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Learning from (no) Mistakes

by | Mar 29, 2016 | 0 comments

Errorless learning is a teaching procedure in which the learner makes little to no mistakes, and doesn’t need to in order to learn.  

Trial and error learning is a teaching procedure in which mistakes are deliberately included to provide the learner with information. 

Most dog training procedures are based in trial and error learning.  Dog trainers set out to teach their dogs a task and they not only anticipate that the dog will sometimes get things wrong from the get-go, they feel that the withholding of reinforcement (or, if we are setting the clocks WAY back, the “correction”/aversive stimulus) that occurs in conjunction with the error is actually helping their dogs learn.  This is not often argued against in the dog training world.  In fact, most people involved in dog training will claim that without mistakes the dog never truly understands how to be right.  This is said across the board regardless of the training goal.

Go ahead, suggest to a group of dog trainers that we could be training dogs with errorless learning.  Have fun with that. I’m not responsible for what happens to you.

This video is me training my puppy an impulse control skill.  I am using a trial-and-error learning procedure that is common in the agility world. You will see that he is not traumatized and he learns quickly. This is what most dog trainers will argue when you suggest we could teach without errors.

But I am going to pick this video apart and talk about the data.  Felix doesn’t get any food until about 20 seconds into the session, so that was 20 seconds of errors before any success occurred.  In this roughly minute and a half training session Felix was given 15 bites of food; meaning he was successful 15 times. And how many errors occurred? I counted 23.  So in this session, 23 behaviors were errors and 15 were correct.  Not exactly a ratio I am in love with.

Conversely, let’s look at the same behavior taught using an errorless learning procedure:

In this video I teach Brink he will get food for staying away from the food by simply keeping it out of his reach at first and moving it marginally closer to his face on each repetition.  He makes zero errors.  He is fed at about 5 seconds into the session, and he received reinforcement 46 times (in almost 3 minutes, which means I am slow). He made what I would call a “pre-error” (he moved closer to the palm) 7 times.  Each time he was paid anyway (because he did not make the error, he was still right!) and I responded by moving my  hand marginally further from his face on the next repetition.

So, simply by numbers, the dog in the second video gets reinforced more often and makes far fewer errors than the dog in the first video.  If learner frustration is something you care about, that’s probably all you need to know.

“Errors are not necessary for learning to occur. Errors are not a function of learning or vice-versa, nor are they blamed on the learner. Errors are a function of poor analysis of behavior, a poorly designed shaping program, moving too fast from step to step in the program, and the lack of the prerequisite behavior necessary for success in the program.”~BF Skinner

Like I mentioned above, learner frustration is a real concern of any skilled trainer. A frustrated animal is more likely to act out aggressively and less likely to continue to participate in training in the future.  If we are to create engaged and willing partners in our dogs we would do well to avoid causing them frustration.

We can all agree that frustration feels yucky, and that getting stuff right feels good.  Never forget that classical conditioning is always occurring–do you want your dog to associate the yucky feeling of frustration or the great feeling of getting stuff right (and getting reinforced!) with your training?

The bottom line is that to design an errorless learning procedure for your training projects is to design a solid plan that will get the job done with minimal frustration (for both of you!).  Creating procedures that follow this principle can be a challenge at first, so here are some tips:

  • Make a plan, and set the scene for the behavior to be likely to occur. This might mean using a hallway to train your dog to walk backwards, or it could mean delivering reinforcement in such a way that the dog is set up to repeat the behavior.
  • Break the task down into very small manageable steps. If there are errors, you may have a problem here.  In the fist video, I am asking for the entire behavior right off the bat, and so a lot of errors occur.  In the second video I am only asking the dog to do tiny slices of that final behavior I am looking for.
  • Layer difficulties into the picture in such small doses they are not even noticed by the learner. In the second video if I moved my hand to close to Brink’s face he “noticed” the hand had moved, and I always had to back up.  Ideally this never happens, but if it does, it’s best to catch the error before it occurs, and back off the difficulty for the next repetition.

In this video, I am introducing Felix to the directional cues I will use for him in agility. I have designed this procedure with errorless learning in mind. I set him up for success in every step, and when I introduce difficulty (a competing toy) I not only use a lower value toy, but I place it VERY far away, almost ensuring that he gets the answer right.


So, dog trainers, I challenge you. Take a trial and error procedure you’ve been using and rewrite it be errorless. You’ll be amazed at the results.


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