Tag: curse of knowledge

“Good Sit!”

“Good Sit!”

Summer Zani sit stay

Here is a quiz. Let’s say someone says, “Sit,” to a dog, intending the word as a cue.

  1. What part of speech is the word, “Sit”?
  2. Then, what part of speech is the same word if we say, “Good sit!” afterwards?

That was a trick.

If we were talking to a human who speaks the same language we do, the first “Sit” could be an imperative or command verb. The second “Sit” would be a noun.

But neither of those, while grammatically correct, applies to training a dog. Dogs are not humans. “Sit” is something else entirely to them.

In dog training based on positive reinforcement, “sit” is a discriminative stimulus. To the dog it is not a word. It is not English. It is not eligible for grammatical analysis. It is an antecedent, in this case a specific sound that comes to indicate that reinforcement is likely available for the act of sitting. (I include the word “likely” because sometimes we don’t reinforce every single sit.)

Examples of other discriminative stimuli for dogs are hand signals we give them, auditory cues such as whistles, and all sorts of things in life that act as cues that certain behaviors will be reinforced. These life events are not necessarily deliberate actions by us, and may not even be known to us. I wrote about some in my post called, “16 Behavioral Cues That I Didn’t Train (But Are Still for Real).”

So if “Sit” is a discriminative stimulus, what is “Good sit”? I’ll get there. First I need to talk about this problem with words and meanings.

I Can’t Get It Out of My Head

We humans have an enormous problem to overcome when we use words as cues. When we hear the sounds that comprise the word “Sit,” in whatever language we speak, we can’t divorce the meaning of the word “Sit.” We generally pick verbal cues that are descriptions of the behaviors they apply to. Convenient for us, but unfortunate for the dogs. We can’t help but think they understand the cues as language.

Sometimes we pick more colorful words for cues for our amusement or because the standard word is inconvenient. My friend Marge’s cue for her dog Zip to sit is, “Senta,” the Portuguese word for sit. “Sit” was too close to his name, plus she didn’t want to spend his life sputtering out, “Zip, sit!” And although he’s a Portuguese Water Dog, she didn’t pick “Senta” because he innately understood it. He doesn’t. She picked it because it’s fun, clear, and didn’t resemble any of her other cues.

I have a couple of fun cues. I use “Yoga” to cue Zani into the bow position (downward dog, get it?). I use “Rewind” to cue Summer to do a funny little backwards crawl/scoot. But hey, I’m a human, so I still hear these as words, with meanings. Not just a group of sounds. (And of course, the “funny” part has to do with their meanings…just can’t get away from that, can we?)

The Curse of Knowledge

This inability to get the meanings of words out of our heads on behalf of our dogs is an intra-species example of the “curse of knowledge.” This refers to a situation where someone who knows something (in this case the human) can’t imagine not knowing it. Here is a link to a good synopsis of a famous study, “tappers and listeners,” about the curse of knowledge.

In the tappers and listeners study, one person in a team of two would tap out the rhythm of a well-known song. The other person had to guess the song. The listeners could guess correctly only about 2.5% of the time. But get this: the tappers predicted that the listeners would know the answer 50% of the time.

The tappers heard the song in their heads as they tapped, and couldn’t put themselves accurately in the place of the listeners, who were only hearing tapping. Even the most empathetic of us can’t turn off the songs in our own heads.

In dog training, we are the tappers and the dogs are the listeners. It’s worse though, because not only do they not know all these meanings and subtexts that are there for us, they are not capable of knowing most of them. Yet they read situations so well and are typically so attuned to us that they give the impression of knowing these things in the same way we know them. They have their own geniuses, but it is not likely that any dog understands language and grammar as we do.

By the way, I am not the first to tell about the “tappers and listeners” study with regard to some characteristics of dog training. Kathy Sdao describes it and even demonstrates it in her DVD “What Not to Err.” My friend Marge incorporates it into her orientation for beginning clicker trainers.

“Good Sit!”

OK, I finally made my way back around to this phrase. You can easily find dozens of websites that instruct you to say, “Good sit!” after your dog sits. Probably some of you have been instructed to do that. I have. I was told the following by an obedience instructor: “You should say, “Good sit” after your dog sits so they will know what it is they did right.”

This assumes that the dog can follow the leap from “Sit” as a noise meaning that sit will be reinforced, to “Sit” as a noun, modified by “Good.” This makes no sense. It only makes sense in our twisted world where verbal cues unfortunately have meanings that correspond to the actions we attach to them.

Here is an example that I hope demonstrates the faulty logic of “Good sit.”

The starter's pistol is a discriminative stimulus.
The starter’s pistol is a discriminative stimulus. Photo credit: Stewsnews on Flickr. License at bottom of the page.

The starter’s pistol going off is a discriminative stimulus for people who run track. It indicates that pushing off the starting block and starting to run will likely be reinforced. So please envision this. A runner is practicing her starts. Today the coach is using a real starter’s pistol so she’ll get used to it. The coach fires the pistol, and the runner makes an excellent start. She runs a few yards, stops, and turns back. The coach says, “Good…” and BANG! fires the pistol in the air again. The runner startles and says, “Why did you fire again? I’m not ready! I’m not even in the block.” The coach says, “I was telling you that you made a good…” BANG! and fires the pistol one more time.

With this example, we can clearly see that that the cue is not the same as the action. The coach means to tell the runner that she made a good start. **BANG** is not a description of the action of start. It’s just the cue that indicates a certain action will be reinforced. Likewise, “Sit” is the noise that indicates to a dog that sitting will be reinforced. It does not somehow “mean” that action to the dog.

Frankly, I can keep this in my head only for short periods. It slides away so easily.

It’s Not Harmless

Some might say, OK, it doesn’t mean what we think it does, but it doesn’t hurt anything to say it anyway. Well yes, there are worse things. But using, “Sit” as part of a praise phrase is not a desirable practice.

First, you are repeating the cue when the dog is already doing the behavior. This dilutes the one-to-one pairing of the cue and the action, diminishing the power of the cue. It also adds more chatter to the training session, creating more verbiage for the dog to sift through to try to catch words that might be cues. Or to learn to ignore them. Finally, I believe we need to do everything possible to understand the dog’s point of view. Choose cues thoughtfully. Make sure they all sound different. Use them consistently, and only for that purpose. What if, instead of words in English (or your own native language), you had to use a randomly assigned color flash card or a complete nonsense phrase for every cue? Wouldn’t they be kind of hard to remember? That’s the position our dogs are in. They have to use brute memory on cues.

That last reason is the big one. Saying, “Good sit!” every once in a while or even regularly does little harm to the dog in the grand scheme of things. I’m sure I do half a dozen things to my dogs that are more confusing than that. The harm is to us as trainers. It keeps us entrenched in the belief that dogs understand language the same way we do.

If you are going to praise, far better to say, “Good!” or “Good girl!” or “Good dog!” And to say the same thing consistently. If you say it regularly before you give the treat, you are also building up a nice little conditioned reinforcer. But that’s a post for another day!

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Contest Results and the Curse of Knowledge

Contest Results and the Curse of Knowledge

First, congratulations to the winners of the contest and all those who entered. The top three scorers with prizes were:

  1. Marjorie MacKay with 12 correct
  2. Ines Gaschot with 10 correct
  3. Monica Upton with 9 correct

I will be contacting you three about the books very soon. Congratulations!

Three others, Barbara Bacci, Sharon Wachsler and P. Hodge also got 9 correct, but I received Monica’s entry first.

Carol Nottenburg tied for first with 12 right but exempted herself from prizes.

There were seven competitors in all, and two others who sent in entries but weren’t competing for prizes.


Now, before you look at the labeled photos below, I must apologize.

If I trained my dogs like I created this contest, they would leave the room.

I know now that I set the criteria way too high for it to be fun for most people. In the spirit of my blog, I’ll tell you what happened. There is a cognitive bias known as the Curse of Knowledge. Please go look at the definition; it’s brief and well explained. In short it means that the person with information (often the teacher) is unable to put herself mentally  in the place of the person without the knowledge (often the student). The information in her head seems obvious and ubiquitous and she can’t imagine not knowing it.

I believe most good teachers are good at least in part because they can surmount the Curse of Knowledge. But I succumbed to it bigtime in setting up this contest.

For starters, I knew all those photos very well, knew what was cropped out, and of course know and observe Summer all the time. I knew that it would be hard and that some of the photos are downright misleading/impossible, but I didn’t get just how hard and demoralizing it would be. I couldn’t put myself in the place of the person looking at the photos without the context that I have. Also I got to know the photos so well in working with them that I knew them all. Keeping them all in your head at once would make the contest much easier.

Second, I didn’t try taking the test myself or get a volunteer. That’s a remedy for the Curse of Knowledge. If I had gotten a volunteer I would also have realized immediately that the mechanics of the contest were very bad. To do a matching game with any sort of fluency, you really need to be able to see all the photos and all the descriptions at once. I wonder how many people looked at the first 2 or 3 and just quit since there was not a comfortable way to do it? Ideally to do the contest online it should have been set up with some kind of Java script where you could move photo icons around and try different matches with the descriptions, and have more of it visible at one time.

If I were to participate in this kind of test and take it seriously, I would have printed out all the photos on a color printer, cut them up separately, then done the same with the descriptions. But golly, that’s a whole lot of work. Did anybody do that? Even if you were the type of person who enjoys this particular type of puzzle, just the work entailed to get the puzzle ready would be off putting.

Yesterday I sat down with a friend and watched her try and I felt like banging my head against the wall. We quit after three. This could have been really fun, if I had had, say, 12 or 15 photos, with the descriptions scrambled but visible on the same page. A challenge, but doable. I hate it that I used up all these great photos this way; it’ll be a while before I can do another one and make it right.

Also I think many of the stress photos were too similar. Add to that that Summer sometimes looks stressed when playing or asking me for something, and that she can look almost relaxed when stressed (see below), well, I’m sorry. I think those photos make for really interesting discussion, but they are lousy for a contest.

Finally, true confessions, I was too enamored of the photos. I did reduce the number from 43 (!) to 31 on the advice of my friend Marge, but I just loved looking at all those different faces of my dog so much that I didn’t set better criteria for inclusion. No doubt she would have told me the same thing again if I had asked after my cuts, but I didn’t give her a chance. Too many varmint pics! Too much thunder! Mea culpa.

Discussing a Few Photos

The two photos that I thought would be almost impossible to get (and I think no one did get them right) were #16 Asking to Train and #19 Playing with Zani. In #16 Summer looks very worried; in full blown appeasement. But that’s how she acts sometimes when she wants something.

Almost everybody guessed that #27 was asking to train. In that one Summer is sitting on a mat staring at me. Not a bad guess, since lots of our dogs do that I think when they want something. But what she wanted, in my experience, was for Cricket not to be there. We were already training. And #19 is is a pretty anxious face for a “playing” dog. I didn’t really expect anybody to get that one. But there is a hint in the cropped version; you can barely tell she may be in a play bow. From the two play pics, you might get the sense that Summer is not very fun for another dog to play with. According to Zani and Clara, you would be right.

So there are just a few of the ones I knew almost no one could get. Again, great discussion material but not good contest material!

I think #7 is an interesting study (most people got it). Summer was on her mat at a particular fairgrounds for the first time and she was very stressed. Her expression is a bit similar to some of the ones where she is having a good time, but the “tell” is that the corners of her mouth (commissures) are very stretched back, and also her ears are pinned back. She was stress panting but you can’t really tell that from the photo.

The “Has been fussed at” photo, #3, was taken after she had pulled a bunch of books off the bookshelf and probably chewed some if I recall. If you look closely I think you can see that she is much younger in this photo than in all the rest. I was too, smile. I manage things better now with younger dogs, and I teach them the difference between my stuff and theirs, rather than leaving temptation like that around too early in the game. Yes, that could have been a “shaming” photo. But like most of those, the shame would be mostly on me. And I have never published it until now.


Below in the gallery I’ve juxtaposed the cropped photos with the photos they were cropped from, and put the correct labels on them. (At the bottom of this post there is also an answer key without the pics.) I intend to make some sort of permanent quiz version of this, or maybe divide it into two to make it more doable, as an online body language study.

Kudos to the stalwarts who made a submission, and my thanks for everybody’s patience with me.  Some of you may have been fairly irritated about the whole thing.

Bonus video: Here is a video taken during an event similar to Photo #1: Summer found a turtle. It’s only a minute long, and gives a sense of her excitement about and passion for turtles. (The turtle was on the other side of a chain length fence and not harmed.) Stay on until the end to hear her vocalizations. Sounds like she is cussing at the turtle.

Here’s the contest key:

  • First time she saw a TV  5
  • In costume  29
  • Looking for a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle)   2
  • Looking for a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle)    22
  • Looking for a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle)    4
  • Found a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle) 1
  • Found a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle) 25
  • After a varmint hunt 20
  • Sitting uncomfortably close to another dog 27
  • Has been fussed at 3
  • Late in day at agility trial 26
  • At the agility field 24
  • Watching petals float through the air 23
  • My mom has her arm around her 11
  • Playing with Zani 19
  • Playing with Zani 21
  • Guarding a Nylabone 15
  • Being held in my arms 28
  • During a thunderstorm 9
  • During a thunderstorm 14
  • Home from vet after serious illness 18
  • Asking to train 16
  • Doing agility sequence 31
  • Just a photoshoot in the back yard 12
  • On a road trip in hot weather 13
  • Waiting to check the back yard 6
  • Immediately after fence fight with new neighbor dog 10
  • On a fun outing 8
  • On a fun outing 17
  • At the fairgrounds on her mat at a dog show 7
  • Being petted 30

Coming up soon:

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