The Importance of Not Being Wrong…

Recently I took part in a research project, and one of the 'tests' we had to do prompted me to think about the feelings, emotions and reactions surrounding finding out that you are wrong, especially when you were convinced you were right.

To explain a little further, the test was the Wisconsin Card Sorting test and putting it really really simply (I am no psychologist!), the subject (me!) is given four cards with different coloured shapes on them, as 'stimulus' cards and then a stack of cards to sort into which of the four stimulus cards they belong with.

Then the person running the test tells you if you are right or if you are wrong.

Do note here, they do just say yes or no. Nothing else, no sweeties for yes, no ruler across the palms for no.

So, away I go, turning over a card at a time and putting it where I think it belongs. At first a couple of nos. That's OK, I am still sussing this out and these, whilst not what I am after, are still helping me to decide what is correct.

Then I get things right, obviously I have hit upon what links each card to the stimulus card, wahey! I get a kick out of this, despite the reward just being the man saying 'yes'.

Few more goes, I'm on a roll, woohoo! Then, suddenly... No! I am wrong!....

Wait, that can't be... I have figured out how this works, why am I wrong?

Now it gets interesting. The first few times I think I made an error, I try the same reasoning again. When I am still wrong I become reluctant to try, I don't like being wrong. Even though nothing bad is happening to me, I am just being told 'no', I really don't like it and I don't want to play any more.

I have to though so I carry on and somehow, I get things right again and it buoys me up and I start to feel happier but a little wary, thinking things through a little more double checking my reasoning for each decision.... and then I am wrong again!

No way. Now I really don't want to play any more, not only that but being wrong makes me feel sick, my confidence is totally gone, I really am loathe to turn over another card, to make another decision and risk being wrong again. Also I am now very suspicious about the rules of this game, I don't trust this man now at all (and I have no other reason not to, he's a nice guy!) either!

Once the test was over I asked about it, and my suspicions were right, my frustration and reluctance to 'play' once I had been wrong was normal. Part of the test is that once the subject gets things right a certain number of times in a row, the rules are changed!

Now I cannot guarantee that dogs reason and think exactly the same way I do, in fact I am pretty sure they do not. But – I know my dogs react badly to being wrong where they thought a thing would 'work' i.e., they'd be right.

I know that making it easy for them to get things right means they learn faster and they enjoy the learning process, I can witness this for myself.

What I think we tend not to realise, is that being wrong, especially when you were SURE you were right, creates some very very powerful emotions and reactions, even in a subject who can communicate verbally. In human subjects who struggle with communication skills, the reaction to being wrong can be violent and extreme!

It's important to bear this in mind when you are modifying a dog's behaviour – it can be tempting to wade in and make drastic changes, changes which do need to be made, in the way the dogs owner reacts to the dog, in what behaviour is going to be rewarded and what is now going to be ignored.

But do so thoughtfully and carefully, because if dogs do have similar reactions to people (and I believe they do), suddenly finding that many of their behaviour patterns no longer 'work' could prove very disturbing for the dog and could result in that dog 'shutting down'.

This is one reason that I am not a fan of strict and overbearing 'NILIF' style programs for dogs, and it is often reported that these result in a depressed dog and even an increase in aggression. I am not surprised!

I don't mean to suggest that we can never allow our dogs to be wrong, it is a part of life and it is in some circumstances unavoidable. As my experience showed, at the beginning being wrong helped me to clarify what was right, so it's not always a bad thing.

But we should all bear in mind – changing the rules is a VERY powerful tool and not something to be glossed over or taken lightly.


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Positively Expert: Emma Judson

Emma Judson has over a decade of experience owning and training a variety of dogs from rescues, crossbreeds and pedigrees. She currently owns five dogs and is the founder of Canine Consultant in the UK. Emma has written for Dogs Today magazine and is a proud member of the Pet Professional Guild, which promotes force-free training.


2 thoughts on “The Importance of Not Being Wrong…

  1. Jo


    I think we so rarely take the time to think about how dogs feel, and focus purely on what they do and how that makes US feel.

    Looking forward to more insightful blogs 🙂

  2. dawn woodgate

    Hi I was interested to see you have worked with foster/rescue dogs. I wondered if you could give me some tips. I always rescue retired greyhounds, mainly the difficult to home ones. Last week I received a young bitch who was traumertized by witnising a violent dog fight. As I have worked with nervous dogs before, for me this is not the problem. The problem is being freash 18month old, she has no experiance of the normal world, she has never encountered the world outside countryside kennels.

    At the moment I have to figure out how to train a young traumerized dog who is very late with basic training plus introducing obideance training without spooking her. Indoors she has become very confident and her puppyhood is coming out. But she cannot walk on a lead outside only a harness and when she sees traffic or just one car she freaks out. At the moment I'm using treats to bribe her onlong the path. Is there any other ways I can help her.

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