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The Gift of the “Pre-Error”

by | Mar 31, 2022 | 0 comments

Everyone wants to know what to do when their dogs make mistakes in training. There are all sorts of answers to this ranging from ignoring the error all the way up to attempting to punish the error. In reality, the best trainers know the best time to respond to an error is before it occurs. So we set up our training sessions to avoid error and to carefully meter the difficulty so that we ARE progressing with very few mistakes. There are countless reasons why this works so well and why we should all push ourselves to train this way, not the least of which being you will achieve high level behaviors while you and your dog both thoroughly enjoy the process. But we are all human, and errors WILL happen in our training. Much in the same way that you you must be able to predict the correct behavior in order to reinforce it in a timely manner, avoiding errors also means predicting errors with a fair amount of accuracy. We can do that by watching the full range of a “correct” response.

My dog Felix is a six year old border collie with very big feelings about the games we play and the reinforcers I use. He is my primary educator in the field of “arousal” in dogs. We are working on two problem areas right now: soft side weave entries and barking in the command discrimination exercise for AKC obedience. Identifying the “pre” errors for these things is essential because once the dog has missed a weave pole entry, he has practiced missing it; he has strengthened that neural pathway. Similarly, there are so many reinforcers at play for barking (we can only assume it feels good) that once a dog has barked in an exercise, that rep is not only wasted but a check in the “steps backward” column in your training. If we don’t identify the pre-errors, we will experience more actual errors, and our training will suffer. So, if we know what the pre-error looks like we can do two things: back off the difficulty before we create the error, and also brush up against that threshold of challenge by being sure we occasionally SEE the pre-error. If we never see it, we are probably not pushing hard enough in our training, and if we don’t recognize it we will inevitably push too far.

Weave Poles
There were two general entries we were looking at, and dialing up or down the difficulty in a few different ways on each rep. Felix missed one entry in the entire session which means we were in the sweet spot we wanted to be in; building on success and not failure. But I still knew we were not in the easy zone, and here’s why: Felix would hit the poles on occasion when we dialed up the difficulty. It was an obvious difference in performance but NOT a failure. Megan (the coach in the video) and I took it seriously and decided to read it as a “pre-error” and when it happened, repeat that rep. If the rep was clean, we’d proceed, and probably dial down the difficulty in the next rep. If he hit twice, we’d have repeated the rep but reduced difficulty. In subsequent sessions I will watch his hitting the poles behavior carefully; I will know it is important that it is there, and also a cue for me to dial back my requests.

Command Discrimination
The most common error for Felix in this exercise is barking. His pre-errors for barking are all about his mouth. If he tightens his commissure (the corners), if he bites his lips, if he breathes in such a way that I can see the air flowing in and out, he will bark on the next rep. So my task is two-fold; to put him in a state of mind that is conducive to easy gentle breathing and a relaxed mouth, and to watch carefully for those changes in his mouth as I ask him for these behaviors.


So when you are having errors in your training, examine closely what the pre-errors might be. Watch for them, predict them, and therefore prevent them.

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