“Poor Training” and the Fundamental Attribution Error

(Original post July 13, 2016 – this was a follow-up letter to the initial open letter on the issue of the collapsible tunnel in agility)

The Open Letter to the AAC Board is garnering a lot of attention and a lot of comments of support in a variety of countries (e.g., coast-to-coast Canada, USA, UK, New Zealand). In 24hr, the post has been shared 91 times, been read by over 2500 people, and commented on 100 times. While I can’t see all the comments (shared on private pages), the comments I have seen have been in overwhelming support of either the removal of the chute (majority of the comments) or the making of it a optional for all classes. There has only been one comment that has been raised that I would like to address, as I think it is likely common response to chute incidents, and that is: incidents occur due to poor training (or something to that effect). I’m going to call it the Poor Training Explanation.
As a coach, I have seen the hazards that come from poorly trained execution of equipment. As with any obstacle, training of the obstacle is critical, and even more critical is the learning all the foundation skills of the obstacle before even going on the “big kid” equipment. In a competition setting, Starters Standard tests the dog’s training and ability to complete the obstacles, and the judge has the right to dismiss the team if the dog is being dangerous on course (a definite training issue), or tell the (junior) handler to move onto the next obstacle if obstacle performance is an issue.
However, using training as an excuse for the equipment performance failure is an inaccurate attribution of failure. The attribution is being made to the “individual” and that something is lacking in that individual/dog. This is called an internal attribution. The alternative is to attribute the cause of failure to the “context,” which is called external attribution. This is a very common perceptual flaw in humans. It is called Fundamental Attribution Error, in that we tend to dismiss external factors for an individual’s failure and attribute the failure to something about the individual instead.
All equipment can be hazardous if not properly trained: leaping from the top of the A-Frame, falls from the DW, flyoffs from the teeter, landing on top of jumps due to poor take-off point, poor jumping form, falling off the table or dangerous approach, destroying the double bar due to insufficient height in the leap, and the list continues.
But there are two factors to consider before we can conclude it as a training issue. First, all equipment has nearly equal opportunity for poor training. To that end, the “poor training effect” is not a significant predictor for one obstacle’s safety above and beyond other obstacles’ safety. Second, the “poor training effect” would affect obstacle performance, NOT equipment performance. The two should not be assumed to be the same. A dog that leaps off the A-Frame failed to meet obstacle performance standards, but the A-Frame still met its equipment performance standards (it didn’t move).
My observations in the Open Letter are on well-trained dogs. For example, I saw too many chute incidents with the Grades 4-7 dogs (equivalent to our Advanced/Masters/Challenge dogs) at the top agility trial in UK. Training certainly wasn’t the issue with them. The damp (not soaked) chute stopping an 8-lb petite-boned dog at the last trial I judged wasn’t a training issue. The dog was a seasoned dog, and was persistently trying to move the fabric (I could see very clearly) and it simply could not move it. It was definitively equipment performance failure leading to obstacle performance failure, not simply obstacle performance failure. Even my own dog (shown in the photo with this note) incurred an injury from the chute during training. At the time of the incident, she was 4 legs away from her ATChC (Champion – 2 jumpers and 2 gamblers), and she was 5 years old and fit. It was in our training facility, and the set up was table to chute (15-18’) with straight approach, and weaves after (21’ straight line). I led out from the table to ensure I would not be beside her while she was in the fabric. She hit the chute ~4yps and “hit the vacuum sealed wall”. The result was her coming out with her head to the side.
The next day, she cried when I went to pet her neck. Whiplash was confirmed by the vet. It was indoors, dry conditions, no wind, with a well-trained dog, without excessive speeds nor poor angles of approach nor handler interference in the exit. This was a mild incident with the chute as far as some of the stories and videos I am now receiving, but it took her 4 months to heal. I am glad I had the run videotaped so I could see frame-by-frame what happened to her.
In closing, the “training” argument fails to consider the type of effect (equipment performance, not obstacle performance), that it is an “equal opportunity” effect (poor training is an equal opportunity effect), and the training argument is more likely Fundamental Attribution Error than a valid explanation of incidents. If training was truly the issue, all obstacles would be equally hazardous based on that factor, and it would be unique to poorly trained dogs. The incidents I have personally witnessed as a spectator, instructor, judge and with my own dog have all been with extremely well trained dogs. If you have a well-trained dog, make sure you video all runs with the chute. If there is an incident, you will have evidence and can help the organizations accumulate the data they need for that leap of faith regarding the chute.
Thanks for reading; may you and your dogs have fun in all you do together.
Happy training!



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