I feel like a failure regularly. While some of you real dog trainers are yelling “that’s because you are!” many of you are nodding your heads in sympathy and camaraderie. Some of the failures are laughable blips – you don’t get what you want but you get something that teaches you that much more about how your dog thinks and acts. Some of the failures are catastrophic and terrifying – lost dogs, serious fights, or a blown off recall that involves roads and cars.
Thankfully I do not have to admit to many of the catastrophic failures, and so far all my dogs have survived my ownership, living to ripe old age in relative health and safety. But the small to medium failures happen with greater frequency than I’d prefer. My husband and I were talking about this the other morning, and his context for failure was woodworking. He had spent days on a project only to have the finishing go badly awry. Time, effort, and money lost. He had to back up several steps and try again. He quoted a woodworking guru on failure: Christopher Schwartz’s column entitled “Failing since 1993” is all about letting go of the notion that somehow – by putting time, money, effort, practice, and paying your dues in bruises and worse – you no longer fail. Sure it happens less frequently, and good lord willing, less catastrophically, but it never stops. The failures never end. They keep us humble. And they keep us hungry – hungry to learn more, get more curious, dig deeper, and go beyond the obvious.
Hawkitt just nipped me. It was a classic asshole nip – I ended playtime and was walking him into the house. He wanted to take the toy and run away with it. I said no. He twisted his head around like a godforsaken owl or Linda Blair and nailed me in the forearm with his tiny front razorblade teeth. We’ve been at this for three years. He’s been through a million repetitions of ending play time with dignity. And here I am, at repetition number one million and one, with a fresh bruise. I feel like a failure.
Is there anything I could have done to prevent this? Sure: for starters, don’t adopt dogs like Hawkitt. His doing and his undoing is his intensity and drive. I understand the nip as “overflow” – he did it not because of dominance or because I never trained him to respect me or any other explanation I’m sure half of you formulated in your head as you read the previous paragraph. He nipped me because that’s what dogs like him do. Period. The fact that he *doesn’t* nip me 99.99% of the time makes this noteworthy. But it still hurts and I still feel like a failure because I do not want to get nipped.
Failures are a central part of the process. They force us to learn and they insist we get better at this – whatever this might be. They are the discomfort that prods us into new territory, and our dogs lead the way. There is always new territory. The learning never ends. And the failing never ends.