When less is more

Publicado el 19 de March de 2015

Imagine the following situation, a dog trainer is teaching a dog to sit. It is one of their first training sessions, may be the first one. In order to teach this particular conduct the trainer has decided to rely on a certain technique which he masters well. For the purpose of this discussion it is irrelevant which training technique it is used, whether it involves a clicker, luring or helping the dog with the hands. All that matters is that the dog sits and hence things seem to be working for our tandem.

However, a few repetitions later the trainer realizes that the dog is standing up immediately after sitting down: “Damn it! Let’s do a few more trials to see if we can sort the problem out.” But the problem does not fade away and the dog keeps on standing up. So the trainer introduces a small aide in the hope this will help them overcoming the hurdle. Eventually he manages and proceeds to the next training step, teaching the dog a second behavior, lying down.

Again our tandem faces problems. Notwithstanding the techniques applied by the trainer seem to work at the beginning and the dog lies down, the latter refuses to stay in that position. The trainer then decides to put in practice a technique that he learnt at a workshop. He did not like the course that much because the underlying training philosophy was far away from his, but he thinks that this particular technique can do the trick here. Et voilà, … it works! So he finally manages to make the dog stay in the position.

The trainer in our tale is incurring what I believe is one of the most frequent mistakes during the initial stages of animal training: he is adding rather than subtracting. In fact, he is asking the wrong question, “What can I do to promote that the dog remains in the position?” as opposed to what the more fruitful question would be, “Why does the dog stand up?” or “What is causing this second adjunct behavior?”

The fact that the dog willingly sits down after the first training sessions means that we are on the right track. However, why does the dog stand up so fast? The dog offers this second behavior for a given reason. Something is happening either: (1) in the physical sphere, may be the dog feels uncomfortable on the surface we are working or is experiencing pain; (2) in the mental sphere, the dog might believe that needs to move to obtain something; or (3) in the emotional sphere, perhaps the dog is aroused or feels insecure.

We need to realize that when we start training an animal we are laying down the foundations which will determine the animal’s understanding about the entire learning process and the way we work together. At this stage we are teaching the animals what to expect from us and what we expect from them.

What is wrong with a “patchwork” approach? By adding different techniques that do not share a common basis, we will be losing coherence and blurring the big picture for our learners. The patchwork approach implies renouncing to abide by a definite training ideology. Instead trainers jump from one difficulty to another merely attempting to use whatever they have in their toolboxes to sort out the problems they come across. Overall, it means that by obtaining the short run benefit of teaching a given conduct we will be hindering further development in the long run. This is so because nothing learnt on these premises will contribute to support other prior or subsequent lessons. In a nutshell, the general learning scheme will be missing.

Going back to our example, when one realizes the dog stands up after sitting down, one should not think which technique can be applied to obtain the stay from the dog, but rather clarify why the dog suddenly stands up in the first place. This is the factor that needs to be identified in order to take it away from the equation and build solid and consistent foundations that support a continuous advance of our learner. That is why less may be more.

Summing up, at the initial stages it is much more important to teach our dogs the code of communication, that is, to teach them how to learn, than any given behaviors or tricks. In fact, any behaviors at this point are taught as a means of conveying to our learners the codes of communication. Needless to say such codes will vary among different training schools, and even between two different trainers who belong to the same school. If these codes are not transmitted clearly our work will suffer in the long term. Moreover, failure to do so will compromise the teaching of more complex or subtle behaviors.

And yet, it is at this initial stage when dog trainers are more prone to fall into “traps” that prevent their dogs from adequately understanding how to learn. The most prominent example of such traps is an excessive concern for achieving any particular conduct. It is this biased frame of mind that leads many trainers to start looking for techniques to help the dog performing. Very often

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