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Errors Are Feedback: How We Can Use Errors to Improve Training Skills

Updated: Jul 16, 2022

So you’ve been working on teaching your dog “high five”, and it’s just the cutest darn thing, and your dog does it like a champ! That is, until you ask your dog to do it when you run into friends at the park! You raise your hand and say, “high five!” exactly like you had done at home, and Fido just stares at you blankly, with his lip stuck to his tooth in that goofy way.

“I promise, he knows this!” you say, with not a little embarrassment.

Sound familiar? That’s because it happens to everyone, and it’s one of the most common reasons people don't keep up with dog training. The ability to learn something in one setting and apply it in different settings without having to re-learn it is called generalization, and it’s one of many possible reasons your dog may not respond to a cue. Generalization comes pretty easy to people, but not so for dogs. But without knowledge of this, most people assume the dog needs a reminder and will repeat the cue over and over.

If the dog still doesn’t respond, this is often interpreted as the dog being purposefully uncooperative. They say the dog is “giving them the paw”, blowing them off, etc.

A better way to interpret your dog’s lack of response to a cue is as neutral feedback. If your dog doesn’t respond to a cue (in any setting, including the one in which you originally trained it), this is information for you. It means one or more of several different things:

1)your dog doesn’t fully understand the cue

2)you are not performing the cue as you had previously (you may think you are, but dogs are very attuned to subtle variations)

3)your dog is distracted by something in the environment

4)your dog is not motivated to perform the behavior at that moment (and that's okay!)

5)they are not used to doing the behavior in that particular setting (the behavior hasn’t been generalized to that setting yet)

6)they have a strong reinforcement history of doing a different behavior in that setting

7)they perform a much smaller version of the behavior that you may or may not even recognize as an attempt

Here is a recent example of this from my own training, and there are at least six out of seven reasons listed above at play here. I taught both of our dogs the cue “back up”, and I use both a hand signal and a word for the cue. The goal is for the dog to back up several steps when given the cue. My dogs are used to doing this behavior in the context of a series of other behaviors, done in either our living room or my training room. I am slowly trying to generalize it to other locations. At the end of a walk this morning, we were about to go through a gate into our backyard. Rarely do I ask my dogs for any behaviors at that location, but if I do it’s generally a Wait cue. But today I decided to ask for Back Up, to see what I would get (I also decided to film it, so I was using just my right hand for the hand signal, as opposed to both hands, AND I was holding my phone in my left hand. Hardly a consistent cue!)

If I could impress one thing upon people about dog training, it’s that if your dog doesn’t do what you’re asking, it’s the execution of the training method that needs improvement, not the dog. What the dog does is just information for us. Sometimes that information makes us happy, and makes us feel like we are great trainers. More often than not, that information tells us we need to tweak something and try again. As the well renowned behaviorist and psychologist B.F. Skinner famously said about his experimental subjects, “The rat is always right!”

Dog training is a skill, like many others, that takes time to learn and to perfect, so try to appreciate the journey as much as the goal!

Happy training, y'all!

Leannah Fulmer, CPDT-KA


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