We emphasize focusing on the positive in clicker training — not pointing out a mistake, but determining a concrete, alternate behavior instead. In dog manners training, this often appears as replacing “don’t jump” with “sit to greet.”
But really, what’s the harm in pointing out a mistake? Sometimes we have to know what’s wrong so we know to avoid it, right? And surely we humans are smart enough to think through the big picture?
Eh, not so much.
Last week, Marie* was excitedly recounting her experience at a recent convention. “And after my presentation, three different people contacted me via Facebook to say they wanted to hook up.”
There was a brief moment of group quiet, and then I suggested, “I think you mean to say they wanted to connect with you.”
Marie hesitated and laughed. “Oh, can I no longer say ‘hook up’? Like we used to wear thongs on our feet, but now we have to wear flip-flops?”
“Yeah, like that.”
“Well, drat. Okay, I won’t say hook up any more.”
So, here’s the interesting part. I talk to Marie on a nearly daily basis. I’ve not heard her say “hook up” very often at all, as evidenced by the fact that she didn’t know what it meant in a modern hook-up culture (it was called “free love” during her vocabulary acquisition). Yet once we’d pointed it out, and she had determined not to say it again, it began appearing frequently. Very frequently. In irrelevant places. I actually started counting once and reached 8 instances of the phrase occurring in a conversation about our diversity of friends and plans for the church picnic.
So, what’s going on here? How can pointing out a mistake make it occur more frequently?
In order for Marie to say, “I won’t say ‘hook up,'” she had to say “hook up.” Thereafter, as she was thinking, “don’t say hook up,” she was imprinting the phrase further into her brain with each thought. The very act of determining to avoid it made it more likely.
At a training session this week, a handler was having trouble keeping clean cues, as lots of extraneous motion was influencing and confusing the dog. Someone suggested videoing the handler to point out the mistakes, and I suggested against it. Video is a fabulous tool for observing yourself and becoming aware of mistakes — or areas for improvement — but it can’t stop there, and if the viewer is likely to respond by saying, “Fine, I just won’t move!” she is also more likely to have trouble, as her internal chant of “Don’t move, don’t move!” is going to make it harder to stay calm, focused, and still.
Instead, it’s easier to find an alternate behavior I can use to replace the error. If I am working on staying still while my dog is shaping, I will think “spine against chair” rather than “don’t move.” It’s an easy way to prevent leaning forward or shifting, but there’s no chance of underlining the wrong thought. TAGteach for these new behaviors is a super fix!
And it’s another reason to avoid NRMs; though I don’t have data to support this, I feel that many dogs repeat marked errors more than unmarked. Someday I’d love to get some hard data or see a study on this!
En route to a regular training session this week, I approached a turn which I’d missed the last several visits. The sign is just beyond the driveway, and even if I’m thinking about the drive, I will often overshoot the entry. This time, as I drove down the road, I consciously thought, “I will turn at the drive” rather than “don’t miss it.” And I nailed it, of course.
“Don’t use the negative.” It’s a joke I make frequently, but behind the irony, it’s good advice. Rephrase your mistake into a positive action you can take and watch for success.
* Names have been changed, because there are no innocents.