Dealing with “failure”

“We failed”  “I failed my dog” “My dog’s not going to do that, so why try” “I didn’t go to class because I’m intimidated”

These are all things I’ve heard from students (of NW, Agility and Manners) in the past month.  I may have said some of those, myself!  They are now all considered BANNED PHRASES from any class I teach!

Here’s why.

“We failed”

If you are in class, there is no failing – it’s class! Classes are time to explore and stretch what you and your dog are capable of, see what needs work still, figure out how to get the best from your dog, and figure out how to work your dog when they may be having an off night.  Class is time to practice – known behaviors, new things, reinforce known and new behaviors – all with the eyes of a coach (your trainer) watching.  They can give you tips and pointers, see small things to change to get better results, or tell you you are doing the right thing and are on the right path.  If your dog is having an off night – they are hyper, nervous, fresh (fixed on you and barking) more interested in the other dogs, other smells, crumbs, people, cars going by outside, etc – this is the perfect time to get tips and pointers from your trainer on how to refocus your dog, and bring value to the training session that over-rides whatever else is going on.  Because you know in real life, your dog will have those moments where they lose their brains, and without working through it in a controlled setting with a supportive trainer, you’ll both be frustrated.  There is no failure in class – it is not a test.

“I failed my dog”

So, you mustered up the courage to enter a trial, worked through the nerves of the walk through, judges briefing, stepping up to the start line with all kinds of people watching you and your dog, and you and your dog do great!  You were present, watching your dog work, saw when he was in odor, waited for him to source it, saw the tell tale sign that he was sure he was at source, and called Alert. Yes!  Then the next element (or trial)… you go in feeling pretty good – you’ve done this before, you know your dog is good, you know you can read your dog well – and something doesn’t fall into place.  You call Alert before your dog has driven all the way to source, you hear “30 seconds!” and get nervous and call Alert when your dog is still trying to get to source, or is just sniffing around, your dog gives you a great Alert – but not at source, you don’t move around the search area enough and your dog does not get to source and you time out (or miss a hide in NW3), you see interest – your dog is in odor! – and move in for a closer look, which produces a false alert… there are probably more ways to NOT pass a trial than there are ways to pass!  When you play back (rewind) the tape in your mind from when the judge says No or Where? and realize all the little things you did to produce the false alert, fringe alert or time out, you could kick yourself!  It’s SOOO frustrating!  That could have been a title!  Your friends all titled, and now you have to go to the next trial by yourself while they advance.  You and your dog are better than that!  You have to drive home reliving the moments leading up to the No or Where over and over.  BELIEVE ME – I know and I’ve been there.  It took Jinxx and I two trials to get our NW1, 3 trials to get our NW2 and we just did our 6th NW3 trial a few weeks ago.  Is it discouraging? It can be.  Do I think my dog and I can do it? YES – and that is why I continue.  There are a lot of moving parts in a trial, and it takes a lot for it all to come together on one day.  Did you “fail” your dog? Only if you forgot to give them water all day, or you left them at the trial site and drove off, or you bought them a big stuffed toy for Christmas when they really wanted a Bully Stick.  Of course you didn’t fail them at a trial!  Do they care that there is no picture with a ribbon at the end of the day? Do they care that their name isn’t on the NACSW trial results “Titles Achieved” page? Does it matter to them that they still have to practice with you, go to  class with you, and have to go back to a trial level they’ve already attempted?  Of course not.  It’s our ego that is let down – for me, I want the validation of the ribbon, to validate the training I’ve put in, to showcase my dog and my skills, and for me, I’m a trainer!  Of course I should pass!  It is a humbling experience to be in front of strangers, the Judge, your peers who are volunteering and hear “No” or “where?”  I tell myself to get over myself, and analyze why it didn’t come together for us.  Was I too nervous, which made me tense and over-react (blurt-Alert)? Was I thinking too much, and not in the moment (they wouldn’t just have ONE hide out here, why is she barking/slow/not searching/spooked/not focused?)?  Was I over confident and figured she covered all areas/vehicles, without really giving her access to all areas and vehicles, causing me to call Finish without finding a hide?  Ok, so now that I know what the heck I was thinking in those moments leading up to the No (or incorrect Finish call), I have to MOVE ON – not dwell on my mistakes so much that they are forefront in my mind in the next trial.  Because you know what happens when you focus on one thing – that’s all you see and hear.  Start dwelling on the other searches in that trial, you remember, the ones you passed.  Maybe you passed the element you were most concerned about – think about how good that feels!  Maybe you not only passed, but placed 1st, 2nd or 3rd in an element that has given you trouble in the past – that is a nice accomplishment!  Your hard work IS paying off, you ARE making progress toward your title goal, and now you have more time to practice before the next trial.  If you were THAT close at this trial, think about how much better, stronger, and more prepared you’ll be at the next trial.  And guess what? There will be lots of familiar faces at the next trial – those who are in the same boat as you, still waiting for it all to come together on the same day.  You did NOT fail your dog – you are on a journey with them in the finite amount of time we have with them.  If they are enjoying the trip, how can we not?

“My dog’s not going to do that, so why try?”

If I hear this in class, my jaw drops.  Of course try!  Now is the time to stretch what you know and expect about your dog, and to stretch what your dog is capable of.  You have your coach (trainer) watching and giving you feedback and helping you tweak your approach, or they may offer a totally new way that you hadn’t thought of.  You may not be able to get the FINAL behavior you’re looking for in one night, but your trainer can set you on a path to get closer to that final behavior.  As a trainer, I respect the fact that the owner knows their dog better than I do, but sometimes the owner has that preconceived judgement in their head (“my dog won’t do that”) and I believe if you think it, there is a high probability that it will happen (or won’t, as the case may be).  The worst that can happen is the trainer will be wrong and your dog really won’t do it.

“I didn’t go to class (or trial) because I was intimidated”

Again, ask yourself, what is the worse that can happen?  If things don’t go as planned in class, your coach (trainer) will give you tips, ideas and suggestions to get you and your dog back on track.  Maybe the class level is above where you and your dog are at in training, or maybe the combination of dogs in class (as in manners or agility) are too much or too distracting for your dog – your trainer will have suggestions to help here, too (private lessons, another class level or a class with a different grouping of dogs).  Trainers have an eye for small behaviors and can see the incremental improvements that the average handler misses.  The handler has the end result in mind, the final picture, and gets frustrated when their dog does not fit that picture.  The trainer can point out the progress being made, and give some simpler tasks for that team to feel successful.  Are you afraid your dog will act out, bark, jump up, pull, appear out of control, pee, poop, run off, not listen?  Believe me, trainers (and judges) have seen it all!  No one who has ever owned a dog hasn’t had those things happen.  Are you intimidated by the other competitors?  Everyone has been in your boat at some point.  When I went to my first agility trial, my dogs were both loose in the back of my car, I remembered treats and water, but no chair for me or shade cloth.  Everyone around my had crates, x-pens, tents, shade cloths, red and blue ribbons hanging off their crates, stickers relating to titles on their cars, chairs, coolers, friends… It was really intimidating!  Fast forward to my 5th NW trial (Izzie’s 1st NW1 trial) and I had a shade cloth, chairs, a seatbelt for her, snacks for me, a friend who came with me, I knew one of the judges’ well enough that he said “that’s no Aussie!” and knew several competitors and volunteers.  Fast forward from that day, and a woman at a NW3 trial told me she was intimidated by me at that NW1 trial!  She had been parked next to me, it was her first trial.  She sat in her car by herself all day because she didn’t think to bring a chair and didn’t know anyone.  She said she was lucky she remembered a bowl and water for her dog, and I looked like I was so together and knew what I was doing. Really?  Someone was intimidated by ME?  My first NW trial I used a floral sheet as a shade cloth.  And, btw, this person has 2 NW3 titles more than I do now, so she really had no reason to be intimidated!

Just as there is no failure in class, there is no failure in a trial.  I may not have PASSED, but I didn’t FAIL.  Failure as defined by Webster: 1) omission of occurrence or performance, 2) Lack of success 3) a falling short.  Did I enter a trial, make a whole hearted attempt, and put my best foot forward?  Then there was no omission of performance.  Did I pass at least one element, do something I’d struggled with in practice, pass something I’d had trouble with in past trials?  Than I had success (Success: the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect or fame, 2) the correct or desired result of an attempt) .  Did I fall short of my expectations?  Well, ok, so maybe I did fail short of what I expected us to do (title!) and what I know we are capable of, but if I had a success in other elements, then I say it balances out. I just have to get over myself, be in the moment in EACH element at EACH hide in the WHOLE search area, relax, and enjoy the time with my dog and my friends.  I’m looking forward to going to 2 more new locations before the end of the year – if nothing else, I’m getting a nice tour of the north east.  I’ll be gaining more experience for not only Jinxx, but Izzie and any future dogs, as well as inspiration for my classes.  I’ll be connecting w/ the NW competitors and judges I’ve become friends with over the years and enjoy spending time with, and yes, we get 2 more shots at an NW3 title.  While I’m REALLY REALLY hoping it all comes together for us on one day, both trials will be a success.

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