Friday, November 15, 2013

Fear and Failure

While writing that last post, I got to thinking about failure.

I know that I'm going to fail in the ring occasionally. It always sucks to lose, and it sucks exponentially more to lose like we did last weekend. But I know right at the outset that it's something we're going to have to accept, because the nature of trialing with a genetically fearful dog is that you will lose ALL THE TIME.

No matter how much you practice, how good your dog is at home, or how many fun matches and show-and-goes you do, you will fail. Your dog will get scared or stressed and melt down. There's nothing you can do about it but make fun of yourself, give your dog a cookie for trying (because trying counts! Trying counts for a lot!), and go home to practice some more and hopefully do better next time.

Keeping Pongu out of competition until he's "more comfortable" isn't a viable approach (although we've had a couple of instructors who recommended it) because I've learned that the only way this dog gets more comfortable is by being exposed to those environments again and again, and being asked to work in them again and again. He needs that history of success to build his confidence.

So we fail. A lot.

Our road to every achievement we've ever gotten in dog sports has been littered with a huge proportion of NQs and crappy scores in relation to our Qs and good scores. Again: we racked up 22 NQs in Level 3A alone before we got the 3 Qs needed for that title. We've gotten well over 50 total NQs this year. When I say we fail a lot, I mean A LOT.

That's okay (I can say now, after nursing an awful lot of pride bruises over the past 14 months). What matters is not the fact of failure, but how you handle it. Eventually, over the long haul, if you are patient and encouraging and willing to cheer your dog through enough failures, you succeed. Your dog will learn that nothing terrible happens when he freezes up or panics, and that great things happen when he overcomes his fear and works.

And that builds his confidence. He's more willing to keep trying, because he thinks that he can't lose -- he can only win.

For a fearful dog, in my opinion, that is a crucial lesson. It needs to be taught early and often: you will always try, because there is no reason to be afraid of failure.

I don't care (much) if Pongu NQs. I do care, very much, that he goes into the ring and tries. That's what I count as a win. And he knows it, so he's willing to go in there and work to the very best of his ability. Sometimes that gets us a good score and a nice placement, and other times it doesn't -- but because he keeps trying, and keeps being rewarded for trying, the former is true (and true under circumstances that would have been unimaginable a year ago) more often than the latter.

Anyway, the reason I was thinking about this yesterday was because I think one of the reasons I've gravitated so strongly toward force-free training methods is because I have a dog whose success depends on failing X number of times and being given constant encouragement to "fail upward" each time.

Sometimes I wonder what my perspective would be like if I didn't have this near-certainty of failure to look forward to (and back upon). I know that there's no point getting mad at Pongu for being overcome by terror, and I also know that's the only reason he ever screws up, so therefore the only reasonable response to his NQs is to be supportive and encouraging. And since we've been doing this for a while, I can also look back and see that being supportive and encouraging really works for my dog.

I can't punish my dog for being afraid. He's not being disobedient or defiant or "giving me the finger." He's doing the best he can, always. And because the ring is already such a terrifying environment for him, it's incumbent upon me to make the work as enjoyable and inherently rewarding as possible -- which means using lots and lots of R+ training techniques to build up its value in his mind.

I suspect the same is true for an awful lot of dogs whose owners don't see it, though, because their symptoms aren't as severe. When your dog breaks down because he's a shivering, tail-tucked, panicky wreck, everyone can see that he's failing out of fear. But when the symptoms are a little subtler -- maybe just a slightly glassy stare, a distracted loss of eye contact, and a suggestion of a fear grimace that could be mistaken for a "smile" -- then I wonder if the handlers always catch it, or see it for what it is.

And I wonder if they're afraid of failure because they haven't had to deal with it as often, and if their increased attempts to regain "control" reflect that fear.

I'm not afraid of failure anymore. Maybe I'm lucky that we've gone through so much of it this year, early in our shared dog sport career, before Pongu or I had a history of success to worry about losing.

For us, failure is the precursor to success, not the first sign of its loss. It means we're on the way to gaining control, not losing it. And it's nothing at all to fear.

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