Okay, so this is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. When is failure okay in training?
If life were as dry and clear-cut as a textbook, the answer would be pretty easy to figure out. A 20% failure rate is ideal in operant conditioning. If you’re doing classical conditioning, you don’t want any failure: the dog should be kept under threshold all the time.
But what about real life? What about my dog, where everything we train is a combination of classical and operant conditioning? Layla’s baseline reaction to anything new is anxiety and distrust. The first performances of any new behaviors are usually either very hesitant, oftentimes with stiff body language or whale eye, or accompanied by frantic movement and repetitive yapping. This means that any time I teach a new behavior, I’m mixing the two (OC/CC) up in a hodgepodge of what probably looks like very poor training. Jackpots are the rule, not the exception. Even when my dog makes a mistake, my voice remains happy. I praise her for trying even if she fails. If I stop doing so, she’ll shut down or stress out on me. But it’s not easy to explain why I seem to be praising my dog for doing it wrong.
I can’t imagine what a mess this would be if I began to train coercively. As it is, I try to capture most behavior or lure through targeting. I really like shaping, but her tolerance of failure in shaping is very low. I’m not often skilled enough to build a behavior through successive approximations while also keeping her engaged and calm.
As we’ve continued to work together, this fearful stage of new training has become shorter and shorter in duration. Layla is able to gain confidence more quickly. But she still has a hard time accepting failure, and sometimes I wonder if my CC/OC hodgepodge isn’t confusing her more. Right now we’re working on stand-stay for Level 3 Rally. The first couple short stays were very uncomfortable to me: her tail was tucked, her eyes were wide, her ears were pinned back, basically she looked like I was torturing her. I jackpotted the short stays with a bait-bag dive (one of her favorite rewards). After a couple more trials in a few different environments, she started to look more comfortable and was able to start holding her feet completely still rather than shifting nervously. But if I raise criteria when she’s successful 80% of the time, that 20% failure rate stresses her out.
This isn’t just something Layla and I struggle with, either. I worry that I might be doing my students a disservice by not differentiating between CC/OC. In reactive dog class, we do a lot of classical conditioning. Yay, there’s a dog walking across the room! Here, have some cookies. But we’re also asking for operant behaviors: Look at that dog. Watch me. Keep your leash loose. Take a deep breath. If we never have a reaction in this class, we define the class as a success. However, if the dog is able to bounce back from a reaction well, is it really that bad to push them slightly? We’re asking for 100% success before allowing them to continue to the next level of training. Is this unrealistic? And how do we teach our students what to do when their dog reacts if we never allow a reaction to happen when we’re there to help? And then there are the dogs who have been working on their reactivity for some time. They may react, but that emotional component seems to be missing. It’s almost like they’re reacting out of habit: it’s become a learned behavior. They almost beg for that 80% success rule in their training plan. If it’s not emotional, classical conditioning just doesn’t make sense. But how can we tell for sure which cases are which? When is failure okay?
So, who do I listen to for training advice? Susan Garrett and Bob Bailey are amazing gurus who have trained animals to do complex tasks based on the 20% rule. Leslie McDevitt and Ken Ramirez are incredibly gifted people who get to high levels of difficulty by keeping the animals completely under threshold and helping them be successful. The waters between classical and operant conditioning seem very muddy to me for so many behaviors.
So, how do you train? 80% success? 100% success? Something else entirely? When is failure okay in your training plan? What do you do when you’re working on behaviors that have both a classical and operant conditioning goal?