Have you, in recent years, tried to learn something that was completely new, in a public setting? Such as taking a dance lesson, a language course, or being asked to solve a problem on the chalkboard, in front of the class? How did it feel to get something wrong, to perform poorly?
I’ve been trying something new lately (teaching a single puppy kindergarten class, under the supervision of a much more experienced trainer) and one night, I felt like I did a poor job. I was tired, and got a little manic, I think. I talked too much and had the class do too little. I was beating myself up about it afterward, when my trainer friend, very mildly agreed with my self-assessment. If I was a dog, in terms of a “correction,” it was maybe equivalent of a squinty expression or a soft word in a disappointed tone from the handler – most dogs wouldn’t even notice it! And yet, I found myself awash with feelings of frustration and remorse. I found myself dreading the next class. I thought about giving up.
Okay, I admit it: If I was a dog, I’d probably be a neurotic, sensitive, longing-to-be-perfect Border Collie. I feel extremely uncomfortable when I find myself in a situation in which I cannot immediately excel.
And then I thought: How much do our dogs feel exactly like this, when we take them to public places (especially those packed with other dogs) and ask them to perform? And even if they are never punished, if they don’t excel – and so aren’t treated with expressions of the utmost of appreciation and delight – how do they feel about going back for more? Suddenly I understood why agility dogs sometimes leave the course, even though they love running agility at home.
Maybe this is too much anthropomorphizing. But the thought keeps coming back to me: I can see why dogs sometimes “opt out” of training. It’s stressful to be put on the spot, expected to learn something new, to perform in front of others, and in the process, to fail to get it right (at least some of the time, because nobody is perfect!). And this thought has made me want to try even harder to learn to teach others to train their dogs in the most fun – and truly “error-free” – way possible.