Home Dog The Thrill of Victory Comes with the Slump of Defeat (No Agony Necessary)

The Thrill of Victory Comes with the Slump of Defeat (No Agony Necessary)

The Thrill of Victory Comes with the Slump of Defeat (No Agony Necessary)


So, last year Jim built me some beautiful raised beds so that I could grow veggies without fighting the jungle of weeds that encroach all my gardens like an advancing army. The beds are so high that I don’t have to bend over to tend them—Jim actually had to make one shorter when I realized I wouldn’t be able to reach the top of the peas without a ladder. We filled the bottoms with logs, and the top 2/3 with expensive soil that the dirt dude, who was highly recommended, guaranteed me would be perfect for growing vegetables.

And then I made a foolish mistake and didn’t have the soil tested, it looking rich and black and wonderful. And thus, the results are a testament to the inevitable duo of gardening: triumph and failure. The chard is luxuriously healthy, and the peas have a necklace of delicate white flowers about to turn into tasty, crunchy pods. The onions, however, squeezed up a single stalk, as thin as a human hair, and then sat in misery for a month. The carrots sprouted their two tiny cotyledons, and then froze as if they weren’t alive, only a photograph.

   Four weeks of growth, after sprouting. As in, no growth at all.

I walked down there this morning, measuring the beds to figure out how much phosphorus to add (the gardeners among you have already figured out that the soil is, at the very least, deficient in phosphorus), feeling very philosophical about it all. I’d been kicking myself for not getting the soil tested, but have evolved into remembering that gardening is like that: Full of failures and successes. You learn that pretty fast when you get into gardening: Some things work, some don’t. You just keep plugging away, stop making one kind of mistake and swap it for another. Other times, no mistake necessary, stuff just happens. Perhaps the tree you bought wasn’t aware that where you put it was PERFECT for what the tree was supposed to need, and died on you the week the guarantee from the nursery was over. (I’m talking to you, Serviceberry.) Or the Zinnia seeds that never sprouted, for no reason whatsoever, except that they decided that you didn’t deserve them.

Experienced gardeners get used to it: Some things work. Some things don’t.

You might wonder why I’m writing this in a blog about animal training and our relationship to dogs and other companion animals. A reasonable question. I starting with garening, because while walking back to the house, it struck me that animal training is no different than tending to other living things, like dog training. We all have moments of something we’ve been working on turning out well, our own personal thrill of victory—the bird dog who, after a year of training, ignored the chickens! The dog who lost it when even seeing another dog down the street sent her into hysteria, who now has a bevy of play partners!

But we all have the other side, the “failures,” the mistakes, the behaviors that never changed, no matter how hard we tried; the lessons we thought we’d learned, but hadn’t. This is just life, right? Who can be perfect, or right, or successful all the time? And yet, we can be soooo hard on ourselves when things don’t work out as we wanted, or expected, or dreamed. And don’t many of us pay more attention to our failures than our successes?

Most of us do. It’s a thing. It’s called the Negativity Bias,and has been studied by psychologists for decades. It makes sense that our brains and limbic system remember negatives over positives from an evolutionary perspective: Good things are rarely dangerous, but bad things might be. It’s easy to oversimplify it–remembering where the water hole is could indeed save your life, but it’s more likely that forgetting that’s where the predators lurk will get you killed.

Examples are everywhere. Just look at the news, which, if you analyze it thoughtfully, is overwhelming focused on negative things. Why is a car crash more newsworthy than a scientific breakthrough? And why does The book Anna Karenina famously begin with “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s been taken as gospel ever since. Except it’s not true. Why would all happy families be alike? They aren’t, but unhappy families are more interesting to read about, because we are hard wired to pay attention to conflict. Conflict is drama, and that is what gets the clicks, the TV show renewed, and the pages of the book turning.

Like me, I suspect you see this Negativity Bias all around you, in dog sports and family dog training. I’ve had wonderful clients who can’t stop beating themselves up for one small mistake they made, when otherwise they’ve moved heaven on earth for their dog. And, like me, I suspect you can fall into it yourself. I just did it myself recently, when I yelled No!, harshly, to Skip when, 1) he was actually doing the right thing, and 2) who cares what he was doing? Herding dog handlers have to raise their voices when their dogs are a long way away, but yelling harshly, in anger, is not something I ever, ever want in my repertoire. Especially if the dog was right to begin with. I knew it happened because I was exhausted and stressed, but it’s occurrence took up a ridiculously disproportionate amount of my mental energy. I ruminated about it for days, when 99.99999% of the time Skip and I had worked seamlessly together. Based on his behavior, I’d guess that Skip shook it off within seconds.

This last weekend, Skip and I ran in a small trial and were both at our best. His runs weren’t perfect, but he listened beautifully, our mistakes were small glitches, and it all felt like floating downstream. We got our best score ever on Sunday, and I would bet the farm that he was as pleased as I was after we were done. And, I could also guarantee you that normally I would give that success far less psychological energy than the time I spent in angst about the mistake I made a few weeks ago.

But not this time. We can all counter this negativity bias, but we have to do it consciously. There are a lot of ways to counter this bias, including starting by being aware of it. That’s my suggestion for our village right now–why don’t you join me and comment about two things? First, a mistake you made with your dog. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering, just something you’ve done that you wish you’d done differently.  Get it out there so it doesn’t fester in the dark. Remind yourself that mistakes are made all the time, and they are rarely as big a deal as we think they are. (Defeats do not have to be agony!!) Counter with a success that deserves attention. Again, it might be something small, but something that is worthy of attention, maybe more than it’s gotten before. Because, our successes DO deserve attention right, even if they are small? They don’t need a score or a prize, they just need our attention and our acknowledgement that they matter.

I’ve already given you mine, your turn now. (Note: My list of mistakes could go on for days, but I’ll spare you.) I can’t wait to celebrate with you!


MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Jim got some photos of our run on Sunday; this first photo is of him early in his outrun. I just love the power conveyed. (The other dog in the photo is actually holding Skip’s sheep out of the frame on the right. It might look like Skip is running the wrong way, but his outrun was actually lovely; the dogs need to go around in a wide circle to avoid moving the sheep before they are in position.)

We made all of our panels both runs, here’s Skip sending them through the 2nd set of panels on the cross drive. The cross drive has been the hardest section of the trial for us, and both times it was smooth, very close to on line, and sort of gorgeous. I’ll savor that for awhile.

Pretty sweet shade, thanks to Jim putting up our Pop Up. (Yes, Skip and Maggie are watching a run!)

I’ll leave you with something I posted on Facebook lately:

How to Know You Married Well:

Me: Jim, we need to burn the brush pile soon, it’s getting too high. (“We,” of course, as every husband knows, means “you.”)

Jim: Okay. I’ve been waiting for some rain, it’s been so hot and dry it’s felt dangerous to burn.

Me, a day later, after a smidgeon of rain, and moist air: “Wait! Don’t burn the pile! There are wrens nesting in it!

Jim: But, it’s gonna get hot and dry again, and if I don’t burn now, I might lose the chance.

Me: But there are baby wrens inside!

This conversation occurred between 1) me, a woman who has adopted a Robin pair as family members (Robert and Roberta), has named the three hummingbirds who come to the window feeder (Boss Female, Black Belly, and Rupert) and, is good friends with one of them (Boss Female recognizes her and accepts her close by), and obsessively tracks the Phoebe nest (tended by, yeah, Pheobe), on an hourly basis, and 2) Jim, a man who, to his everlasting credit, spent part of a morning re-uniting a doe with her fawn who had been stuck on one of our small fenced pastures. Not to mention wisely evaluating the emotional state of his partner, and thus saying “Just let me know when the wrens are fledged.”

This man is a keeper.

And, I’ll bet, as dog owners, so are you. Send us your Thrills of Victory and your No Reason to Agonize Defeats. Our village loves to celebrate, and we all have your back.





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