As dog trainers, what do we think of our own abilities? I imagine that almost all dog trainers believe themselves to be, at the very least, competent. It stands to reason that we would not be training dogs if we thought otherwise. But are we all competent, or are some of us hugely overestimating our own abilities?

David Dunning and Justin Kruger tested the ability of individuals to self-evaluate their own performance in grammar, logical reasoning and social skills tests. Those who performed poorly in the tests tended to hugely overestimate their performance, whilst those who performed well, tended to underestimate their performance a little (Kruger & Dunning, 1999). This phenomenon has become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect and is essentially the discovery that people are often blissfully unaware of the large gaps in their knowledge. Dunning (2011) calls it a double burden of incompetence. The first burden is the mistake caused by a lack of knowledge. The second burden is far worse; the lack of knowledge prevents us from seeing the error so we don’t learn from it. Understandably, we make the choice that makes the most logical sense to us. It follows that if it makes the most logical sense, we believe it to be correct. Put simply, we don’t know what we don’t know. It was also discovered that as our knowledge grows, for example, by studying a subject, then we actually begin to underestimate our ability. This is because we now begin to realise how much information is out there that we simply don’t know. It’s why competent people may doubt themselves more than incompetent people.

When I was first planning a degree in canine behaviour my motivation was that I’d not gone to university in my younger days and now had the opportunity to do so. I didn’t really do it to learn about dog behaviour; why not? Because I already thought I knew about canine behaviour. I simply didn’t realise that there was so much I didn’t know. I knew about clicker training and positive reinforcement but I was naive enough to think this made me competent in canine behaviour.

Luckily for my dogs, I’d fallen in love with the concept of positive reinforcement and it’s difficult to do much harm using a clicker and a sliver of sausage. But what about all the dogs whose owners didn’t stumble across positive reinforcement? There’s a constant battle across social media; balanced versus force-free (and many variations) and even among modern science based trainers, there’s plenty of falling out. This is something I’ve pondered for many years. Often I’ve wondered, do plumbers join plumbing forums and slate each other’s approach? Of course, it does happen in other areas of life but dog training seems particularly affected. With no regulation, anyone can proclaim themselves to be a dog trainer and truly believe in their abilities, however lacking. They may even become TV celebrities.

I rarely write a blog without receiving criticism from somewhere or another. People are often so firm in their beliefs that they feel the need to show me the error of my ways. Sometimes that’s fantastic and it makes me rethink and sometimes it shows that people will not always receive something in the way I thought. However, people will sometimes make the most baffling of comments, for example, in response to a blog on resource guarding I received an angry communication from somebody claiming to be a ‘behaviourist’, it stated something along the lines of, ‘EVERYBODY KNOWS YOU CAN’T ALTER EMOTIONAL RESPONSES WITH CLASSICAL CONDITIONING’. Had I misunderstood the past five years of studying canine behaviour science or was this a classic case of the Dunning-Kruger effect?

The confidence with which these people can hold their beliefs is mind-boggling. The Kruger & Dunning studies actually came about due to a bank robber named McArthur Wheeler who, so confident in his own knowledge, robbed two banks with only lemon juice to hide his face. Apparently, McArthur believed lemon juice would render him invisible to the security cameras because it can be used as invisible ink. He was so sure of this that even after his arrest, he thought that the camera footage must have been faked.

In conclusion..

If you’re a dog owner looking for a trainer, remember the Dunning-Kruger effect. Confidence is not the same as ability.

If you’re a competent dog trainer, you will know that there’s much that you don’t know and you’ll doubt yourself often.

If you already know everything and don’t doubt yourself, you need to start learning. But you probably won’t, because you don’t believe me.

Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read


Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, pp. 1121–1134.

Dunning, D. (2011). The Dunning–Kruger Effect. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, pp. 247–296. 


  1. When I was getting my Masters, a life time ago, the professor echoed the same sentiments frequently. You do not know what you do not know’. Or conversely, ‘the more you know the more you realize how much you don’t know’. How could it be otherwise. We are all ‘works’ in progress. Thanks, love the blog.

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