Often we beat ourselves up, and don’t give ourselves a break for not being perfect at something that we’re new at. You’ve got to start somewhere, so we’ve got to have the courage to screw something up a lot before we get good at it. You’ll never get good, if you don’t suck for a while!
In 2000 I lived in Tucson. I was a professional animal trainer of birds of prey, and I wanted someone to practice on at home. My then-husband wasn’t crazy about liver-treats, so he suggested I get a dog, which I was more than happy to do.
I went to the Humane Society and looked around. Most of the dogs were barking, seemed aggressive, or were shaky and shy. I was looking for that confident, sweet, tail-wagger who I could take to Home Depot, PetSmart, hiking, and anywhere else she would be allowed. None of these dogs fit that bill.
I turned the corner, and in the cage at the end sat a shepard-mix with blonde hair and a black snout and eyeliner. She looked at me, her soulful brown eyes full of sadness behind the bars of the cage. I looked at her. “Hi” I said.
The tail started. Slowly at first, but as I got closer, it sped up. When I got to the edge, her wiggling butt had lifted her from her sitting position, and she greeted me at the cage front, tongue reaching through the fence.
“That’s her” I said, and an hour later, 2 year old Cricket came home with us.
Either she was brilliant, or she had lived in a home with people who had spent some time with her, because she knew her basic obedience, she was perfectly house trained, quiet, and a delight to be around. She would race around the yard, then come in and crash out on the couch. We loved her.
I had seen Dog Agility competitions on TV. You know, where the dogs go over the jumps and run through the tunnels, and all that. I thought it would be fun to try. She was athletic, and smart, and I was an animal trainer, so it should be easy, right?
I found a great Agility club right there in Tucson, and the training club held weekly training classes for dogs of all levels. I signed up for a beginner class, as she had all the basic obedience required to start. A week later, we showed up to class.
We were a disaster! Cricket ran all over the place, chasing the other dogs, who were also all over the place. She ran right through all the jumps, she wouldn’t lay down on the table, (down was usually a very easy thing for her) and she wouldn’t even go near any of the tunnels. She looked into the dark tunnel, then looked at me, and as if to say “NNnnnnnnope!” she turn away from me and ran towards that cute boy poodle she’d seen when she came in.
We got home, and both collapsed, exhausted. “Well that sucked!” I told her as she sighed on the couch next to me. “Did you have any fun?”
She didn’t look at me. All I knew was that I didn’t. I felt like the worst dog mom in the world, not to mention dog trainer.
A week later, time to leave for agility class approached. I looked at Cricket smiling with her happy eyes. “Do you want to do this again?”
She wagged her tail. Of course she had no idea what I was talking about, she was just happy I was talking to her, and had the car keys in my hands. I really didn’t want to go. “We suck at this Cricket. Maybe we should stick to basic obedience classes.” I stood there, and she kept staring at me and wagging…waiting for my next move.
“Ok dog.” I said, ready for a bargain. “If you lay down when I ask, we’ll go. If not, we’ll bag it.”
She stared at me…wagging.
“Cricket, DOWN!” I laid my flat hand out in front of her and she hit the deck.
“Damn it!” I grabbed my purse. “Ok, let’s go.”
That night, she did a little better. She still wouldn’t touch the tunnel, but she stayed with me, and left Bruno the sexy poodle alone. She did pee over by the see saw, but to be fair, Princess Fifi VonSparkles the useless chihuahua in the pink tutu (I wish I were making that up) had peed there a minute ago. I wouldn’t have let her own anything in that room either. Heck, I almost peed on it.
The next week, she was a little better, but it still felt like crap. The advanced class was right before us, so I got to see them blazing through the course, working together with military precision, and generally being amazing. I looked down at my little desert mutt. “I don’t think we’ll ever do that.”
At the end of the 6-week beginner session, I still felt dejected. The trainer came up to us after our last class and bent down, eye to eye with my dog, patting her on the head. “Well Cricket, will we see you next week for intermediate class?” she smiled and wagged. It’s really all she ever did.
“I don’t know Shelley, we’re kind of a disaster. It seems like a waste of money.”
“Disaster? Cricket has come so far.” She stood up to face me. “She could be really good. She’s smart, quick, athletic, and she loves this. You two don’t have a partnership yet, but it will come so fast. You just have to stick with it through the sucky phase! It’ll be worth it, and at the very least, she’ll get to hang out with her boyfriend Bruno!”
We laughed, and left. As we drove home, Cricket dozed on the back seat. She did love agility class, and was always exhausted after, which was great! I had even noticed improved obedience at home since we started class.
But it was SO EMBARASSING during every single class. I would cue too late, or turn the wrong way or yell the wrong word. Cricket was smart, if I could just get my shit together, she would get a clear message and do the right thing. Ug! I sucked at this.
But Shelley had been right. Cricket had SO MUCH FUN, and that’s what it was about. If we never sped through a course, or even competed, that would be fine. She had exercise and the mental challenge, and that’s what it was about. It wasn’t about me. If I never got it, that didn’t matter. She loved it whether I sucked or not.
So I got home, put my ego away, and signed up for the next session.
And we got better. And better. Slowly! I thought about quitting several times. It was so demoralizing, but I kept reminding myself of the point. And finally, we were ready for competition.
And we got a blue ribbon for the novice dogs. We were a success, and it felt great! So often we quit when we’re not immediately good at something. It feels terrible to be new at stuff, and not be good, but you will never get good unless you suffer through that awkward beginning.
Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Use them as aspiration, but remember the hours they’ve already put in. At one point, they were probably as big a disaster as you are. Remember your why, and have the courage to keep sucking, because eventually you’ll turn around and realize, you don’t suck any more! And that’s worth every painful second.
Put your ego away and earn it. It’s worth it.