually been putting it off and putting it off and putting it off and putting it off some more. Well, I finally entered one thinking because it's in the town that I live in, there's no way I'm going to get into it. We did and I'm like, "Oh God, this is going to be a great opportunity for me to show that I don't know what I'm doing again". The thing is that, it's not that I don't know what I'm doing, I do. I have a lot of years under my belt. My dog is really good. I'm not the best handler in the face of the earth, I know that. My body doesn't cooperate really well and my brain, my mind does not help.

The lack of self confidence really becomes glaringly obvious and worrying about all these other things. Particularly now that I've launched these two online platforms, my concern is, "What do you mean you don't have your NW2 yet? That's awful. I'm never going to work with you. You have no idea what you're doing, you sucked". It's not true, I actually do know what to do but I am a poster child for what happens when you let all these thoughts get away from you. So I'm hoping with this podcast by sharing and being very open and honest about the stuff, cause I'm not shy about sharing it at all. Then hopefully I can help somebody else realizes that that's all really silly and are there people out there who will say that, who will think that, who will talk among their little circle and say? "Oh, she's such a joke. She can't ... She doesn't even have her NW2 yet. I can't believe that people give her money."

Sure, there very well maybe. But that's not the majority of people and even if they do, so what? I don't have someone banging down my door saying "You are no longer allowed to be an instructor. You may not be an official. You're no longer allowed to own your dog because you haven't titled to the level that we think is appropriate". Like it's just ridiculous. But that's exactly what I think a lot of the time, and I don't think that I'm alone. While this is for people who are officials or who are trainers, I think that there are people who also have those issues when they are just competitors. They're worried about the other competitors think, they're worried what their classmates think, they're worried about their instructor thinks. It's a very natural thing for people to go through. But I can tell you it doesn't help you. It's not a motivator. All it does is muddy the picture for you.

So again, my NW2 is this weekend and I can quite honestly tell you I'm not looking forward to it, which is silly and I just have to have a really good assessment with myself of why am I doing this? It has nothing to do with the organization because I can tell you I've tried with a number of different organizations and every single time that we trial, it's more stressful than fun and it's just because I'm worried about these other things that no one else cares about. So I need to determine is there a way that I can compartmentalize? Is there a way that I can fix the way that I'm looking at this, so it is actually enjoyable? But if it's not, then we probably shouldn't be trialing.

There's no reason to put myself and my dog in that kind of situation and particularly for my fellow super nervous and self conscious competitors, just know that there's no way that you can be there for your dog as a teammate that you need to be if you're not mentally in the game and that's easier said than done. Something that I struggle with clearly and I haven't found the perfect solution to it. I know the things that I should be doing about this as far as how I could change my thinking about it and I just go, "Oh, that's just so hard, we'll deal with that later. I'll go do some other project before I have to worry about that". But if you're finding yourself constantly concerning yourself about what other people think, is going to take away from you building these memories with your dog and from you performing well. Even if performing well doesn't mean a cue, is still means that you and your dog are jelling together as a team.

I've seen this happen with other people and I go, "Ugh, if you would just get out of your own way, you would be fine". Then I'm always expecting them to turn around and be like, "Hello, kettle, how are you?" So it's easy for many of us to say to other people, "Oh, this is what you should do", and "Oh, here's a solution to your problem" when really you're struggling with it yourself. As far as some real life tangible things that you could take away from this podcast, just know that for me personally, if I had a client or a colleague who went to a trial and they did not qualify, I do not have a little black book that I'm keeping track of all that stuff. I'm not waiting to pounce on them and say, "Ha ha, you are not as good as you thought you are". That's not what I do. Instead, I would always celebrate the things that they did do and they did well at that trial.

Even for my NW2 that I just described, that wasn't really all that great at all. I can still hold on to the fact that while that container search was for all intents and purposes on a professional standpoint could be deemed as a disaster, it was hilarious. That's very funny. He was having a grand ole time. We weren't going to cue, I hope that he doesn't do it again, but it was funny in the moment. That will be a memory that I will hold onto the entire length of time that I am blessed to have him. That's something, so if you're having difficulty finding joy in trialing and you're nervous about it, but you're not nervous about whether or not your training is where it should be, but you're nervous about all these other outside factors.

The one thing I can tell you from personal experience, being someone who I honestly an instructor and an official would be more exposed to potential backlash. It's overblown, it's not true, it's not real. It really is all in your head and there will be some people who are detractors. There will be some people who are negative, but the vast majority of people are not.

The vast majority of people are very supportive within this community and they understand that you're a person, that you're a human being and you're not a robot. You're not a machine. You're not perfect and neither is your dog. People happen to like humility and they like honesty and being authentic. Being vulnerable is all those things, being where you're admitting to say I'm a little nervous. I'm not nervous that we can do well, if I can just get my head in the right space. If I think about this right then I think we'll be fine. But I get in my own way because I'm worried about all these other things. The key point is that you're not alone. There's a lot of people who think that, particularly if you happen to be a professional trainer and even more so if you also happen to be a trial official.

Now that this rambling podcast has gone on, you may be asking yourself, "Okay, well little miss teacher lady, what are you doing to help yourself where that NW2 that is coming up?" The main thing is I'm just trying to not load my schedule up with too much other stuff cause that tends to be what I do when I'm stressed. I try to put on tons and tons of other projects so that I can constantly keep myself busy. But what's going to happen is as that day approaches and then I say, "Oh no, that day is eating into my schedule, maybe I'll just skip it", which would be bad. So I'm trying to keep a balance. We're doing short little training sessions leading up to it. Nothing major, but just making sure we're keeping it really nice and fun and high octane for both of us.

I'm just trying to keep my expectations realistic. All I'm looking for going into this is to have a good time and I know that sounds incredibly cliche. "Of course you'll have a good time if you qualify", but I can tell you there have been times that I've gone to trials for other organizations that had nothing to do with the organization per se, but just the way that I was conducting myself at the trial where my dog did great, he would get five out of five or six out of six or whatever the case may be, and I didn't have a good time at all. I was stressed to the nines, I was trying to do too many things at once. I was working at the trial the same time I was running him. I was doing a million things at once and it was miserable. I didn't like it at all. I'm looking to not have that experience again.

For this NW2, if we don't pass anything but we together as a team have fun, that's all I care about. I mean sincere, true, real life fun. If he wants to dance on containers without destroying them or whatever else, okay. I not promoting that, but it's the change in mindset of "I'm okay if we don't Q as long as we're having a good time together." But if we can't even do that, then I just don't think that trialing is a good choice for me. That's just got to be a choice that I'd have to make at some point because right now it's ... I'm at a fork in the road where there have been some experiences have been really pleasant. Obviously the ones that you could win, more of those are in that camp. But like I said, there have been times when we've killed it and I didn't have fun at all. It was miserable.

So I changed some things so that I'm no longer trying to do 20 million things at once when I'm trialing and I'm hoping that they'll make a difference. But I honestly don't know if it will, because I'm still expecting myself to have this little voice in the back of my head that are saying, "You have to be perfect. How are you not perfect? Now no one's going to listen to you. No one's going to buy your courses. You're going to go out of business, AHHH". What's the joy in that? That's miserable, that's awful. So a lot of this is going to hinge on my ability to quiet those voices that aren't overly helpful, to focus on the training and the knowledge that I have, the amazing ability that my dog has and not get stuck in those circular patterns of thinking that are quite unhelpful.

If we're able to do that and we're able to have fun, then we may continue trialing. But if we don't, meaning I'm not able to do that, then we may just need to take a break for awhile and that may include never going for an NW2 again and who knows? He's five, we have plenty of time. What I'm hoping that people can get from this rambling of a podcast, is that there is no absolute way of how you need to do this. I know people personally who have done dog sports for a long time and they just burned out. They took a long break as more talking like 5, 10, 15 years. They didn't do anything and then they came across another dog that they thought would do well and it piqued their interest a little bit. Then maybe try a different dog sport and they take it in stride and they make sure that it's fun and they prepare ahead of time so they're not just winging it.

They're going in when they're prepared and they are just coming at it from a better perspective where they're able to go in, realize this is just a game. It's an opportunity to make memories with their dog. They're prepared to do well and they don't Q every time, but they have fun every time and that's something that I aspire to be. I don't know if that's possible for me personally, but I'm hoping that people can understand is that your journey doesn't have to stay linear. You can change your mind at any point. So even if I were to turn around tomorrow and say, "You know what, I don't think this trial thing is for me". That may just be for now, it's not as though I'm handing in some card that says I'm never allowed to trial again. It may just be that I trial at a later date.

So if anyone else is battling nerves, self doubt, they're concerned that the world is glaring at them, they're not going up the levels as fast as they thought that they should. Their dog doesn't have as many letters behind their name. They don't have as many accolades, particularly if you're an official or an instructor. Just know that first of all, no one cares. Really, no one's keeping track of these things. The people who are quite honestly, their opinion doesn't really matter at the end of the day. Just don't get bogged down in that stuff.

If you're really are struggling, it probably is best to just take a break. Your pocket book will thank you. Trialing is expensive and if you're not having a good time, which is going to translate to your dog not having a good time, it reaches and make a whole lot of sense. So just take a break to reassess and then maybe you only do certain things. Maybe only trial so much, and then maybe we're able to turn a corner and you're just a trialing fanatic and you have fun every single time and that would be great. But the main thing that I'm hoping that everyone can understand is that you don't have to be stuck doing anything.

All of this is a choice and it should be a choice you make individualized for you and your dog and that can change over the life of your dog. That can change if you were to get another dog, that can change between having different dogs in your household. But whether or not you trial or not, doesn't define who you are as a person and that's coming from someone who struggles with that very thought. I know intellectually it's true, but it's difficult for you to admit, particularly when you're a professional.

So I hope this podcast was able to help anyone else out there who has been described as a nervous competitor because of outside forces. You're not alone, it's actually fairly common. But just try to reassess so you can figure out the best way that you can find, joy again for both you and your dog.

I hope you find this podcast helpful. Happy training and we look forward to seeing you soon. 

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