Learning takes time and can be scary, especially when you are supposed to know what you are doing!

When Grace and I entered our agility class last week, it immediately hit me that learning takes time, repetition, and patience. I was walking around the agility room in familiar territory, feeling good about that. Yet I was simultaneously starting to worry if Grace and I would do well – or would we falter? Would we remember what we had learned from last year? Did I know when to do the front cross instead of the back cross? All sorts of questions started running through my head. I was feeling the pressure.

It was a bit scary. And all this for a fun agility course! In some ways, coming back was even more intimidating to me than when we went to our first lesson last year. At that point, expectations were low. Grace and I had no idea what to do and we relied on Rachel to instruct our every move. We were given lots of time to learn and pace our progress, without a specific deadline for mastering a particular skill.

But this time, I could feel an artificial expectation I had placed on us. It was clear that Grace wasn’t bothered by any lofty goal-setting. She wore a big smile and easily made her way around the equipment, prancing over the A-frame and skipping over the hurdles, whether she was supposed to or not! She was having fun and it helped me to remember not to put pressure on the situation.

With practice, she gracefully hops through the circular shape!

When we train others in the workplace – in fact when we are being trained – do we put unnecessary expectations on where we should be? I do believe we need goals, which are critically important to know where we are going and to stretch us past our comfort zone. But I also see, far too often, situations in the workplace where a manager has an unrealistic expectation for what a person should be accomplishing when they are learning a new behavior or skill. It takes time, repetition, and patience. (Oh, I already said that. But I think it bears repeating.)

Often, our training efforts get off to a great start because there is a strong focus and commitment to the effort, and we start to get lulled into complacency, believing the person being trained is all set. However as reinforcement and encouragement begin to wane, results suffer. Lucky for me and Grace, Rachel continued to provide that much-needed support. Having that guidance calmed my nerves and settled me back into having fun, which gave me the environment where I could learn openly, without being afraid of making a mistake. It is a big help to think of that now when I see someone moving through a new phase of their learning. In what ways can you encourage yourself, and others, to learn new behaviors?

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Agility courses teach confidence, and other things I wasn’t expecting

Grace on Pause Table
Grace sitting on Pause Table On her first day at agility, Grace crawled under this table! But just the very next session, she was much more comfortable on top, where she was supposed to be!

After a winter hiatus, Grace and I are returning to agility classes today. The room is indoors so it has nothing to do with the seasons, but just that I’ve found renewed energy for us to get back to “work. Rachel, our trainer, remarked that Grace walks into the room with a big smile on her face. And I know I enjoy it at least as much as Grace does, seeing the progress she has made is just one of the benefits to me.

Our first try at agility was last spring. I had heard from numerous people how the process of learning and mastering the various pieces of equipment and obstacles gives dog confidence, as well as a good source of exercise and entertainment. Sounded like a win-win situation. Grace is agile, fast, and fit, so I knew she would be able to physically excel and she proved that accurate. It was the mental focus that provided her the greatest challenge and also the most rewarding outcomes. On our very first day, she was hyper-alert and distracted by every foreign noise and movement. After about 30 minutes, she became so exhausted that she hid UNDER the “Pause Table” (a square platform for a dog to get ON). It was all so new and she was overwhelmed. But with time and experience, she now loves being in that environment and I absolutely believe it has helped her become more confident in all situations.

I was surprised at how much work this was me! In fact, it was at one of our last sessions that cemented my belief that we can learn from our exchanges with animals to improve our human interactions. Rachel had us working on a jump series, where it was my job to show Grace which of the three jumps to go through and from what direction. The jumps were aligned in a straight line so that the intent was to create the shape of an S in our jumping series. Rachel watched the two of us, then gave me this sobering feedback: “Grace is watching your every move for direction and you are sending her mixed signals about which way you want her to go.” Wow. I’m always telling people to be clear when they communicate! And here I was, not doing a good job at it myself. Rachel gave me some helpful suggestions that made my voice and body provide more congruent signals for Grace and I immediately became aware of how the subtle changes made a big difference. Then I quickly started to think about situations in my human interactions where I could become more effective in my delivering my intended message.

And so once again, Grace gave me the opportunity to look in the mirror and improve upon things that help her–but also me. I can’t wait to get back to our jumps today. Wish me luck!

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