About Failures and Successes
The other day I was struck by one of my clients, in regards to her dogs’ education, saying, “I need some success”.
I myself have been working with my animal behaviour mentor for over a year and a half and one of the sequences is this: whenever a trigger is in sight, i.e. an object, situation or environment presents itself which could elicit an unwanted behaviour by the dog, if the dog disengages from the trigger by looking at me, I immediately mark that desirable choice that the dog has made with a verbal marker and I reinforce that behaviour (I reward the dog). Science proves that, with enough repetitions, the dog is more likely to choose to disengage from triggers in the future.
At the moment, I am training Danika, who has a high prey drive, to basically ignore the house cat. This is one of our first unmuzzled sessions after one full year of pre-work: the cat walks in front of her, Danika tries her best to refrain from chasing him (you clearly see this is all she wants to do), she looks at the cat, but she then turns to me, clearly desperately wanting to know if that was ok… and I fail miserably. She did GREAT, but she didn’t know that because I missed to carry on with my sequence, I missed to tell her she did good. I provided no feedback. How is she supposed to learn this way?
Despite knowing perfectly well what I had to do from a technical stand point, I failed because I didn’t prepare our working session well enough. I had all three dogs unmuzzled, I was nervous, I wanted to film our session, I was holding and operating my phone instead of using a tripod, I was probably rushing the whole scene. I was concentrating on everything except the task I was there to perform.
The second part of the video is me with another month of training fluency and environment setup under my belt. I am wearing a chest harness to film the session, I have learned how to use it prior to the session, I’m not rushing, I previously worked each dog individually, I have a super high value reinforcer to make sure I am way more interesting than the cat. I am doing good and THE DOG ROCKS!
Training is a continuous flow of feedback from teacher to learner, learner to teacher.
We have this idea that all the work is on the animal when, actually, it’s the human who has the huge responsibility of setting the animal up for success.
Translated: WE have to work harder than our animals!
We often focus only on the procedures for training which are important, for sure, but there is something else. I am referring to the thoughtful preparation of the training session and, if you think about it, the more we set up the right conditions to learn, the more we are actually increasing the probability of our dog to succeed. The more our dog succeeds, the more he will be reinforced (rewarded). The more he’s reinforced, the more likely he is going to repeat that desired behaviour in the future.
Basically, what I’m trying to say by all this is that often times, despite our skills, we are simply approaching from the wrong angle! We need to take a deep breath, take a step back, reconsider, plan well and, instead of attempting to “change the dog”, let’s change something WE do because, again, the more we set up the right conditions to learn, the more we are increasing the probability of our dog to succeed.
In essence, the more our dogs succeed, the more confident and successful WE feel. The more successful we feel, the more enthusiasm we will deploy to improve our teaching. The more our teaching improves, the more skills our dog will learn. The result is he’ll live a better life.
Isn’t this just all we want?