In a nutshell, the Dunning-Kruger effect says that experts tend to overestimate the ability of others to do what they can do, and novices tend to overestimate their ability to do what they really can do.

For dog trainers, this is bad news because it means that the experts teaching assume that the students can correctly execute what they were taught, and the novices learning think they can do it too – and both are wrong!  No one’s got much perspective here.

So what’s the end result?

Student thinks they did “it” perfectly – just as they were taught!  Yet the dog is not performing correctly, therefore it’s the dog’s fault for not trying or their dog is just weird. The student gets frustrated with the dog, and things go poorly from there.

And the instructor? The instructor thinks they “it” explained perfectly!   And yet the student is not performing correctly! Therefore it’s the student’s fault.  Either the student is not trying or the student is just weird.  The instructor gets frustrated with the student, and things go poorly from there.

What a mess.

What we have is a recipe for no one taking responsibility or recognizing how hard it is to learn new things. Not because the other does not want to or is not trying, but because our psychology is wired such that those who know very little think they know a lot and those who think they know a lot assume others do as well – and that sets the basis for misery all around

When it comes to dog training, this is really quite a problem. Honestly, it might be the crux of why so many dog trainers get burned out and frustrated with their students, and why so many students get frustrated and give up on their dogs.

If there’s one thing that does not aid learning, it’s frustration. So what can we do about this?

Simply knowing about this effect is a big deal! For example, if I am an instructor and I am aware of the Dunning Kruger effect, then I am also aware that I probably need to repeat the same instructions many more times than I might think necessary, and I need to assume that large elements of what I communicate are going to be misunderstood. Not because the student is a bad person or doesn’t want to try harder, but because I am overestimating what they are capable of.  They are trying!  But the mind and body aren’t quite ready to get it right.  Yet!

And if I am the student? Knowing about the Dunning Kruger effect, I can safely assume that I am going to believe that I am a better trainer than I really am. True, that’s sort of painful to acknowledge, but knowing that it’s part of my psychology means that I can be patient with myself and my dog.  I need to really look twice! Three times!  When things aren’t working out the way I want.  Because – sadly enough – odds are pretty darned good that my execution leaves something to be desired, no matter how convinced I am that I am doing it exactly right.

I’m a pretty big fan of taking responsibility for my own behavior, whether I am the instructor or the student. If I am the instructor, I am responsible for making my students successful. Teaching them what they need to do is a waste of time if they cannot do it. I need to take responsibility for communicating in a way that can be executed! I need to offer training advice and ideas that are reasonable, realistic and attainable by the average student with “that” level of experience, whatever that might be.

And as a student? I need to take responsibility there as well. I need to recognize that I’m probably not as good as I think I am, communicate my needs as effectively as possible to my instructor, and hope they are willing to meet me in the middle.

If you are a dog trainer and you are not familiar with the Dunning Kruger effect, at least in principle if not in name, then you should be! Because if you’re finding yourself frustrated with your students, maybe you’re simply overestimating what they can do for you. Maybe instead of being frustrated and expecting more, you can do the same thing you would for a dog.  Namely:

  1. Break things down into smaller pieces.  2. Assume that your learners are trying. 3. Listen to what they need. 4. Judge success against the end result, because that is what tells you if you have been effective, not your intentions.

And while you are judging your effectiveness, it probably doesn’t hurt to point out that you’re not going to win every time.  Some student-instructor matches simply where not made in heaven.  And that’s okay too.