I’m not very good at accepting my own faults, but I don’t think I’m alone in that. It’s one thing to put them down in writing online, and quite another to be confronted with them in public, while strangers watch. That experience, probably akin to stage fright, is highly embarrassing for a somewhat shy and insecure person.
One of the most important lessons my writing professors at the University of North Carolina taught me was to accept criticism without taking it personally. It was a hard lesson to learn. It consisted of sitting in a writing class with ten to fifteen other people and being told to remain silent while they went around the room and tore something I wrote apart. For anyone who has a passion to do anything, you know that this is a highly emotional experience, and it’s extremely difficult not to take it personally. I see the same thing in Joe when he has to repaint a car. It’s more than just having to do some extra work; it’s a failing in his product, his art. It’s painful. I’m sure it’s the same disappointment that parents feel when their children don’t meet expectations or make a stupid or silly mistake; I’ve seen the pain cross my parents’ faces on many occasions. I used to think it was just embarrassment or disappointment in me, but as I get older, I think it may be something deeper, some kind of profound pain that relates back to personal failings.
It may seem strange that I’m about to link this feeling of pain and disappointment and embarrassment and perhaps even rage to dog training, but if you think on it, it may be right where this emotion lands, but really doesn’t belong any more than it belongs in art or child rearing.
Almost every week I post on my Facebook about Shelby’s classes and how they are going, typically as soon as I get home from a class. Last week, that post was missing.
Last week, Shelby had a terrible class, the worst I’ve ever had with her. Five minutes into the class I asked for a sit to begin an exercise, and she pooped on the floor. Shelby, my eight month old dog, in an advanced training class, where she’s supposed to be the cream of the crop, one of the youngest dogs to make it so far so quickly, and instead of sitting, she shit on the floor. After I shook it off and took her outside and cleaned up her mess and tried not to die of embarrassment, Shelby continued to ignore me for the entire class. She ran around to other dogs’ stations, barked at every person she saw walking by, wouldn’t get down on her mat, wouldn’t target my hand, wouldn’t even sit when I asked her.
There she was, 20 some odd weeks into training, failing to perform behaviors that she’s had solid since she was 12 weeks old. I was mortified, embarrassed, ashamed, shocked. Shelby has been in training constantly since she was 10 weeks old, and she has never had an accident in class, not even as a 10-week old puppy. I couldn’t believe what was happening.
As I grew more and more embarrassed, as the instructor spent more and more time focusing on Shelby and me, critiquing us, however gently, my old fears began to creep to the surface. I could see myself sitting in that room around the circle table, bursting into tears as I tried to defend myself and my work, and the professor scolded me and threatened to kick me out of class for speaking. Fear switched on in my brain, fear that slowly turned to rage. The more and more frustrated I got with Shelby, the more I grit my teeth and sharpened my voice, the less she listened.
Twenty minutes into the class, the instructor told me to go outside and take Shelby and take a break. She said that Shelby needed one. What she really meant was that I did. My feeling of failure was taking over my training and affecting my dog, who has no concept of failure and success.
Shelby didn’t get better after our break, and neither did I. I should have ended it there, instead of ending it on a sour note. I broke one of the clicker trainers’ cardinal rules – never end on a negative note. I did it, because I was angry and ashamed and embarrassed, partly with Shelby, but mostly with myself. I had failed Shelby, and I felt it. More than anything I hate failure, so I kept pushing myself and pushing Shelby when I shouldn’t have, and it just made the situation worse, not better. What happened during that class was not positive reinforcement training, but most of all, it just wasn’t good training. I shouldn’t have let it get that far. I shouldn’t have fought the trainer and tried to make excuses for myself and for Shelby. I should have just shrugged my shoulders and said, “We’ll see you next week”, got back in my car and went home. But no, I couldn’t accept a failure; I couldn’t give up, to the severe detriment of my dog.
Fortunately, Shelby has been trained using solely positive reinforcement since the moment she got off the plane, so I didn’t do any real harm. As it turns out, Shelby was extremely sick that day, for some unknown reason, although it’s hard to tell – maybe the day started off wrong and the stress caused her to be sick. Whatever it was, it made me feel even guiltier for my behavior. The long weekend helped though, and we spent most of the weekend doing short five to ten minute training sessions every hour or so, keeping it fun and light with lots of play and jackpot rewards.
When we went into class yesterday, I took a deep breath, pushed the past back into the past where it belongs and started anew. Shelby did wonderful. She was once again at the top of her class, setting an example for the other dogs. The instructor smiled at me and said, “It seems like you guys got your groove back.”
What happened last Tuesday was just a hiccup, and as miserable as it was for me, and I’m sure Shelby as well, I think it was a lesson I needed to learn. Maybe I had the hyper specific memory of accepting criticism about my writing, but I needed to generalize it to accepting criticism for everything I take pride in. Maybe because that experience is so negative I valiently defend anything I care about to avoid having to go through it again. That one bad lesson taught me a lot though. For one, I realized how much pride I really do take in training my dog. For another, I had to confront my own failings and try to accept them, as well as learning Shelby’s limitations. I still need to work on toning down my defenses and stop trying to make excuses for poor performance. Sometimes things don’t go the way you want, and I need to recognize that we aren’t going to be perfect 100% of the time. Maybe I raise the bar too high sometimes, and instead of being disappointed because Shelby doesn’t touch it one time, I should be more appreciative that she touches it at all.