The Puppiness Project – Don’t Be Afraid to Look Stupid

Gretchen Rubin wrote in The Happiness Project about the year she spent “test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happy.” The Puppiness Project is my attempt to learn the same from Honey, my Golden Retriever.
Golden Retriever

I don't mind looking stupid if it gets me what I want. I know I'm really very smart.

Lately I’ve tried “shaping” new behavior from Honey with a clicker and treats. It’s fun to watch Honey go through a range of behaviors trying to elicit the click that tells her she’s accomplished what I wanted and the treat that follows.

First Honey sits. She waits a while. Looks up at me. Lets out a sigh. Lies down. Looks up to see if that worked. Stays a while. Returns to a sit. Gives a high five with her right paw. Her left paw. Finally, Honey takes one step toward the Doggy Ride bicycle cart we’re trying to teach her to ride in.

Click. Treat.

Ahhhh, she finally figured it out. I want her to do something near that cart. Now Honey just has to figure out exactly what I want from her to get another click and treat.

Besides the comedy of watching Honey go through various motions, I observed her focus on the job at hand.

Honey knew we were there to learn something. I had a clicker in my hand and a food pouch on my belt. She also knew that if she learned what I wanted from her, she would get a treat.

Honey showed absolute focus on learning. Other smells, dogs walking by, the toy that was only steps away held no interest for her.

Most importantly, Honey didn’t care that she couldn’t figure out what I wanted right away. She was there to learn no matter how silly she looked in the process (and I’m sorry to say, my husband and I had trouble holding back the giggles as Honey went through her “tricks”). The goal was the only thing that mattered.

Sometimes I don’t work as hard at learning new things as I could because I’m afraid of looking stupid. I’ve even been known to pretend I knew something I really didn’t and hope I’d figure out what someone was talking about before I got found out.

Being afraid of looking stupid is no way to learn something new. Especially if the skill you’re learning has stupid-lookingness built into the process.

Don’t believe me? Just try getting back into a kayak out in deep water. First, you’ll never get to do it without someone within eyesight. And second, there’s no way to make flopping back into a kayak look anything but stupid.

So as I try to learn new things (computer skills, sailing, home repairs, advanced financial calculations), I’m going to be more like Honey.

First I’ll try one thing. And then I’ll try another. I won’t let anything distract me. And I won’t mind looking stupid while I’m learning.


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  1. Mike Webster says:

    Often, the decision to let ourselves look stupid is the smartest decision we can make.

  2. One problem I seldom have is looking stupid, but thanks for affirming me. :-)

  3. It’s an important life lesson! I try to teach my kids at school persistence, and it’s not easy. There are so many things that can throw you off a goal!

    • Studies show that persistence is far more important than talent. Your kids are lucky to have such a good teacher. :)

  4. Not caring about what other people think is a very hard skill to master. Dogs seem to come by it naturally.

    • On the other hand, how do we know Shiva wasn’t wondering if her butt looked too big as she went flying through the Tim Horton’s drive-in window?

  5. Beryl isn’t good at persistence, lol. If something doesn’t happen quickly her eyes go blank and she looks away, then she goes away to think. Often, after sleeping on things, she’ll come back with the right answer though:) I think she needs to learn to not be afraid of looking stupid too!

  6. I love this idea… it’s so easy to get caught up in our own heads sometimes and worry that we’re going to look dumb. Bella is a champ at looking stupid… I should copy her. :)

  7. I detested taking Dewi to training class because I felt stupid. Now there’s some irony. :)

    • The question is, did Dewi feel stupid? :)

      I remember a training class with my last dog Shadow. Everyone in the room could make her sit except me. I was doing something weird with my posture that miscommunicated it. If that isn’t intimidating, I don’t know what is. :)

  8. What a great description of a dog trying to “figure it out” when you’re using a clicker. My Doberman, Elka, does much the same thing, only with more accusatory/prompting glances. The looks she shoots me when she still hasn’t gotten it right are very peremptory; “Okay, now one of us has it wrong, here, and I don’t feel like it’s me.”

    Dogs are almost entirely unselfconscious (Mine notices when we laugh AT her; from your post, I’d say it sounds like Honey does too!), and their unabashed joy and inquisitiveness is definitely something to take a lesson from. I thought “The Happiness Project” was an interesting book, and dig what you’re trying to do.