One evening a couple of weeks ago, I shouted to a psychotherapist friend of mine across the field at obedience practice, “Hey, what is that thing that happens to you when you fail over and over and over again? When you don’t get rewarded for behavior you think is right and you stop trying?”
“Learned helplessness,” she shouted back. “All-too common in obedience dogs.”
Right. Learned helplessness. It refers to a discovery psycho-behaviorist Martin Seligman made in the late 1960s while messing with the minds of dogs; dogs exposed to electric shocks and offered no way out stoppedtrying to escape even when a solution became clear. A less dismal version of a similar phenomenon is what Ur-clicker-trainer Karen Pryor calls “extinction”: You,
the rat, hit the lever over and over and no little piece of food comes out. You, the dog, scratch on the box where the scent is and yet never hear the click and get the Charlie Bear. You, the human, venture into the competition ring over and over again and yet never get to stand with the judge and other qualifying teams and receive that little green ribbon that says success. You get anxious. Depressed. Eventually you stop trying.
I have in my possession a number of worn and worried pieces of paper, each about four inches wide and five inches high, with little marks penciled on them in the right-hand column. Technically,
they’re records of failure: At the bottom of that right-hand column on each card are the letters “NQ”. NQ as in non-qualifying. NQ as in no little green ribbon. NQ as in no one will ever care how lovely Thomas heeled that day. I sent him to the wrong glove, and we failed.
And failed and failed and failed and failed.
From another angle, however, these scorecards I have collected might be evidence of success. I have kept precisely 14 cards, because that’s the number of times we have failed in Utility A by only one of the five exercises. Considering that, in 2012, an average of 86 percent of the teams that enter this class fail to qualify, doing four right used to seem to me like something to be proud of. It meant, yeah, we’ll do it eventually. Just
got to dial in some handling moves here. Get our ring confidence. Only a matter of experience and time.
Except it wasn’t. Or at least it hasn’t been, yet. In addition to those 14 near-misses there have been countless less successful attempts— countless because I stopped counting — in which Thomas brought his article to the judge, ran madly around the ring killing his
glove, refused a jump or played to the crowd. There were also days when I performed the entire heeling pattern without a dog, because Thomas was too shut down or confused or stressed to even walk by my side. And there were days when he seemed so broken in the ring that I would have given anything to turn him back into that crazy animal looking for a game; when I just wanted to bundle
him up in my arms and apologize for subjecting him to any of this.
It got sad, really. It did.
(And yes, of course, during all this time he was spectacular in practice.)
Last winter our ring performance completely fell apart, and I decided to take some time off. Or maybe quit, I didn’t know. We went back to agility to restore our broken little souls, and to think — well, at least for me to think, I don’t know that Thomas thought (but I don’t know that he didn’t) — about what was going so wretchedly, irretrievably
Martin Seligman now pioneers what he calls the “positive psychology” movement, based on the idea that our well-being depends less on what we actually possess or achieve but on how we perceive what we have. Some of that perception is beyond our control — just as the teeming little terrier brain by nature focuses on the flickering tree leaves in search of vermin, humans each have different capacities for positive perception. Yet I can persuade little Mr. Ratkiller that watching me has value. Can I also alter my own perception of our work?
Seligman’s work has been debunked by some (Barbara Ehrenreich, one of my personal heroes, gives it a hard shove in her book, Bright-Sided: How positive thinking is ruining America), which, you know, I understand to some extent. We are salty, impermanent kingdoms, as the poet Robert Bly put it, not actually invincible superheroes shining brighter than the sun, regardless of what pop music tells
us. We have limits; we should not deceive ourselves otherwise or get too confident. But I’m not monitoring nuclear plant safety or landing planes on the Hudson here; I’m just training a dog. I’m not trying to touch the sun; I want to be content basking in it.
And so bask I will. We’re going back in the ring June 2. My goal, my only goal: To forget that we’re going for a leg or a title or anyone else’s (or organization’s) approval. To perceive of our performance, however flawed, as a success in some small way, regardless of the scorecard. In fact, I’ll make my
own scorecard this time. And I’ll keep it.
Many thanks to John Oshiro for the photos: Thomas working the article pile at the Southwest Obedience Club Trial and carrying his glove at Top Dog.