Monday, July 6, 2015

Embracing Failure

The theme for this week's Positive Pet Training Hop is the fallible trainer. This is a topic that's been hard for me to accept as part of dog training.  In Life Before Barley, failure wasn't a word that was in my vocabulary. Not because I'm perfect, but because I'd been trained that failure wasn't an option.

When I was growing up, if I brought home an assignment with a 95 on it, my mom would say, "Uh oh. What happened?" When I'd practice softball with my dad, we'd set a goal of how many catches we had to make in a row and increase the difficulty each toss by taking a step apart--if I missed, we started over. One of the most traumatic experiences of my childhood was when I had memorized a piece for a piano recital but had the music in front of me "just in case" and I glanced up at the page and forgot where I was in the song and never got back on track--I ran out of the room after I left the stage and cried in the bathroom until the recital was over.

Then one day, I got this crazy, lovable, funny, reactive border collie mix--and my views on failure stayed the same. Barley loves going to school, probably as much as I do. When we started private lessons, she caught on to everything quickly and was eager to please. We followed our trainer's advice to a tee and Barley had mastered her homework a week ahead of what our trainer had expected.

Smart dogs love hiking in the footsteps of literary masters.

I beamed with pride every time we left a lesson and was thisclose to getting a "My Border Collie is Smarter than your Honor Student" sticker for my car--until we started agility.

I've never been very coordinated and I can't tell my left from my right 95% of the time (seriously--I often hold up my hands to see which makes an L when I'm told to put Barley on my left!). I would be 100% convinced that I had done exactly what our trainer had asked--only to get correction after correction about the direction my feet were pointed in, what I was doing with my hands, the amount of words I was using (or not using).

With the exception of writing workshops, I hadn't been in situations where I got a lot of constructive criticism before and between turns I stayed focused on keeping Barley relaxed, so I didn't always pick up on the fact that everyone was getting corrections as well. I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated and Barley is very attuned to my moods, so she would get frustrated. When I got frustrated, it would be even harder for me to give Barley clear signals because I couldn't get out of my own mind and that just added to Barley's frustrations. For a while, I was considering quitting agility. Being around other dogs in a high energy situation was good training for Barley, but our turns on the course were adding more stress to her life.

Finally, our first agility trainer stopped me and said, "In agility, you're going to fail more than you succeed. The quicker you learn that, the more fun this will be." That moment changed everything for me.

Our current trainer has stressed the importance of failure in training a dog. If a dog gets everything right on the first try, they don't really understand what they did well. This has been especially important in teaching Barley to weave and I've gotten really good at marking mistakes with an "uh oh" (definitely turning into my mother) and helping Barley work through problems to make sure she understands what she's being asked to do. This is true in my own life, too. Even though I got awards for my GPA in English classes every year in high school, I never really knew why I was a good writer. It wasn't until I started tutoring ESL students who didn't inherently know the rules of English grammar and I had to figure out how to explain those rules that I really learned how to write.

Learning that failure is ok has been a really important part of the training process. Failure is no longer a negative thing when it comes to training Barley (although some still create some heartbreak). Instead, failure is something that we learn from and then move on from. Embracing failure has given me back my happy, goofy dog who loves agility.




20 comments:

  1. I love this post! Dog training is tough for perfectionist. I had visions that Ruby and I were going to be star students as well, so I was devastated when we were actually kicked out of our group obedience class! Embracing failure is essential on this positive training path.

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    1. Barley and I spend a lot of time in the hallway between turns in agility class when she's not in "star student mode." I can only imagine how hard it must have been to be kicked out of obedience class!

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  2. I'm glad your trainer gave you that advice. It's important to remember that training is supposed to be fun. I'm like you: used to succeeding in school. Isis's first obedience classes were really tough for me. Isis was smart, I was smart -- how can we be such failures at this??

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    1. Yes, it was some of the best advice I've gotten! Obedience class is hit or miss with Barley--she's a dog that needs a clear job, so she's really good and focused when learning new things in class, but then when it comes time to review things, she starts to shut down because she gets bored repeating things she knows really well like down and sit. We tried a rally class, but that just frustrated both of us, so after one 6-week session we gave up on that and turned to something more fun :)

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  3. This is such an amazing post and it's interesting because I was raised in a similar fashion that failure is not okay and not an option. I think that may be why I sometimes get more frustrated than I should be. I know that it's never the dog's fault when they do something wrong and I am more patient now than I was years ago. A lot of the time I am more frustrated with myself than anything, too.

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    1. Patience is something I have to work on every day and 99% of the time our frustrations are because I wasn't clear with what I was asking--although there are plenty of times when our trainer says I did what I was supposed to and Barley just decided to do her own thing--darn willful little dog ;)

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  4. Mr. N also picks up things very quickly so I'm used to having him excel in class. Our first agility class though, we were tackling clicker training and shaping and we had no experience with either. Nearly broke both our brains. Our trainer reassured me and told me it isn't fair to compare Mr. N to the other dog who had previous experience and an experienced handler, saying he would get it at his own pace.

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    1. Oh, clicker training! My brain still hasn't recovered from that. I just could not handle holding the leash, doing the hand signal for the command, clicking, and treating immediately--so we abandoned clicker training early on because it was making us both melt down. Now the clicker sits on the coffee table and when I see Barley heading towards the litter box for a snack, I click it to get her to come back to me instead; it might not be what the clicker was intended for, but it's far more useful than it was in class ;)

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  5. I love this post. Failure is a hard thing to accept - I had similar parents growing up. However, as I'm learning over and over again, it's a necessary component of life.

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    1. It is a very necessary component of life! I think learning this with Barley has made my teaching strategies with human students even better, too!

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  6. My mom doesn't do well with failure, and for that reason, she never has been a team sports person, can't trust others. Now with our sports she is a team with us dogs and when we fail, it is tough. She has to rely on us to succeed and we have to work together to succeed. It is a lot of fun, and it has Mom learning to fail, learn from it, and move on. It is not easy.

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    1. It is definitely not an easy lesson to learn, but dogs seem to be really good teachers of that lesson!

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  7. Isn't it wonderful what life lessons we learn when training our dogs? I've learned so much patience. I've learned to let things go. When Luke just couldn't get the "roll over" trick it was tough for me to put it aside and move on to something else. Yet, that something else went so well it was worth it, and we'll revisit roll over one day.
    Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets

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    1. Dogs are great teachers of life lessons. It's amazing what kind of things they'll tell us when we show a little patience :)

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  8. Another perfectionist here! And Nala was a star in our Level 1 obedience class, too--until we started doing things that required moving around and leaving our little corner. Then she was suddenly totally overstimulated and worried and couldn't focus on anything! I can get really, really frustrated--but giving myself a pep talk about what I can realistically expect and be happy with before class has been really helpful, too. And yes, most of what I expect is failure. :P

    I've also found that videoing us as we train is really helpful. I also like it when my trainer comes up and says, "Here, Nala's fine and relaxed, stop worrying about her. Watch how [classmate] uses his shoulders when they do a figure 8." It's all part of giving ourselves the same kind of clear feedback we strive to give our dogs, right?

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    1. Our trainer frequently gives me the "Stop. Take a deep breath." pep talk, too :) Learning to set realistic goals has been such an important lesson! usually my goals look something like "If none of her classmates end up in her mouth tonight, we'll call class a success"--usually that's something we can achieve and then if we miss every jump, it's not a big deal ;)

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  9. Absolutely wonderful; it took such a long time to realize that "OK, so I screwed up, but at least I realize my mistake and can try again."

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    1. Yes! Sometimes we get even better turns in class when we mess up because usually if we get it perfect our turn is over and the next dog gets to try, so sometimes messing up gives us more time on the course!

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  10. It's so hard not to be hard on ourselves. When Delilah and I did agility, it was just for fun and we did have fun. I would have loved to run her professionally but just couldn't see putting the kind of pressure on her that I would put on myself.

    So glad you had a trainer that helped you understand the value of not doing everything perfect.

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    1. We just do agility for fun, too, because I know it wouldn't be fair to put Barley in a situation with lots of dogs she doesn't know that are really excited; she needs calmer energy around her. Luckily, most of our classmates are the same way, so it's a lot easier to embrace failure and laugh at ourselves when they're around :)

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