Monday, July 10, 2017

The Importance of Failure

This month as part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop, we're sharing our best kept training secrets. Our secret is failure.

I'm sure I've shared the story of when Barley's first agility trainer stopped me and said, "In agility, you will fail more times than you will succeed" (this was possibly said on the same night Barley chose to jump on the cart used to move the tunnel's sandbags and skateboarded across the room instead of going over the jump I asked her to go over). That was a lightbulb moment for me.

Failure is not easy for me to embrace. Growing up, when I brought up a quiz with a 95 on it, I'd hear "Uh oh. What happened?" until about the time I got to Algebra 2 and WWIII almost broke out each night when I sat down to do my homework. With the exception of math, school always came easy to me and I expected perfection. Nothing made me crazier than when my 10th grade English teacher told us that she never gave a 100% on an essay because there was always room for improvement.


When our trainer told me that failure was expected in agility, things changed for Barley and me. We'd gotten to the point where we weren't having as much fun with agility because I was getting frustrated and then she'd get crazier and I'd get more frustrated. Once we had permission to fail, we learned a lot more.

Barley's current trainer stresses the importance of failure in learning. If a dog does something perfect the first time and gets a treat when they're done, they don't necessarily know why they got that treat. Similarly, if my students write an essay with every comma in the correct spot and get full credit for the grammar and mechanics part of their grade, they don't necessarily know why the commas they used were correct. However, if a dog gets something wrong and doesn't get a treat and hears a quick "Nope. Try again" or a student sees a comma circled and a comment about comma splices, they learn something.

Most recently, we put this into use when Rye and I were doing some agility in the backyard. I set up a line of three jumps and I wanted to be able to lead out past the third jump before Rye went over all three (because let's be honest, the only way I'll ever be able to keep up with her on a course is if I can get a big head start). I set her up in front of the first jump and she held her stay beautifully--but when I asked her to jump she skipped the middle jump.


We tried again and it happened again, so I learned a couple things from that failure:

  • Rye didn't know what I wanted. She's only had 8 weeks of agility class, so she's still learning how to read lines. If the jumps had been set up directly in front of each other, she would have had no problem jumping all three, but since they were set up on a diagonal line, she was unsure. 
  • I didn't set her up at the best angle. Even though it seemed obvious to me that there were three jumps, the first spot I set her put her at an angle where she saw the first and third jump clearly, but the second jump wasn't quite in her direct line of sight.
Because we hadn't quite done it right the first two times, I knew what we needed to do to fix it. First, I had to set her at a better angle so she could see all three jumps more clearly. That involved a lot of squatting down to be at her level and testing out different views before I set her up. Then we had to shape the behavior I wanted by breaking things down a bit. I set her up in the right spot and then went out to the second jump. I made sure to stop and treat her after the second jump every time so that she knew taking that jump after the first jump was exactly what she was supposed to do. Once we had that down, we did the first few jumps and then I ran with her to the third jump. Finally, I set her up and l walked out past the third jump--when she got the second jump, I made sure to give her an enthusiastic "yes" before saying jump a third time. When she got it all right, she got showered with treats after the third jump. 

If we wouldn't have failed the first time, neither one of us would have learned as much. Failure can teach us just as much with our other training, too. If one of the dogs has a bad reaction to another dog on our walk, I ask myself questions to try to understand why that happened and what I can do to prevent it from happening in the future. If every walk goes perfectly smoothly, we get too comfortable and our training suffers from that. 

"You mean it's ok that I didn't hold my stay because we can learn from this? Oh boy!"
Be sure to check out all of the other great blogs linking up with us--including our co-hosts Wag 'n Woof Pets and Tenacious Little Terrier--for the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop that (usually) starts on the first Monday of the month and lasts all week.


14 comments:

  1. This is a GREAT post! Being willing to fail opens our worlds. I would never have taken my first sailing less in my 40s if I weren't willing to fail.

    It's also great how you were able to see things from Rye's point of view to set her up for success. Looks like you two are on your way to having an amazing agility career together.

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    1. I agree! It's definitely important for our non-dog lives, too. I have a harder time embracing failure in those areas, though!

      And I am looking forward to seeing how Rye and I develop with agility, but I am pretty sure it will be very different than how Barley and I do things since I will NEVER keep up with Rye ;)

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  2. I love this! It makes me think of trick training with Luke. By not getting it right every time, it gives him more of a chance to exercise his brain. It's so great for him to get his wheels turning and try to figure out exactly what it is I want. They would really miss out on a lot of learning if they didn't fail sometimes.
    Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets

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    1. Exactly! Sometimes I'm afraid the girls' brains will explode while they're thinking things through, but watching them work things out is so rewarding.

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  3. 100% this. It's so easy to fall into the trap of seeing failures as negative only, rather than taking a moment to evaluate why things went the way they did. I wasn't familiar with the value of failure growing up, it was just something to be discouraged by. Thankfully I've learned over time that failure happens, and that it's a good opportunity to learn from.

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    1. I had to learn the same lesson over time. Sometimes it can still be discouraging, but I'm less discouraged by it when working with the dogs now and that makes all the difference!

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  4. Oh I've learned this over and over again with Nosework as we've been in many trials and ended up not passing. I'm a terrible handler as I get nervous -I always learn from every hide and search and watching video is the best tool so I can see exactly where things fell apart. Totally agree with this.

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    1. Oh yes! Noseworks is another area we struggle with this--Barley's alert is so subtle that I always second guess myself when I'm trying to read her.

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  5. My mom is a perfectionist too and she is very competitive. She never plays team sports because she doesn't trust the others to do well enough, but then she started dog sports. We are a team and she has had to learn to deal with teams and failure. We now call failure learning opportunities because a dog human team that is perfect is rare. It's tough on her, but we search for the the fun, the time together and the bonding it gives us rather than just the perfection and the wins. Learning opportunities only provide us with more time to be together and to work together, but it can still be tough.

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    1. I've loved seeing how you and your mom have developed that teamwork over time! I'm not really competitive at all, so thankfully I don't have to worry about that stress on top of everything else!

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  6. I'm glad your pups have you! Being patient and figuring out what went wrong has been so good for your girls!

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  7. What I love most about this post is getting permission to fail! I think we all feel like we have to be perfect all the time and that somehow our training failures are a reflection on us as people. I really appreciate the encouragement to not just let failures go but to actually embrace them as a learning tool!

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    1. It took me long time to view failure that way--and I still have trouble with that when it comes to non-dog activities, but it has made such a difference in how I work with the pups!

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