My beautiful Belgian Shepherd Tira was just over 3 years old. We had been training for dog agility for most of her life and were well on our way to our first championship title. On that Saturday morning, I confidently left her at the start line and walked up the line of 4 jumps that started the course. I stopped at the second jump and looked back to see if Tira was ready. Her eyes were intent and focused on me as her body tensed waiting for my release cue. I smiled and said, “Ok!”
To my right, Tira took off like a shot, easily clearing the first jump and then the second at top speed. I moved to indicate the third jump and, to my amazement, stared as my dog gracefully arced across my path and took the tunnel to my left. Faulted for an off course, this would not be a qualifying run. But more importantly, as a trainer, I had no idea why she had turned left instead of following my clear instruction to take the jump ahead. We had a great time and finished that weekend with a handful of qualifying runs but that particular unexpected turn into the tunnel continued to nag at me. I had been fooled. Again.
No fool like a willing fool
This wasn’t the first time my dog had done something I didn’t expect. Not by a long shot. From the time she was a puppy, there were many occasions where I thought I had carefully trained a behaviour only to find that I had missed a step or hadn’t accounted for something. A great example was when I was teaching my 3 month old Tira to spin in a circle (both clockwise and counterclockwise). I had gotten to an advanced stage in that training where I was teaching her to do the behaviours on a verbal cue only with no physical prompting or cues from me at all. When I proudly demonstrated our progress to my wife, she laughed and said, “You’re flicking your head in the direction you want.”
And you know what? I was. I had carefully laid out a training plan and worked diligently to teach each step to my eager puppy. Tira had learned all of it. Even the head-flick that I never intended to put there. Well, not quite all. It turns out that a little testing showed that Tira had not learned the verbal cues at all and was only responding to my unintended head-flicks.
It turns out that I was so intent on achieving my training goals that I had fooled myself into seeing something that wasn’t there. But I quickly learned that this was not the only way that I could fool myself while training my dog. Watch the short video below before you read any further:
In their book, The Invisible Gorilla, researchers Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons offer a fascinating look at human intuition and perception through scientific studies and real world examples. The Invisible Gorilla video shows the effects of “selective attention” – we are so intent on looking for a particular thing in a situation that we miss otherwise obvious aspects in the environment because they were not the thing we were focused on. On first viewing, about 50% of people never see the gorilla! It’s a kind of mental blind spot. And that’s what had happened with my training. I was so focused on watching to see if my dog was responding correctly to my verbal commands that I didn’t realize I was flicking my head.
You see what you want to see
I am keenly aware now that I can fool myself by seeing things that aren’t there and also by not seeing things that are actually there just by how I focus my attention. But what if I told you that sometimes I get help in fooling myself? It seems that it is a very human tendency to want to believe things, especially if we learn them from people whose opinions we with often agree with or trust. Confirmation Bias is a kind of selective thinking that can lead to observing only the things we want to see. A kind of selective attention.
When Tira was about 8 months old, I made a slight change to my training. I train using rewards for the behaviours I want and I let behavioural science and positive reinforcement do the work for me. I had just read a few articles about “No Reward Markers” in training. It was a way to indicate to the dog that whatever they are doing is not going to earn the reward. Combined with my usual Reward Marker for when Tira got it right, it was supposed to speed learning by helping her eliminate things that were not wanted.
Fortunately, I had developed a habit of recording information about my training sessions by this time. After only a week or two, I discovered that while I thought the addition of the No Reward Marker (NRM) was helpful, the data I was writing down showed something different. Tira wasn’t learning new behaviours any faster now that I was using the NRM but, more importantly, she was losing interest in our training. Our training sessions were getting shorter and shorter! Even though I wanted to see my training improving, the actual data showed something very different.
So books, articles, and even online discussions and resources were having an effect on how I could fool myself when training my dog. And just when you might think I couldn’t find any more ways to fool myself, I did. I went to dog training classes. Even the most skilled and well intentioned instructors have no control over what I could do with their advice and instruction. When the person running the class tells you that if you do “Thing A” that it will get your dog to do “Thing B”, well, it’s pretty likely that you are going to keep an eye out for any sign of “Thing B!”
To be sure, I didn’t always have my “fool me” glasses on and I was able to learn a lot from training classes. But it was just another challenge for me not to get too caught up in outside influences and how they affected what I thought I was seeing in Tira’s behaviour. It’s good to have classmates who can observe what you are doing with you and offer their insights as to what they see. But that can have a downside as well.
Everyone goes to dog training class to succeed. And when things go wrong, I sometimes found myself drowning in a flood of ideas from instructors and classmates in how I could “make it work” and get my dog to do the behaviour I wanted. It’s a kind of pressure that all of us are familiar with in our daily lives. It’s something that psychologists call Social Conformity. A built in human drive to fit in with a group. And when the group is trying to be encouraging and they tell you that “it’s working!”, well, you go along with them.
Cold hard facts
Fairly early in training with Tira I ran into a conflict. The classes I was attending and the books I was reading didn’t quite line up in how they explained how and why certain training techniques worked. I grew frustrated and it was clear that it was better for the instructors if I took my questions elsewhere. No one wants to be a disruptive influence, after all. So, when Tira was about a year and a half old, I left all training classes and seminars behind. I continued my training using video and occasional input from trusted friends who were also dog trainers.
Now, more than 10 years after the decision to leave formal classes behind, I can’t tell you that I have achieved superior results compared to others that might have flourished in dog training classes. What I can tell you is that I have learned a tremendous amount – about dogs, about behaviour, about training methods, and mostly about myself. Without the easy answers available from others telling me what to see and what to pay attention to, I was forced to find things out for myself. Hours of watching video of myself with Tira and lots of trial and error in training sessions helped me to focused on the one source of information that I could trust – my dog Tira.
Remember my example at the beginning? It took me more than 2 hours of watching video of Tira running over those two jumps and turning left into that tunnel before I recognized what was happening. Tira was simply reading my body differently than I thought. She was watching my shoulders and not my arm. Once I saw it, it became obvious. It changed how I approached directing her on agility courses from that point on. And it was just one of many examples I could give you where a dog showed me by her behaviour what she was learning in spite of what I thought I was teaching her.
How do you fool a dog trainer? Well, you don’t have to because we often do a great job of it on our own. This was just a short list of my own struggles. Rest assured there have been many other examples. What is important is that I recognize my capacity for being fooled by what I think I see or what I want to see. I have developed strategies like writing things down or using video or asking another trainer to observe me without telling them what I’m trying to do. All so that I can be sure that my dog is understanding what I’m trying to teach. So that I can become a better communicator for my dog. It makes us both happier in the long run.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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