Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Coping with “Failure” in Dog Training – Join the Club!


Sarah Wilson and PipI had learning “disabilities” long before there even were such things. When I was speaking incoherently at five, the words people had for that were slow or retarded or just somehow “wrong.” I was lucky to have a mother who studied early childhood education and got me the help I needed but not before damage was done.

Not before labels and mocking did their painful work—making me skittish to try new things in front of people and hard on myself about even the smallest of errors. When no one mocked me, I mocked myself.

Brutally. Relentlessly. Silently.

That hard habit can come from any number of places: a parent who mocks, a teacher who judges, a peer who picks, a sibling who jeers or a coach who crushes.

Any of those experiences can turn normal trial-and-error learning into a nasty, stinking, wad of historical pain. If during learning you get tense, assume the worst, feel judged before anyone speaks, or say horrible things to yourself then join the club. A club I lived in for decades.

No more.

I have a new club and everyone is invited. Here are the rules:

  • We speak to ourselves as we would speak to a cherished child.
  • We know that messiness of learning marks effort – not error.
  • We sympathize when we’re caught by some ancient emotional undertow while we remind each other that the past can stay there. It ceases to have power just as soon as we stop defining ourselves by it.
  • We celebrate the gifts of our pasts. Might as well, we earned them. A few of mine are: great enthusiasm for and dedication to teaching from a positive place. Compassion for both ends of the leash. Determination. “Out of the box” thinking. Courage. Would I know all that, be all that, without those early experiences? Probably not so now I accept them as part of my unique journey.
  •  We embrace that everyone “fails” in dog training. It can’t be helped. Communicating with another species is complicated (heck, communicating with each other is complicated!) Training is like throwing darts at a dart board. As you get better, those darts cluster closer to the center but no one, no one, hits the bull’s-eye all the time. Something that doesn’t work is just useful information, not damning failure. An alert to slow down, reassess, change methods or attitude, take a break, phone a friend or to try again. Training is a dance you do with the dog and a dance that gets smoother and smoother as you both get to know the steps.

You want to join this club?

Fantastic! Welcome! Onward we go!

If you like my blogs, you’ll love these books: How to Train Your Dog to ComeMy Smart PuppyChildproofing Your DogDogologyTails from the Barkside.


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