Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Joy of Making Mistakes

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m something of a perfectionist. You would think this personality type would lend itself to competition obedience- after all, who else other than a perfectionist would be willing to address the millions of little details that it requires? Straight fronts, precise heeling, unwavering eye contact, so many things to pick at and obsess about.

But I found no joy in it. Instead, I got overwhelmed by the prospect of doing it wrong. I worried endlessly about breaking my dog. I was positive I would make a mistake so serious that I’d never be able to fix it, and I’d be doomed to unreliable and sloppy performances forever after.

Between all of the different dog training blogs, forums, and email lists I read, it’s no wonder I freaked out. Should I use pivot boards and platforms, or are these impossible to fade? Should I use a target on the ground or on the wall for go-outs? Tie down scent articles or not? How often should I reward my dog, and with what? Should I talk or remain silent? And how do I tell my dog she was wrong if I won’t use physical corrections?

In the end, I was paralyzed by fear. Faced with so many choices, I made the easiest, and did nothing. By not training, I couldn’t make mistakes… but my dog wasn’t learning anything, either.

So what’s a perfectionist to do?

Well, I started by acknowledging that there are many ways to train a dog, even within my particular training philosophy. Doing this allowed me to accept that even if I made a complete and utter fool of myself with one method, there would be another way of training the skill. I would not have to give up on my goals entirely.

A video still from a heeling session. We are having FUN.
Next, I simply chose the one that seemed the most fun. I figured that making a mistake was inevitable at some point, so I might as well be enjoying it, you know?

I also decided that Maisy should be having fun, too. Unlike me, Maisy does not care one whit about scores and placements and titles. She just wants to go and play with me. As it turns out, I don’t get much joy from watching her plod through an exercise, so this worked well for us both.

And then I started training. These days, I train for speed and enthusiasm. I train for eagerness and intensity. I train for joy. Yes, we make mistakes, and yes, it’s quite possible it will all fall apart some day. But so what? It seems like everyone has to re-train something anyway, so we’ll be in good company. Besides, if we have to start over again, it just gives us that much more to do together.

This has been working quite well for me. Maisy has learned a lot, and we’ve been making great progress. She picks up on things quickly, and she’s developed skills I’d almost written off. As for my desire for scores and placements, well, Maisy’s recent success seems to speak for itself. Oh, and did I mention that we’ve been having tons of fun together?

Perfectionist or not, this is why I train: because I love my dog and want to do things with her. And I’ve been able to enjoy our time together even more by discovering the joy of making mistakes.


Kristen said...

Megan said I had to read this. What does that say about me? I guess she thinks my dog plods along?

As always, love your writing!

Joanna said...

This post struck a chord with me. I have to occasionally remind myself that I WILL definitely, unavoidably make mistakes, since this is my first time training a dog for obedience and agility. As time goes on we make fewer and we also recover more quickly from the shake-up, but even the top trainers make mistakes here and there.

Jette said...

I think I have the same problem. Trying to make everything perfectly and correctly just takes the joy out of training. Perfectionists can't have fun.

andrea said...

" It seems like everyone has to re-train something anyway, so we’ll be in good company."


never thought of it quite that way but very true
great and true post - fear sure can be paralyzing for us as well as our canine friends!

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

Act first then reevaluate :)

Although I'm totally not a perfectionist. But since I like obedience and want to do well everyone always assumes so. It's just fun to train!

lorac said...

When I decided that success in agility was defined by how happy Jarah was at the end of the run, our performance actually improved. Another positive change was letting go a criterion that created some tension. We're not world class competitors, we're having FUN. As long as she's safely performing the equipment, what does it matter really if she stops short on the contact equipment? Her mood improved when I let it go.

The journey and the teamwork make it the BEST EVER. Maisy is a champion for happily being there with you. Smile at your girl as you compete. And thank her when you finish for having you along for the ride.

@Joanna- even the best trainers make mistakes ALL the time. A "perfect" run doesn't happen often. My agility trainer encourages all of us to just keep going when a mistake happens. It's excellent advice and I try to live by it. (I didn't in the beginning, but so much happier that I do now.)