Failure Must Always Be An Option

“Deb-ra, it’s 10:00, get to bed!” I’d been in the basement for hours learning how to use the pogo stick my parents had given me that day for my birthday. Throughout my childhood there were many skills I practiced for hours or days. There was the set of stilts my father made for me after we’d seen a kid walking downtown on a pair and the requisite hula hoop and soon to be discontinued clacker balls that had the unfortunate tendency to shatter and take out eyeballs. I gave up on yo-yo’s after mastering the basic up and down motion, but kept up with putting my face underwater and never stopped improving my swimming strokes.

Now as an adult I think about the skills I gave up trying to get better at. I learned how to read music but was never good at practicing the piano. Thislex luthor shouting wrong! led to embarrassing lessons and the anxiety that accompanied them. I learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide but soon math became one of the subjects I ‘wasn’t very good at’. When homework or test answers were incorrect they were marked with a big red X that you could see coming before the teacher handed the paper back to you. Get too many wrong and as if the word FAIL wasn’t enough, it was circled with exclamation points.

When failure is painful we are less likely to risk trying again. When it’s a behavior that our life depends on, this might be the right decision, but more often it’s not. Having the opportunity and more importantly, the desire, to try again is how we, and our dogs, learn new skills and behaviors. Failure gives us the opportunity to try again and be successful, or move closer to success. I’d rather see my dogs get it wrong then have them give up trying to get it right. Punishment that is too painful or scary ends more than just the behavior you want stopped. Be careful how you use it.

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12 comments so far

  1. rangerskat on

    This is one of the harder things for me to keep in mind. Not that I shriek Wrong in Finna’s face when she doesn’t give me the wrong answer but that I want to give her feedback to help her get the right answer next time. For Ranger we could often short cut the training process by telling him he’d gotten the wrong answer and by playing a yes/no game of hot and cold to help him figure out the right answer. He has a tremendous amount of confidence and was extremely well socialized when he came to us. Finna has very little confidence and was never socialized. Telling her that isn’t the right answer is hard on her. With Finna I need to constantly be on guard against giving her any sort of negative feedback. That means not using the staples in my Ranger training kit of soft (less than conversational level) nos and slight headshakes. Finna is incredibly smart and to keep her mind engaged I’ve started teaching her the names for her favorite toys. With a toy in each hand held out to my sides I ask her to touch the named toy. When she touches the named toy, last night it was hedgehog or rope, she gets to play with the toy or a tasty treat. If she chooses the wrong toy I just continue to sit there. And yes, if I ask for hedgehog and she touches it while looking longingly at the rope she gets to play tug as a reward. I just need to keep reminding myself that for her no reaction is the only feedback she can manage. And that’s enough of my rambling.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The beautiful thing about being committed to having a positive relationship with ANYONE is that it encourages us to THINK and behave like a grown-up 😉

      • Mel on

        So true! I did a lot of growing with Daisy.

  2. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    I love the way you make things so easy to understand. Making a mistake should have to be embarrassing or degrading – for people or dogs. Thanks for the reminder.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You are most welcome Amy, thanks for saying.

  3. Sweetpea on

    Thank you…again…for yet another beautiful post and reminder. It is so easy to stay in ~ or slip back into ~ old ways, familiar ways that actually just don’t work. Punishment comes in many forms. We should think about that. Not only for our dogs, but for each other.

  4. Mel on

    Great advice Debbie. I really like this post. When I think back on my early years with Daisy I can’t help but remember how many times it was one step forward and two steps back. I can’t remember if I saw them as failures or opportunities to try again, but I am sure I must have seen some of the steps back as failures.

    The one thing I never did was make the failure a painful thing. As little as I knew about fearful dogs back then, the one thing I am glad I did know was failure should never be seen by the dog as something not to try again because I made it worse with pain. Thanks for always reminding us that pain is something that should never accompany working with a dog, fearful or not.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Mel. Not sure why your comments go into the spam folder. So not spam!

  5. Lynn on

    We only use positive methods to teach our dogs, but our anxious, reactive dog, Jasmine, seems to make herself suffer after she’s done something wrong. She often brings us empty food wrappers or other evidence, like “oh, dear, look what I’ve done.” Last week, she came wriggling into the living room, cowering and frantically wagging her tail, and then led us to the kitchen, where she’d spread the trash all over the floor. It’s hard not to laugh, but we just agreed with her that it wasn’t a good thing. Even a sharp “no” can send her into a flap. I suppose her previous owners punished her. Either that, or she’s really got our number.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s easy to make up stories about our dogs and the whys of their behavior. Retrieving is part of many dogs’ behavior patterns. That she’s bringing you evidence ‘may’ just be because she’s doing what dogs do. That it leads to the agreement that she’s done something she shouldn’t have, may be one-sided. She may have no idea that spreading found treasures on the floor is considered inappropriate by the humans in the house, and can’t figure out why the heck it leads to anything other than being fawned over and thanked. Just a thought. 😉

  6. Lynn on

    I think she does know, though. We just investigate (and clean up) when she does the wiggling and frenzied tail wagging; we don’t scold her. We may have reinforced it, though, because we’ve been trying to get her to stop chasing one of our cats, and whenever she skids to a halt mid-chase, which she’ll often do on her own, she’ll run to us with that same wiggling, tail wagging and we reward her. I sometimes wonder who’s training who around here.


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