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.