To suceed or not to fail?

Publicado el 19 de March de 2015

Let me explain to you which are the main categories I use to classify animal trainers. There are of course different training schools, different modalities, and various kinds of stimuli that different trainers choose to apply or not to apply. These are all important considerations and yet they are less important than the distinction between the following two categories: (1) those who train their dogs not to fail, and (2) those who train their dogs to succeed.

I want to clarify from the outstart that I am persuaded that dogs should be trained to succeed, and not merely to avoid mistakes. For some years I followed the opposite path and this is perhaps the reason why I am convinced that my current position is the right one. We all know that nobody can be as convinced as a converted.

The vast majority of trainers sponsor the competing view, errorless training. They tend to think that errors are dangerous and hence you hear sentences like “don’t let your dogs make mistakes if you don’t want them to learn incorrectly”. This is also linked to the fact that we feel uneasy watching how our dogs make mistakes in the execution of the behaviors we are teaching them.

Thus preventing the dog from making any mistake is the priority for many trainers. This means that our energy and attention are focused in the task of monitoring errors and choosing techniques to prevent them, block them or correct them. This way dogs finally succeed because of the many things they do not do, not because of the things they are actively trying. Training sessions are devoted to create “secure situations”, to close doors, to limit options…

There are several problems with this way of training which, by the way, is not circumscribed to trainers using aversive methods (many trainers who adhere to positive reinforcement based methodologies, even cognitive trainers, sponsor the errorless training view). Here is a list:

First, after a period of time working under these guidelines dogs, who are not silly at all, realize the nature of our goal. Their voluntary attention is then focused on locating the behaviors they should not do. This way they become more effective in not doing than in doing. This is the corollary of the general work scheme we are implementing and we ought to be comfortable with that by-product.

Second, errorless training is exhausting from the emotional perspective. Just think about one of those movies where a young and promising sport star is pressed by the trainer/father/agent who takes great care in underlining every error that is being made. Of course the demanding figures are full of true love and good intentions for their pupil, but as this sort of torture goes on and on, the rising star’s original motivation is killed. Then, the future star decides to send everyone to hell and runs away to Idaho with his or her better half to settle a ranch.

Our dogs cannot run away to Idaho to settle a ranch even when they get fed up of training with us. Therefore, we must be very careful and take seriously our responsibility to prevent the dog from getting emotionally overloaded. This does not mean that one should not demand effort and implication from the learner. However, we should realize that by emphasizing errors we will be undermining our learners with insecurities and draining their emotional energy. Imagine how you would feel if you had to go to a job where your boss would remind you EVERYDAY of the mistakes you make or would tell you to be very careful not to make any. That’s not the way to build up self-confidence, implication and work-team.

Third, even if at the beginning it is easier to train the dog not to fail (learning not to do is faster than learning to do), we will soon realize that there are so many possible mistakes that it would be impossible to cover all of them in a person’s lifespan. In contrast, there is only one successful conduct in each case. Hence it is much more comfortable and expedient for both dogs and trainers to focus on that.

Summing up, in my opinion it is very important to build the dog’s head to succeed. For this purpose one should allow initial mistakes and inform the dog about them without worrying. Errors are a necessary part of active learning. We should devote our attention to the right answers so that the dogs’ attention is also directed to them.

Later on, when dogs consistently work to achieve success and their mental scheme is already built up, we will be able to give more importance to those mistakes that arise since this would not create other problems.

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