Failure is going to happen. For a dog trainer, it happens every day. In each of my classes, my clients fail at instructing their dog. The failure is usually something small, a mistimed cue or a ill-timed distraction can take the wind of out of an owners sails. At that point, it’s my job to offer encouragement, a little more instruction, and try to keep them moving forward.
I deal with failure with my own dogs all the time. What’s funny is that everyone expects my dog to behave perfectly all of the time. The truth is I have to work just as hard as every other owner. I actually have to work harder than most owners, since I have to be nearly perfect when I’m teaching other people. But I do experience failure. I recently experienced the ultimate failure. I had to help a client say goodbye to their dog. We exhausted every avenue of behavior modification and chemical therapy before we made the decision. I knew, on a cold logical level, that incidents like this could and would occur. In all honesty, however, this particular case took me back to the line. For the next two days, I questioned EVERYTHING that I was doing. I had to make a decision to accept it, learn from it, own it, and move on.
When your dog doesn’t do what you’re asking it to do, most of the time the problem is on our end of the leash. Late or confusing cues, late rewarding, lack of practice, or not practicing in places that provide some form of mild distraction can all contribute to failure. When you make a mistake in my class, I’ll correct you on what you’re doing. My classes are not to teach to your dog, but rather you the owner. But I’m only with you for around 45 minutes once a week. You’re going to practice without me and you’re going to make mistakes on your own.
How should handle I failures? Well first, decide if now is the time to address the failure. Sometimes, I will let an owner make a few mistakes and then when they do something right, I’ll point that out. Sometimes, I won’t even address the failure because it could be just a single mistake. If it looks like it’s going to be a repetitive problem, then I’ll address when I see it again.
But what happens if I notice the failure and I don’t know what to do from there? The best thing to do is to stop training. Sometimes you can skip right over a failure and keep going. But most of the time, it trips you up. That’s usually my cue to take a break, refocus myself and give my mind a break. Once I’ve calmed down, then I can go back and analyze what happened and where I went wrong.
What if failure happened because I didn’t have control of the situation? Lack of control over the environment isn’t a true failure, at least not in the context we’re discussing today. However, it should give you pause to consider how effective your training is and perhaps reconsider how and where you train. When you can’t control the environment and something goes awry, it’s time to get out of that environment. Training only works when you can keep your dogs attention and you can stay calm and focused. So, when you’re practicing out in the world, have an exit strategy planned and ready to implement.
Failure is going to happen, be prepared for that. But every failure is an opportunity to find weaknesses and strengthen them. Keep working, keep trying, keep failing, and you will succeed.
Happy tails everyone!
-Ben the Dog Trainer