“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. This 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.