The Habit of Excellence

Whatever the particular field or pursuit, what sets these people apart from others who would also bake a cake or play music or train a dog or repair the broken is this: their passion for excellence, for doing their best, always. It is the belief that excellence can always be improved upon. Those in pursuit of excellence know that learning never stops, and that ever deeper understanding is available even to an “expert” if curiosity and self-analysis are an on-going part of the process.

There are times when our best of the moment is not the best that may be possible. Everyone I know who has achieved a high level of excellence has come to grips with this, and learned how to accept it, and yet not allow that concept to limit them. A fine line lies between being unrealistically critical of our own efforts and recognizing when we have done our authentic best in that moment even if it is not exactly what we intended. Our intentions can drive excellence if we are willing to practice in so many ways that allow our skills to match our intentions.

Dog training is a lot like life. There is no simple recipe, no formula that if we just apply it correctly, we will be assured of good results. Chemistry, math, physics, mechanics – all offer satisfying ways to get it right over and over if we are careful and thorough (and if we truly understand the many variables at work). But like art and medicine, dog training is an inexact science, no matter how diligently we try to apply the formulas of operant conditioning and learning theory. Live animals in dynamic bodies and minds make dog training an art which science can assist, but all the science in the world cannot create that ineffable connection we seek with our animals.

As people trying to understand and live with and train dogs and other animals, we remain practitioners, always practicing, always in pursuit of excellence. Excellence is achievable in any given moment, but it is not a destination. It is a journey of a lifetime, where each step offers us the chance to practice the excellence of that place and time.

When I found this quote from Aristotle, I thought it would be an ideal poster for any training school (or any home, kitchen, office, barn, bowling alley, cupcake bakery, etc!):

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Practice the habit of excellence. Among the many gifts dogs bring to our lives, one of the greatest is the opportunity to continually be our best selves.