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The value of error

July 5, 2017

Errors are critical to the learning process.

It a common habit to toss around loose terms and phrases of a global nature. Often the interpretation is as broad as it is long and both speaker and listener understand something quite different.

Walk nicely”, it gives me no idea what is desired, or a definition of that person’s “nicely”.

A high drive dog” as a descriptive term that may mean one thing to one person but interpreted differently by another, it describes nothing specific.

Our business needs to move closer to an engineering model where we learn to be as specific as we possibly can, giving clear information but not overwhelmingly technical terms. We are engineers in that we need to analyse situations with care and detail, identify root causes and provide practical, appropriate and effective solutions.

Other terms have been adapted by common usage to mean one thing that is often not the true meaning of the term, or it is misapplied. “Free-shaping” has become a generic description of training by selective approximations, but in truth all learning is a form of shaping, how that shaping occurs is the key point.

“Correction based training” usually has a negative reaction. But deep down, when we are learning, there are corrections happening all the time. Again it is how those corrections are occurring is the salient point.

My least favourite is the term “reactive”, since most people who live with dogs actually desire reactivity, a prompt response to a cue is excellent reactivity, agility handlers want exquisitely fast reaction to their signals counted in micro seconds. All predators are reactive, reactive to prey, reactive to threats. Certain lifestyles, living in a war zone, may shape you into be super-reactive as a survival mechanism. But we now have reactive dog classes, that are avoiding the truth of what they are. But super favourite has to be socialisation, socialising a puppy, so that we have a happy and friendly adult dog, the same dog that has become a nuisance to all other dog walking ambitions. Super-friendly should not be a desired ambition of breeders, trainers of owners. The absence of one trait, non-friendly, should not be replaced with the other extreme; neutral or selective is quite satisfactory.

When we use these global descriptions they are vulnerable to polar opposite understanding to individual use and often mask the issues we should be paying attention to. By describing in detail we can use the terms rather than avoid them, and learn to pay attention to how a protocol is applied. Yes, detail is centric, not just important, critical.

Error-free, or minimal error learning is a global use that provides very little information except that the user has good intention.

“One group of educators argues that errors hamper learning and should be avoided; another group argues that errors are potentially beneficial as long as you know how to interpret and use them.” Judith R. Johnston, Ph.D,

Avoidance of correction

One of the traps of labelling ourselves as positive trainers, besides the global variations in exactly what that term has come to mean, is that we avoid using certain terms because of the their negative association. We avoid the term “correction”. Yet whenever we are learning self correction is in play all the time otherwise learning is unlikely to be effective and worthwhile. We drive a new car and learn self correction from the process of unlocking the car, climbing in. My last change required significant changes and even 2 years later the older processes are know to resurge when I am not focussed or tired.

Our education system and much of our surrounding lifestyles teach us to avoid being wrong. With a sibling 2 years older I was always going to be wrong – or let’s be less global: younger, less experienced, less skilled. Our classrooms focus on the wrong behaviour to the point of significant avoidance, I have been known to silence enthusiastic learners because of the fear of wrong answers, when in fact the answer, although it may be a misunderstanding, false information or assumptions, is simply an indication of the knowledge at that time. Truthfully it cannot be wrong, or error, it is what we believe to be true or fact until further knowledge and information come along.

Dogs are all young animals should not have fear of being wrong. Just more opportunities to learn, move forward, increase our knowledge.

Is this an error? Or just information that skill and experience is under development?

A focus on avoidance of error can overwhelm the learning. What we see is stuttering in the behaviour, hesitation and uncertainty. We would continually be focussing on what not to do in our effort to do what is going to be successful. We want learners to blossom and thrive, not become reluctant in their tasks.

If I am driving I want to focus on reaching the destination safely, not focus on not getting lost of being late or causing an accident …. or making an error.

Error is an interpretation BY THE TRAINER that expectations are not being met.


When we give a cue, or stimulus the choice of response is always correct for the dog. We give the cue for a sit, and the dog lies down, for that dog at that time either the cue to sit was not recognised or remembered, or it looked very similar to “down”, or the down has a stronger likelihood of success – this is the behaviour that has most recently received the greatest, and most salient, reinforcers. The dog cannot “be wrong”.

Error is feedback

This is a critical part of the teacher’s ability to set the learning at the appropriate level for the learner. We may be teaching a person or training a dog. Step back and examine the feedback in detail and then make a decision what to do next. Which area is in greatest need of change? For me the decision usually comes from my experience of seeing an unchanged behaviour becoming so deeply reinforced in the package that every repetition cements that learning. There are sometimes that need to be halted as soon as possible. An example would be food snatching. This is evoked by the withdrawal of the hand as the dog approaches and is going to sour the future process of training with food.

By monitoring the changes I want to teach I am able to get clear information of progress being made.

Error is normal learning, error is part of the technology of teaching. “At this time the skills are insufficient”, which may be the skill of analyse, self-correct, adjustment. A need to shorten the lead as we approach this situation, slow down, adjust our speed.

What to adjust comes from the teacher who will teach specific actionable steps. The skill of the teacher is in deciding what steps can be achieved, and in what order. Focussing on one change at a time may require the teacher to hold their tongue through the other “errors”.

An increase in the error-feedback can often be an indication of fatigue, letting me know that a break is needed. If I am trying to supress error that vital feedback would be missing. (Watch our for our Take a Break Citizen’s Research)

Work towards precision learning

The area I have strong reasons to become disagreeable about is the deliberate use of lures to cause error to enable elimination through punishment.

The classic example is mugging the hand for food. Food is held in the fist and the dog is lured to try to get this food. The hand is quickly withdrawn and the dog steps back with surprise. This is then clicked and the other hand delivers food. If you want to see this in action the key search words on YouTube are “reverse luring”.

After several repeats of this strategy the dog will be avoiding the hand and can be clicked for passive behaviour in the presence of food in the hand, even food offered from an open hand.

At no time can I envisage when I would want my dog to show displacement behaviours in the training environment, near me or my hands. I would certainly never teach a puppy that food offered from an open hand equates to backing away. My open hand should always represent something to come towards, either for affection or to put a hand on the collar.

When watching these videos the dogs show many alternatives to mugging, looking away, looking at the ground, backing off, sitting and endless attempts to work out what is required. The dogs become focussed on avoidance not a pro-active display of confidence in what is able to secure success.

This is not positive training. The use of food alone does not make something positive when the teacher is focussed on inducing error so that it can be punished.


Let’s begin with a clear definition of what we want the dog, or any learner, to do in response to a specific stimuli: food in the environment, hand, pocket, treat pouch etc.

We set up the learning with 20 pieces of food in our hands, and a container of food at shoulder height or at the rear of a counter also containing the food. The first hand-treat is placed or thrown on the floor or behind the dog for the dog to find. Even if you are training outdoors or on an unsuitable surface a dog bowl or tray can be set out for the food placement.

As the dog re-orientates after eating to this supply larder (nature ensures this is a high probability behaviour), the click occurs and the food is placed away from the person. The behaviour we desire is re-orientation with an enquiring stillness. Before they can begin any undesired behaviour we show them what can be successful.


Repeat this until the 20 hand held treats are finished. For first time treat deliverers this will require supervision to ensure they can place as required and with speed. What we want to ensure is no doubt for the dog as to how to attain the food.

For the first occurrence after the hand is empty, treats are collected after the click from the reserve pot. Still with placement away or around the floor. When food is delivered direct to the dog’s mouth from a hand containing more food nature is likely to step in and induce mugging.

Over the next 20 repetitions the treat pot is gradually faded into the picture, and occasionally a treat can be in the hand also.

We want the conditions of training: presence of food in hands, pockets or treat bags, to stimulate alertness, enquiry and stillness. This is the perfect platform for all learning. Not displacement, avoidance and confusion.

It is also a critical lesson for people to learn how to teach desired behaviours not lure them so that they can be punished. Dogs are not the enemy.

Along side this I would teach clean delivery from the open hand with precision placement at the dog’s muzzle so that snatching food from hands never needs to become a habit.

Often puppies are reared in an extremely competitive environment where if food is not aggressively secured it is lost. This can result in a quite different response to the scent of food in the environment and all the more reason to teach food as a cue for enquiry AND stillness throughout the day and for every meal.

Here is Merrick at about 11 months old going through her learned behaviours with chicken in a pot on the chair. The scent and sight of that chicken is a cue to orientate for me with enquiry and stillness. Once that occurs I progress to other behaviours.

Although science explains that punishment is an effective form of ensuring learning happens, we should not be in the business of using this when we have the option of working WITH nature to ensure success.

Dogs have been around lures all their lives, as are we, commonly known as marketing. This does not mean we need to be punished for buying/eating/signing up for everything that we are lured by. I can easily watch an advert showing glossy, shiny, sticky food and show alertness, enquiry and stillness. This is tempered by experience and analysis of the long term value of response!

Dogs are equally lured in all directions and nature has prepared them to learn to be selective, and make choices that are likely to be successful.


Errors are feedback. Set up learning for success, focus on precision in learning and use the micro-errors to enable analysis, adjustment and seeking of progress.

An error should just give the learner feedback, not a withdrawal, avoidance, or distress. Taking something away because we simply did not know what else was available in NOT training positively or ethically.



Want to learn more about teaching thoughtfully?

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