On Failure

I fail. A lot. I fail while training my dogs every day in one way or another. My dogs fail, too. But the important part isn’t that we fail, the important part is how we handle it.

I taught my dogs through free shaping and games that failure is OK and nothing to worry about. If you do it wrong, you don’t get a reward, but we are still playing and you will probably get it right on the next try, so hurry up and try again!
Similarly, when my training plan fails this is nothing to worry about. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid, worthless, will never be able to train this, have a dog that cannot be trained or any other nonsense that the inner critic tries to feed me. We are still playing and my next plan will probably work better!

by mariathehedgehog335

by mariathehedgehog335

I set out to do a few Recallers games in a public place where we usually wouldn’t do them. I brought Ruby out of the car and started tugging, but I could feel his heart wasn’t in it and he even stopped to look around twice. Guess what, if the dog isn’t tugging happily in a certain place you cannot use the tug as a reward. OK, so we were left with food. He was more focused when working with that, but I still felt like I might lose him at any moment. He was on leash, so “loosing him” meant just loosing his attention, but attention, to me, is everything. Since I was fast, rewarded him often and also released often to environment, this didn’t happen, but if I were to lose intensity for a second he would be off to sniff the bushes in no time.

While this would look like a successful training to an onlooker, it was a failure to me, because we are way past the stage where I need to work for his attention (or so I thought). Failures happen and all good trainers are OK with that. They even use them to their advantage. Here are some types of failures:

1. Dog failing at the task. Perhaps failing multiple times. Perhaps not succeeding at all.
2. Reacting inappropriately to dog’s failure because of lack of training plan or lack of knowledge.
3. Inability to get dog excited about training.
4. Loosing dog to the environment (loosing focus & wandering off).

For me, the #3 – inability to get dog excited is the hardest failure to bear emotionally, followed really closely by #4 – loosing dog to environment. These used to be our biggest problems in training and while we don’t get them very often these days, they can still happen as evidenced by my experience with Ruby.

Dog training is an interesting activity. It teaches you so much about yourself, your character, your fears. It can expose your weaknesses like perfectionism, impatience, comparing yourself to others, comparing your dog to other dogs, focusing on the negative, difficulty in expressing joy and approval, worrying about what will others think, wanting to look good, anger, frustration. These were all mine if you were wondering… Some of them in the past, others I’m still struggling with. I probably forgot some, too.

I think it’s amazing that dog training is bringing all of these flaws to the surface in the context where I am motivated to work through them. Sure, it hurts when I bump against “comparing myself to others”, but by working through it I found self-love, appreciation for the journey that is mine alone, and also more love for others. What could be better than that?

I know you have your own struggles, some are with knowledge, others with mechanics and still others with internal critic like mine. You are not alone. Dog training is an unexpectedly emotional experience for most of us.

Look back at the struggles you have already overcome. Perhaps you spent months to teach your dog to play with toys. Perhaps your patience was tested by a puppy piranha. Perhaps you learned to control your frustration better. Perhaps you taught your dog “sit pretty” after 8 months of patient work. You did it!

Remember also that not everything was hard. Perhaps your puppy slept through the night from the time you brought him home. Or he loved food. Or he wasn’t afraid of traffic. Or learned Sit fast. Or you could take him with you for a coffee without much training at all. Every single thing that is easy for your dog is difficult for someone else’s dog and therefore not something that should be taken for granted. When I felt really hopeless and thought that Ruby will never be happy to work with me with other dogs present, I wrote a list of all the things that were great about him, including snuggling 🙂 It helped.

Um... we were supposed to be going in the same direction!

Um… we were supposed to be going in the same direction!

This problem in front of you is just like one of those you already solved. With a little creativity and perseverance it will become one of the problems of the past. If this post reminded you of the problem you have successfully overcome, go ahead and write it in the comments so we can celebrate together 🙂

PS: What do Silvia Trkman and Susan Garrett have in common? They see problems as puzzles, waiting to be solved. They replaced the feeling of frustration with curiosity and a game-on attitude. I came to believe that all great trainers do that – it’s what puts them in the right state of mind to find solutions.

Thanks Monika for Ruby’s agility photo! Those are some great memories 🙂

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20 thoughts on “On Failure

  1. What an excellent post! So much of what you wrote is rattling around in my head too.

    Funny that you mention sitting pretty taking a long time to teach. When my youngest was a wee pup, someone showed me how to teach sit pretty. My older dog was 6 at the time. He really struggled to get past the initial stages of training, and I kept ignoring then going back to it. Flash forward to two years later and he’s eagerly popping up into place when I ask. And he’s pretty friggin’ adorable when he does it.

    He is also a reactive dog and we’ve finally found a method that seems to be helping. So much so that I plan to register him with the UKC and compete in a weight pull event this fall.

    We failed a lot, but I couldn’t bring myself to give up on him. And thank goodness I didn’t – look at all the fun we’re having!

    • Thanks, Julia! It’s interesting how sit pretty is so easy for some dogs, yet very difficult for others, isn’t it? Congratulations on working through reactivity!!! IMHO one of the most nerve wrecking things you can work through with a dog… Which method finally helped?
      PS: I fixed it 😉

      • I think the ease of learning sit pretty comes down to structure. My girl, Delta, is petite, square, with flexible legs and big strong thighs. When she goes into the pose, she basically squats knees on ground. Dash is longer, less flexible, and not as strong as he once was. His core got stronger as a result of learning sit pretty.

        I’m not sure if the method I’m using falls under a particular umbrella. There is conditioned relaxation, teaching place, and learning to walk without leash tension. It is very much about the dog making the right choices, rather than a person instructing the dog to behave or using commands/exercises. I’m learning it from Jay Jack, who writes “3 Bad Bullies”. We aren’t there yet, but Dash has come further than he did with any other method.

        • Yes, structure definitely has a lot to do with it, though for my two I haven’t been able to figure out what exactly makes it easier for Java to do it than for Ruby.
          The method you describe has some similarities with Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt. Great to hear it’s working for you!

  2. Karla Wilson

    Wonderful expression of what so many feel, but can’t say so well. And great encouragement to welcome failures as opportunities for playing with the puzzles.

  3. MaryHope Schoenfeld

    One of the things i love *most* about dog training is that it’s helping me to become a more creative thinker. I still get frustrated sometimes when we’re having difficulty working through a training roadblock, but much more often now, i actually get a little excited when we run into a problem, because it means i get to look at it critically & figure out how to break it down into smaller pieces that we can succeed at together. Our eventual success gives me a huge feeling of accomplishment that’s as addictive as a drug!

    • That is great! I wish I got excited about problems more often 😉 Usually I just like ‘huh? how did that happen?’ I love planning for the next session, though 🙂

  4. Terrific article Andreja. I loved how you pointed out what some find easy, others find difficult. I love the challenge of dog training for all the reasons you outline. I love the puzzle and push the boundaries, often too far for my dog. Then I make a better plan, but keep aiming for that boundary. Dogs, puzzles, failures and successes are all such fun. Wouldn’t it be boring if we were always successful and never failed 🙂

    • This is a great mindset to have and no doubt a part of the reason why you have come so far with Blue!

  5. iffebim

    Yes! Sit pretty, ugh…I have a tall, lean (somewhat lanky) BC that took about 6 months to be able to do it for 5 seconds. We just advanced to lifting paws while in sit pretty and holding an object, but I can still tell it is a difficult exercise for him that requires a lot of strength!
    One of my friends has a dog, a large mix, pretty square and definitely pretty overweight. I wanted to test my theory of sit pretty being easier for “compact” dogs, and lured him into a sit pretty which he was easily able to hold for 10+ seconds without EVER being trained to do it. Wow!!

    • It’s not fair! But it is what it is 🙂 With some dogs we need to build it up really really slowly.

  6. Linda

    Hi Andreja.Thanks for this excellent post. Working through our “failures”, hopefully has also made me a much better handler and person. I find myself enjoying the challenge of working out a solution for our failure and actually look forward to getting back on to “the training fields” to try again :-). I really appreciate our every success no matter how small it might seem to someone else. It has also made me more mindful and understanding of other handlers & their dogs who are working through “failures” of their own. Happy training to all 🙂

    • This is another mark of good trainers – they are happy for and celebrate even small successes 🙂 If we’re happy for each small success then it doesn’t really matter how long the goal takes, right? 🙂

  7. I feel like your next blog post should talk about what your plan is to recapture his attention. I would love to hear more about how you plan for your next session. Sometimes I wish I thought more about what I want to focus on in my next session, so would be helpful to hear how you do it!

    • Hi Katy, the plan depends on the dog. In Ruby’s case I’m pretty sure this happened because I neglected training in new locations and almost exclusively trained at the club. He is environmentaly sensitive and needs regular practice at ignoring new environments and focusing on me. This has been missing and this is what he will get more of. Sessions are fun and short. I use sending to environment (to sniff) as one of the rewards. I didn’t even take him there again (hopefully this weekend), but practiced at more familiar locations where it’s a bit easier for him.
      He knows how to focus, he just needs to get into the groove again.

  8. Katie Clarke

    Thank you for sharing this post. I often feel like a failure in our agility class because i find it hard to work at speed and panic and forget the course! But you reminded me of something which is that when we got our rescue collie, he was frightened of toys and would run away from them. First he learned to play with them at home but not at training…then he learned to play with them at training but not at a competition as it was too overwhelming. Now he loves to play with his tuggy as a reward ANYWHERE. Thanks

    • Great story! How cool is it that you were able to turn him from fearing toys to loving them? Very cool!
      I can relate to panicking and forgetting the course 😉

  9. joycejaskula

    I love this post. I used to be afraid to fail….thinking others would judge me. Now i’m more confident in my training and I don’t care so much about what others think because I know that i am always doing what is right for us…for my dog and me at that moment. In fact, the failures teach me so much…don’t disconnect, practice more at sending to a distance, work on behaviors in different locations, etc. And i now take full responsibility for those times. What i’ve realized just from reading your blog is that i need to get out and do non agility things with my dogs in various environments, something i’ve been lazy about.
    Last weekend when I had my novice dog in the ring he missed two jumps in his Standard run. I came out and people mentioned it. i thought….great! good information for me. watch the video and see why. then get to work on it. aren’t i lucky that he’s showing me what i did wrong so i can work on the failure on my part.
    as far as “sit pretty” my newest, 5 yr old whippet that i’ve had for 1 1/2 yrs, offers it every time she wants food. never trained it. she’s the only one who does it automatically. never thought about teaching it to my whippet x border collie. i taught him to walk backwards on his hind legs instead. but sitting pretty would require much more balance. think i’ll get out the clicker and start shaping that one!

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