Why failure is an important part of your sheepdog training

The sweetest victories are the one that are most difficult. The ones that require you to reach down deep inside, to be willing to take risks and leave everything out there. But as a society, we don’t reward defeat and you don’t often read about failures in books.

The exception is if a failure is a stepping stone to later success. It’s reported it took Thomas Edison 1,000 tries before he developed a successful lightbulb. When asked “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” he said,“I didn’t fail 1,000 times, the light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Unlike Edison, many of us avoid the prospect of failure. We don’t want to risk the disappointment, rejection, judgment, embarrassment or perceived futility. But being so focused on not failing, results in not aiming for success; in settling for less. The fear inhibits us reaching our potential. But failure is necessary. It’s our greatest teacher and failure is a part of every successful sheepdog trainers journey.

In the fall of 1984, after Alasdair won the Scottish National with Auld Mirk, he decided to take a wee break from trials until the Supreme. The exception was the trial in Acharacle. It was only 8 miles from his house. His friends and family were so proud and they were all coming out to watch. He was quite excited to show off his dogs, they had been running like tops. It was an open trial and within the open, they were also running a “local”. Everyone runs in the open and the dogs that live within a 30 minute radius of the trial, compete for the “local”. There were 7 dogs total competing for this and it included several farmers and hobby folk that just wanted to come out for the day. Meanwhile, Alasdair was running National Champion, Auld Mirk as well as his sensational young dog that he got from Kenny Brehmer, Mirk III. His chest was puffing! They awarded 3 prizes that day and can you guess how many he took home-none! He was a RT & a DQ. He took that moment and instead of developing fear he would repeat it, he used it as motivation. That failure is one of many that fueled him and his success speaks for itself.

My failures came much earlier in my sheepdog journey, as in, from the very onset….Bear was not only my first Border collie, he was my first animal, ever. I knew absolutely nothing, and it showed. I made every mistake there is. Eventually, after a huge struggle just to get an outrun, I somehow got him trained well enough to go around a course at home and had success at 2 novice trials. I thought surely this meant I was ready for pro novice, after all, how hard could it be to add a drive? So I moved up and entered a 4 trial novice series. Bear proceeded to show me exactly how hard it could be and we were DQ’d. Every. Single. Time.

He was difficult for me; he was strong, excitable and disturbed the sheep. These are the adjectives experienced handlers used. I just knew it was embarrassing, frustrating and I was failing. No matter how well he ran at home, when I went away from home, he didn’t listen and either chased or gripped. Everyone told me to give up, even the person that gave me lessons. They said, “everyone ruins their first dog”. But I knew he wasn’t ruined. I did though recognize other people’s dogs actually listened, were able to work naturally and didn’t get DQ’d repeatedly; he was certainly different form the other dogs… but through all my frustration and embarrassment, I knew there was something special about him, I just didn’t understand it yet.

There were a few of us coming up as handlers back then in KY and if ever there was a difficult job or a recalcitrant ewe to shift, Bear was the dog asked to do the job. He could get behind 200 Suffolks and rather than the sheep spread out or him need to flank behind them like the other dogs, he would walk on straight on and the sheep would bunch together and move off of him. There was a good dog there, I just wasn’t skilled enough to handle him. I wasn’t going to give up, I loved my dog and I resolved to find a way. I kept trying and things got better. There were still loads of bumps along the way but marked improvement. Eventually we moved to open. I got a great mentor. I worked hard. Bear didn’t settle much with time, and he was always difficult for me, but we became partners. He was competitive, won open trials and he was 10th in final at the National. I failed over and over and that’s what lead to our success.

No great accomplishment was ever achieved without failure. It’s how you handle it that defines how you move forward. If you believe failure is an opportunity to improve and have a growth mindset; you understand that what is important is to always keep learning, not to always be flawless. Rather than get discouraged, those with a growth mindset look upon failure as Edison did, steppingstones to success.

You can improve as much as you’re committed to do so, one day at a time. Be willing to work hard and be clear about what you want. Believe in yourself and your dog. Take a leap of faith. “Everything you want is on the other side of fear”.

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