Overcoming The Colossal Fear of Looking Like A Graceless Noob

A Jack Russell Terrier leaps in the air after a frisbee, with trees in the background
Photo: alexei_tm/Shutterstock

The self-imposed stress of signing up for new dog training endeavours and how a berry U-Pick helped me to get over myself. 

By Kristi Benson CTC PCBC-A, Special Correspondent

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Fear of Failure

“I didn’t know there was going to be a test.” 

I picked another haskap and dropped the dark blue berry in the plastic clamshell on the ground beside me, leaving a tell-tale fingerprint in its dusky bloom. My wife groaned in that not this again way and said “just pick the berries and try to have a good time, ok? It’s a perfect sunny day and there are no bugs.”

We were at a haskap U-Pick, and it’s true, it really was a beautiful day. But the U-Pick maître d’ had shown us to our picking location and given us some unanticipated instructions: please only pick the ripe berries. “There are two harvests”, she said. She pointed out a ripe berry, and then pointed out another berry which looked exactly the same to my horticulturally naive eyes. “See? The unripe berry is a different colour.” 

Random aside: it wasn’t a different colour. 

I sussed out that picking only and all the ripe berries was somehow de rigueur in U-Pick etiquette. This meant, surely, that my inability to pick the correct berry specimens would negatively impact the continued economic stability of the haskap farm and probably destroy the fabric of local agriculture in general and with that, contribute irrevocably to the erosion of the final bulwark against devastating climate change. I was going to fail and people would notice and everything was terrible. 

A punnet of hand-picked haskap berries and a white mug rest on the lawn.
Photo: Yoenne Ewald

In case this parable has left you with any doubt, I detest not being good at the stuff that I do, even if it’s the first time I try it. I assume, because you are also human, you feel this way too. This is the first time I’ve made that assumption public, by the way, so if I’m getting it wrong...please just keep that to yourself, alright? Anyways, as I slowly picked my way through the ripe (I hope) berries in my allotted spot, I thought about how this foible has plagued me, a tiny bit, in my life. 

It’s hard to start new things as a beginner if the thought of being a novice is entirely off-putting, isn’t it? 

To wit: I have a mental to-do list—and a bunch of open browser tabs—of dog training courses I’d love to embark upon, but haven’t drummed up the energy needed to be bad at something long enough to get good at it. Dog training is both a mental exercise (there is technical and theoretical information to intake) and a physical one (there are mechanical skills to master), so it’s a bit of a double-whammy, learning-wise. And typically, before I start anything new, I prepare in much the same way a toddler might eat a pilfered bag of marshmallows: quietly, relentlessly, all alone, and with just a titch of sticky, sickly shame. 

On Being a Novice

Our allotted time at the U-Pick came to an end and we schlepped our berries to the aforementioned maître d’. She smiled at us and weighed our containers, and said “great harvest!”. Of course, on some level I knew that she didn’t really care if I missed some ripe berries or picked some under-ripe berries. Their business model is centered on having the unwashed masses come and pick berries, after all. My contribution to their economic status was remarkably unremarkable. In fact, my actual existence is remarkably unremarkable, and although that kinda stings, it’s also pretty freeing. In her acceptance and forgiveness of my stumbling and bumbling, and primed as I was to think about my inability to just hit “go” on those fun dog training classes, I couldn’t help but think about how similarly forgiving dogs are. 

I’d argue that one of the reasons dogs fit so well into our human lives is their overwhelmingly gracious and chill response to being inappropriately cuddled, coddled, pushed and pulled, and hammered like the little dog-shaped pegs they are into the human-shaped holes in our lives. This especially applies to how they learn. Even those people committed to positive reinforcement training can teach dogs in hilariously awful ways, and a lot of the time, dogs make enough improvement to justify further efforts in the same hilariously awful vein. Before I bit the marshmallow and became a professional dog trainer, I frequently made what was then my best attempt to train dogs, so I have some real experience with this phenomenon. 

"It’s hard to start new things as a beginner if the thought of being a novice is entirely off-putting, isn’t it?"

My failure to click “buy now” isn’t just about the unremarkable economic effect I may or may not be having on my colleagues who offer interesting online dog training classes, though. Training my dogs is fun for them, it gives them new behavioural outlets to express themselves (which also allows them to access new spaces and places), improves our relationship, and heck, it just tickles their cognitive fancy. All of this matters to dogs, in a real and concrete way. And because training dogs is a physical endeavour for us humans, it must, like a beautiful ballet that happens to include little cubes of cheese, be practiced with some frequency. Practice might not make us perfect, but it certainly prevents the gradual decay of our skills. 

Looking, but Leaping Anyways

So later that day, when the sun had set and the bugs came out in droves, and as I shoveled some haskaps into my mouth (accompanied nicely by some ice cream), I pulled out my credit card and hit “go” on a new dog training endeavour. My dogs, I decided, deserved a slightly less self-involved version of me. Sure, I’ll be unremarkable. Sure, I’ll make a fool of myself. But hey, I’m just as sure that my dogs won’t care...and I’ll bet you some haskap jam that the instructor, as a member of the positive reinforcement training community, will be just as gracious as my dogs. 

The, um, instructor may notice that the videos I submit won’t include my face, though. And they will probably not include the first trial of any session. 

Puppy steps, ok? 

Kristi Benson kneels in a field surrounded by two of her dogs

More pieces by Kristi Benson CTC PCBC-A, Special Correspondent

Kristi Benson is an honours graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned her Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC). She also has gained her PCBC-A credential from the Pet Professional Accreditation Board. She has recently moved to beautiful northern British Columbia, where she will continue to help dog guardians through online teaching and consultations. Kristi is on staff at the Academy for Dog Trainers, helping to shape the next generation of canine professionals. Kristi’s dogs are rescue sled dogs, mostly retired and thoroughly enjoying a good snooze in front of the woodstove.

Contact her through her website and check out her blog, Facebook page, or Twitter for training tips, articles about dogs and training, and more.

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