Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Art of Screwing Up

At the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, there's a guy who spends all day at a booth playing chess. He wins. Or more accurately, he loses about once a week. My understanding of chess ranks up there with rocket science and trying to figure out what doctors are thinking, so one day I asked him what the secret was to becoming a master chess player.

"Well, I've won more games than anyone else here," he said. Then he leaned forward, face serious. "I've also lost more games than all of the people here combined."

Of course, there's more to being an expert than spectacularly failing at what you do. Mistakes are part of any learning process; it's what you do with your mistake that marks you as a professional or an amateur.

I'm being cliché again, aren't I? Okay, here's what it looks like when I screw up:

Yesterday, Rubi was in a weird mood. She was crabby at the other dogs, extra hyper, and generally rebelling against the house rules. I'm not blaming her for anything. I have days when I don't feel like following the rules, and they usually coincide with the days when I wish everyone would just leave me alone. Rubi's been spayed, so I think I'll blame it on the fact that none of us get to see the sun anymore. Hmmm, maybe she could use a vitamin D supplement . . .

Anyway, I'm rambling. I got to class with B all excited to do more work on our new pseudo-forced relaxation. We got in the door, settle onto our mat, and then B was having NONE OF IT. Roll over on her side? Sure. Stay there? Um, no not today.

I am only human, and being only human, I got frustrated. This worked so well last week! What is wrong with you, you horrible beast?!? I got more irritated and impatient, until finally Rubi, after giving me a final, pointed glance, decided the wall was more interesting than me. I was no longer worth paying any attention to at all. Screw you, lady.


I resisted the urge to storm out of the class, toss B in the car, and go home. Grow-ups shouldn't throw temper tantrums, and I'm trying very hard to be a grown-up (most days, anyway). Instead, I took five seconds to take a deep breath and try to figure out what happened.

It's funny how a deep breath often brings a different perspective. B wasn't saying "screw you" when she refused to acknowledge me. She was saying, "You screwed-up, crazy lady; I'm going to stop giving you attention until you calm down."

Boy, it's irritating when your own training techniques get used against you. Being part of a team means you have to communicate and compromise every once in a while. So the next time B glanced at me, I marked and rewarded her (thanks for giving me a second chance, dog). We did a few no-brainer exercises: sit, down, shake left paw, shake right paw, touch (my sanity has returned, please work with me again). Then, we worked on stuff that was a little more interesting to B, and a little less important to me. Could I have forced the issue on the relaxation exercise? Sure, but it wouldn't have been any fun for either of us.

Instead, we played 101 Things to Do With a Traffic Cone. We worked on sending B to her mat from a distance. We practiced left finishes and down on recall. We played crate games. It didn't take me long to figure out that B didn't really care about the other dogs. She wanted to work. She just didn't want to work on what I wanted to work on. It's not the end of the world. There will be plenty of opportunities to practice on relaxation in the future (and you can bet that we will). Dog training should be fun. If it's not a life or death issue, and it's not fun, it might be time to reanalyze why we're doing what we're doing.

One of my best friends is big into horses. Her world revolves around her horses the way mine revolves around the dogs. I once sat in on one of her horse-back riding lessons. During the lesson, her instructor told her, "You are not the important part of the equation; you are there to make your horse look good." I've tried to remember those words in dog training, particularly in training for competition. If I can make my dog look good, everything else will fall into place. Part of making Rubi look good is finding out what works for us. Trial and error means that occasionally something we try will be wrong. That's okay. It's how we recover from being wrong that's important.

"I'm wrong all the time. It's how I get to right."
                        -Gil Grissom, CSI


  1. I always find it easier to patient when working with other people's dogs rather than my own. It's so hard not to push things and just relax!

  2. I'm finding your blog fascinating. I'm impressed that Rubi has managed the CA class. Great work!

    Nancy (I'm Tiva on pit bull friends, with Vanya the impulsive young pittie: