Thursday, March 3, 2016

Can A Dog Learn From Failure? It's The Only Way.

Should our training plans set up a dog for failure? Can a dog learn from failure?

Many trainers, both positive only and traditional will emphasize the need for success. Both kinds of trainers emphasize the need for creating training situations where a dog CANNOT fail. But there comes a time where failure must happen and it must be dealt with.

When you first start training a behavior, every effort is rewarded. Treats fall from heaven like manna.  But in order to get the behavior that you really want, you need to raise the standard. Every time you raise the standard, the dog is failing more.

I experienced this when I first started doing dishes. At first, my wife was quick with the complements:

Thanks for your help! You are so strong and handsome. Yes you can go fishing this weekend.  

Eventually, though, the standard needed to be raised:

Dear, I've found the dishes get cleaner when you use soap.

Real Life

I am training my dog to retrieve without the use of force. The goal I was trying to accomplish is to get a behavior where the dog puts the bumper into my hand. To get this going, when the dog had hold of the bumper, I was shooting my hand under the bumper in order to catch it before he dropped it. In my hand gets a treat, anything else does not get a treat.

Here is the art of training: the dog has learned that dropping the bumper is what gets him the treat. Dropping it when I move my hand. I can shoot my hand under him usually in time before he drops it, but it is a race. If I don't show my hand, he'll hold the bumper. As soon as I move my hand, it gets dropped.

I'm working with a pro trainer on this approach, and his suggestion is to make it so the dog cannot fail. If I were to follow this advice, all I would be doing is reinforcing him dropping the bumper when my hand moves.

Better Advice

The dog needs opportunity to fail. However, in setting up the dog for failure, he still needs to succeed, a lot more than failure. If the pup is succeeding all of the time, then it suddenly drops to a 20 percent success rate, the dog is going to give up. I need to engineer the situation such that failure occurs, but success is still the most likely outcome.

Not sure exactly what will work, but here is what I am going to try:
  • Since my hand movement is triggering the drop, I will always have my hand out.
  • I'll keep my hand just out of reach, either to the side or in front, so that a small move will put the bumper in my hand.
Can a dog learn from failure? It is the only way he can learn. But what is critical is not rewarding the wrong behavior. Rather, the trainer needs to engineer a situation where success is easily attainable most of the time.
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  1. I would suggest that you failed in the training. Somewhere along the way, you taught your dog that the cue to drop the bumper was your hand movement. Had you not made that mistake, you would not have to fix the problem you currently have.

    1. I'll agree that the mistake is mine. In any training, we throw a dozen actions that the dog could perceive as a cue. I didn't do my work and minimize things that could be perceived as a cue. The dog latched onto the wrong one.