Home > Training > Freedom to fail, keys to confidence…

Freedom to fail, keys to confidence…

August 20, 2009

I’ve been having a great discussion on Twitter over the last couple days about whether the option to fail should be removed from training sessions. What began as comments and a question to @barrie and @DoggieZen evolved into a discussion that asked me to articulate why I believe that it’s important for both dogs and people to learn how to fail.

Now, just to be clear–in some situations I believe that the dog shouild be shown that improvisation is NOT acceptable, and dogs should be prevented from failing in ways or situations in which the dog could hurt himself. For instance, if I was snakeproofing a dog, an experiment on the expected behavior could be fatal. Potentially dangerous situations are not the occasions to cultivate a dog thinking outside the box.

However, most of the time, in most learning, it’s valuable to the learning process that both dog and human learn to problem-solve and try — even when their attempts don’t always produce the result desired. There can be no enthusiastic attempt to problem-solve and brainstorm and offer behaviors in a situation where the dog is afraid of or unused to trying, experimenting with behaviors that have worked before and might work again.

A trainer who uses operant conditioning depends on a subject’s willingness to try…along with prompts in the right direction that may ‘help’ the subject discover an experiment. But if the subject or dog is a lump that won’t put a foot forward on his own time, then it’s difficult to find anything to reinforce, and even harder to figure out how to shape things into the behaviors you want to see.

Madison didn’t come with the desire to willingly improvise. Bold and confident to a fault, she is nevertheless hard-wired to certain behaviors. She has a 30 minute stand (thank you, breed ring!) She will cuddle for hours. Her first behavior if near your face is to lick and kiss. She learns faster by routine than by improvisation (although we’re working on her improv skills.) But just try shaping any behavior in a dog who will stand in perfect stack, looking at you adoringly for a half-hour. Even when prompted to a new behavior for which she’s then reinforced, it takes many repetitions to show her that offering that behavior spontaneously MIGHT be a good thing! She is not afraid to fail, but she doesn’t understand how to try.

With unconfident dogs, it’s critical to teach them that it’s not wrong to fail — just ineffective. If the unconfident dog only succeeds, he has no meaningful barometer for life after a simple attempt at a task doesn’t work, and is more likely to fall apart because he hasn’t learned that experiments can be rewarding. With hyperconfident dogs, teaching them that it’s not wrong to fail, but it IS ineffective is one of the only ways to focus them to offer behavior you want to reinforce.

How do you approach failures at behaviors in your dog training? Does your dog understand that failures aren’t wrong (only ineffective), or is your dog afraid to fail, worried about failing, and /or afraid to try new things just in case they are the ‘wrong’ choices? How do you work around that?

Categories: Training
%d bloggers like this: