Puppy Lessons

Elphaba Sky. All rights reserved.

Elphaba. All rights reserved.

Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom. ―Phyllis Theroux
 . . . it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct . . . ―Sigmund Freud
Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. ―Rita Mae Brown
Making mistakes simply means you are learning faster.
―Weston H. Agor
What are the consequences when we go against our instincts?
―Terry Tempest Williams
The mistakes we regret the most are the ones we were too scared to make. ―Ollie Slaney


My instinctively practical flatmate, Elphaba, teaches me healthy animal behavior I unlearned early.

Lesson #1: It’s okay to make a mistake. That’s how you learn a boundary.

Learn from your mistakes seemed trite. Failure was failure. Somehow—word choices circled in teachers’ red ink, downturned mouths, furrowed brows—my knowledge of others’ likes and dislikes (read: my successes and failures) became no greater tool than a hacksaw for shearing off incriminating evidence.

But Elphaba doesn’t take failure personally. She doesn’t see merit in success. For her, reward is inherent in behavior.

For example, playing with others is fun. Bite too hard—someone’s unhappy—play stops. Learning a playmate’s threshold for pain ensures maximum rollicking with minimal interruption—hence the popularity of safewords. Her razor-sharp baby teeth drew rapid boundaries (and a little blood).

A corollary lesson: it’s best to yip when something hurts.

No yip, no one knows there is a problem. Yip later, action and response are so distant that the message is lost. My instantaneous simulated puppy yips taught Elphaba immediate boundaries when she was teething. She still has a “soft mouth” because she learned from my yips when her bite is too hard.

Get hurt, yip, correct the behavior, resume play. You don’t need judgement, a stick, or a secondary carrot. The joy of returning to boisterous play is its own reward.

What do you think?