You are a human being, not some infallible celestial being. You will make mistakes in your training or when you when are trialing, and that is completely okay.
"Are you saying that I shouldn't try to do the best I can?!"
Of course not.
As a handler and a trainer (because if you are training your dog, you are indeed a trainer), your goal should always to be to work toward an ideal. But it is just that: an ideal. You will likely never reach that ideal. There will always be something you have to work on. There will be that "thing" that you have to further improve, a skill that you have to keep finessing. Something to do with your handling. How it is you set-up a practice session. How you trial. How you approach a given odor puzzle. How you read the wind and surmise what will be going on in a given search area. Needing to work on those skills is completely normal and expected. If you were perfect, you would be running the universe and making it so the world and life as a whole wasn't so messy and imperfect, not stressing about a measly dog sport title or dog training goal.
"But I read/heard/saw I needed to do XYZ and I didn't do it right!"
Okay. Do you know how to do it better in the future?
Did you completely break your dog?"
"I don't think so...."
Did you learn why you should things a bit different next time, and why that different approach will better serve you and your dog?
Then you're good.
"I don't know..."
It's called learning.
Your dog is not the only one who is learning and perfecting skills, you are too. Sometimes those skills are how to set-up the learning exercises for your dog.
"Well, you're an instructor. I'm sure you never make mistakes like this..."
You'd be surprised.
Just last night I set-up a HORRIBLE search for my boy, and had to step in to help him because the search was blatantly unfair. Two Clove hides right next to each other. As in, right-next-to-each-other. He came up and found one hide, wonderful! He found the other hides within the search area. Fantastic! He was cued to find more. And he searched. And he searched. And he searched some more. He went back to the first Clove hide he found over and over and over again. I finally stepped in, with a pit in my stomach and shame in my heart. He finally found the second Clove hide with a ton of direction from me. My poor boy.
"...Why did you do that?"
I was excited after listening to the Start Lines: From Beginning to End Webinar and the notion of practicing a variety of skills to ensure they are kept fine tuned and fresh really spoke to me. I was motivated, excited and wanted to dive right in! We were going to work on a couple of different things: threshold hides, corner hides and ground hides. And wouldn't you know, he rocked them all! Three repetitions with, four hides in each search with a variety of those odor puzzles and he was a rock star. Good boy! He was game for more, so I set-up our final repetition. Converging odor is a good puzzle, let me set that up!
Except, what I set-up was NOT a converging odor problem. It was a trick question. It was an unfair hide placement. It was a mistake.
"What did you do afterwards?"
I held a BIG party with him after we finished that debacle of a search, put him in a down around the corner, and set-up a super easy recovery search: a paired tin puttied to ground in the middle of the kitchen.
I released him to search, he found it immediately, and I rewarded him a TON. We then held a HUGE party and played his favorite game.
He had the time of his life and I used my best acting skills to not allow how angry and disappointed I was in myself to show through.
After 10 minutes of tug-chase treats-his favorite tricks-chase some more treats, I gave him a special chew and went in another room to just sulk for a minute.
I failed my dog. I did the one thing I harp on with all of my students NOT to do. What the hell was I thinking?!
Then I saw a little black nose poking through the door opening. Ever the caretaker, the boy wanted to know why the mama was beating herself up this time.
I brushed it off, and reminded myself that while I may be an instructor, a professional trainer and a trial official, I am still human. I make mistakes. I let my excitement get the better of me. A converging odor problem would have been a fine puzzle to set-up, a trick question was not. Lesson learned, that is the important part.
"Does he still like that game? Was he broken at all?"
He LOVES his sniffy game! A long reinforcement history over a several years has ensured that he is insulated from a mistake here or there. We did a search today and he was on fire. We did do an APPROPRIATE converging odor problem, and he rocked it. So the mother had a good learning experience, and the boy did some wonderful searching.
The moral being this: you will, at some point in your training, make a mistake. Should these mistakes be avoided? Of course. But you will make a mistake at some point. Own up to it. Learn from it. Don't beat yourself up about it too much. Move on from it. Your dog will not harp on this, you shouldn't either.
Give yourself permission to strive toward being a better handler and trainer without seeking perfection. Doing so will grant you the ability to truly learn and improve. Your dog will also thank you for taking this reasonable approach, because it will bleed over to how you approach their training and how perfect (or not perfect) you are requiring them to be. Having more realistic expectations for both you and your dog will help both of you.
Author: Dianna L. Santos, KPA-CTP, CPDT-KA, CNWI
Dianna has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.
Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Pet Dog U, Dog Sport University and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined PDU, DSU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU, DSU and SWU and increased learning opportunities all of these online dog training platforms can provide.
In June 2021, Dianna and her business partner, Sean McMurray launched Cyber Scent Work, Inc., an organization that operates in the gray space between training and trialing in Scent Work. With Cyber Scent Work, Inc., handlers have the opportunity to earn Qs, titles and ribbons while also receiving helpful training advice regardless of whether they qualify or not! Be sure to check out Cyber Scent Work, Inc., you will be happy you did!