eileenanddogs

Category: Discrimination

It Was Coming Right At Me!

It Was Coming Right At Me!

 

Silhouette act 2
Backlit silhouettes may look pretty strange to dogs. (Photo credits at the bottom of the page.)

I am so interested in how dogs perceive things, and how they notice differences that we don’t, or that we take for granted. Those differences can matter to them a great deal. An example of that was the focus of my recent post, “Intruder in the Yard!,” about Zani’s response to a landscape timber in my yard that had rolled out of place.

Clara, with her feral puppyhood, appears to discriminate between people to an extreme. She socializes with a few people besides me now, but each person has behaviors Clara is comfortable with, and everybody’s list is different. One person might scuff a foot while standing next to Clara, and Clara won’t even appear to notice. Another might do so and she will startle. And even though she can walk through crowds of people now, she’s most comfortable if they move along. Let someone slow down and start to focus on her…well, let’s say that that is not on her list for most strangers. Frankly I don’t know how she keeps up with her rules.  They are extremely detailed.

This week I learned a new “detail.” Though I expect for her it was a large and important difference.

Real-Life Training

Every week Clara and I take two lessons. (I am very lucky to have a great trainer and friend who has worked with Clara since she came to my life.) One of the lessons usually takes place on the road. I have posted about Clara’s many trips to a shopping mall, and how that was the place where she started to step out of her wariness with humans.

Recently we have been going to a park along a river. It has many walkways and pedestrian bridges. We go for long walks among joggers, bicyclists, walkers, other dogs on leash, and lots of kids, all of which Clara has handled with aplomb.

Last week, though, Clara’s paw pads got sore from an allergic reaction just a day before her lesson. We decided to take mats and watch people go by for an hour.

Our teacher brought her young border collie, who recently made Clara’s Dog Friends list. (The Dog Friends list has a speedier application process than the Human Friends list.) We found a shady spot to set up. The spot was on a sheltered sidewalk that was in a low-lying area. There were three different approaches, two of which were stairs coming down. The dogs settled on their mats.

Here They Come!

After we had been there for about 15 minutes, a man who had been exercising walked down the steps and straight toward us. He was wearing reflective sunglasses and headphones (which Clara is normally quite used to) and was walking slowly. “BOW WOW WOW!” said Clara. I leaped up and we moved a little, but she alarm-barked off and on until he went by. She was responsive to me and not out of her mind, but not happy with that man. We discussed the ways he might have been different from what she was used to and decided to stay where we were. It was a quiet weekday morning, and the odds were in our favor that that would not happen again.

Then along comes a woman in a jogging suit along the same path. She was equally alarming to Clara.  She came slowly down the stairs toward us, then stopped and started doing stretching exercises in our vicinity. “BOW WOW WOW WOW WOW!” said Clara. The woman was about 20 feet away from Clara, which is usually plenty for Clara’s comfort. She happily passes pedestrians at touching distance when we walk. But this woman had already startled her, so this was not OK.

The woman stayed so we left. We moved to a different sidewalk where the approaches were rather curved and there were no steps coming right at us. And it’s a good thing we did, because immediately another man went to the area where we had been and started doing exercises that looked like fast motion Tai Chi. Luckily Clara couldn’t see him from her mat. We did OK for a while. I made sure she didn’t get up and be able to see the man, who was now doing a squat walk. Mercy! (Everybody who has a dog who is bothered by people doing odd things should do some prep work for that one!)

A woman came our way and visited with the young border collie while Clara watched happily and ate spray cheese. But then a woman headed in from the other direction using a cane.  Clara has been around several kinds of mobility equipment, and quite frequently, but this didn’t seem like the day to ask her to do that. And the squat-walking man was turning the corner and I was worried he was coming our way. We called it a day.

What Were the Differences That Day?

There were quite a few, and I have an opinion about what added up to trigger Clara into alarm barking. Here are the differences I can identify.

  1. Clara had a tender foot.
  2. We were with a younger, smaller dog whom she didn’t know as well (Clara is usually more relaxed when a doggie friend comes along).
  3. We were in a low-lying area with people coming straight down at us. The angle was unfamiliar.
  4. The people approaching were in shadow, somewhat backlit.
  5. The people stopped or slowed when they got to the bottom of the steps rather than proceeding along.
  6. The “crossroads” area where we were didn’t have a clear path; it was a largish paved area where people might hang out rather than continue briskly through.
  7. There was no demarcation between where Clara was lying and the rest of the sidewalk. When she would lie on her mat at the shopping center we were usually on grass right next to a sidewalk, but this was different. There was no visible boundary between Clara and the people coming through.
Clara being a tourist on a happier day
Clara being a tourist on a happier day (if a bit hot)

I honestly doubt whether the tender foot contributed to her lower threshold for reactivity that day. And we’ll never know whether she would have been more comfortable with her usual dog buddy (a personable and confident rough collie). But I think all the other things I mentioned about the setup basically added up to “threatening,” especially numbers 3, 4, and 5. People coming straight down at her, in shadow, then slowing down or stopping.

Ever since she came into my life as a 10-week-old pup, Clara has been sensitive to being trapped. I think the layout contributed to that, and the angle of approach and backlighting sewed it up.

But these are just my best guesses. I may have missed something else entirely. Time will tell.

Was This a Catastrophe for her Training?

We won’t know whether Clara got more generally sensitized to people until the next time we go out. If this incident had happened earlier in Clara’s training before her many positive experiences, it could have caused quite a setback. But I doubt that will be the case. By now she has had hundreds of hours of graduated good experiences being out in the world with people of all types, doing all sorts of things. So in the face of all that excellent history, this was probably but a blip on the screen.

It was a good reminder to me that although my dog has come such a long way, I would do well not to take her usual relaxed and happy affect for granted. There are still things that might upset her more than I expect them to, and I can’t always predict them.

What’s the weirdest human activity your dog has gotten accustomed to? Squat walk is going to be our new challenge. I don’t know if we will ever work up to being at the bottom of a hill and have people come down at us, though!

Related Posts

Photo Credit: The silhouette photo is copyright © Francesco Scaramella. Used under Creative Commons license via Flickr. I altered the photo by cropping out a second figure.

© Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                     eileenanddogs.com

The Right Word: Reducing Errors in Verbal Cue Discrimination

The Right Word: Reducing Errors in Verbal Cue Discrimination

Sable colored dog leaps off a pink mat towards her female handler's outstretched hand
Summer releases on the correct cues

I’m an auditory person. I grew up in a whole family of musicians. I love language and sound and music of all sorts. For the first half of my life I lived almost exclusively in the company of musicians, and in the second half I have few musician friends. This second half has made me conscious of the ways we musicians are different!

At work, I’m the one who gets asked to check the voice mail when we can’t understand the name. When there is a strange noise, eyes turn to me for identification of it. I can almost always tell if someone can’t hear me well, and I can immediately tell if someone is not listening to me (these are very different!). I can also ignore visual stimuli very well if I am listening to someone or something. (With regard to visual skills, I’ve been told someone could come in and rearrange the furniture in my house and I wouldn’t notice….)

So naturally I am interested in my dogs’ perceptions of sound and verbal cues. Frequent readers will know that I am honest about my limitations and frailties as a trainer, so I think you all will believe me when I say that ironically I seem to have three dogs in training who all have rather low aptitude for verbal cues. I.e., it’s probably not just my limitations in this case. So we all have to work extra hard on words.

Verbal cue discrimination training, where you teach a dog to respond only to the correct word,  can be stressful for any dog. If not done with care, the dog can have a very high error rate, which is discouraging to many dogs. So I gave a lot of thought about how I could reduce that error rate.

In A Secret for Training Two Dogs I described my strategies for teaching one of my dogs to stay on a mat while I trained another. I briefly discussed my methods for releases. I have chosen to use each dog’s name, spoken in a certain tone, as an individual release. Dr. Patricia McConnell demonstrates this method in “Examples of Wait with Multiple Dogs.”  This post covers how I went about teaching the discrimination of each dog releasing only on her own cue.

Does She Know the Cue At All?

Most of us at some point discover that our dogs don’t know their verbal cues nearly as well as we think they do. Here’s an experiment for those who have puppies or inexperienced dogs and haven’t worked on this before. Try this if your dog is familiar with Sit and Down, but not Stand.

Cue your dog to sit. Then look at her just like you are giving her a real cue (be as convincing as you can) and say “(Your dog’s name), Purple.” Or some other word that doesn’t sound a bit like “Down” or any other cue she knows. Most dogs will promptly lie down.

It usually turns out that your dog  didn’t really know the word, “Down.” She didn’t need to, since whenever you have said something to her when she is sitting, you meant for her to down. So you can say anything and she will do it.

The transition from responding whenever “human-says-a-word” to learning to listen to the verbals can be difficult and stressful. That’s why I decided to apply the principles of reduced error learning.

Reduced Error Learning

I don’t use the term “errorless learning” because it is both impossible in real life situations and sets a depressingly high standard for most people (and also, I have to add, the most well known studies involved lab animals that were food deprived. I just don’t want to be associated with that). I wrote about this in Errorless Learning II. I have adopted Susan Friedman’s terminology of “reduced error learning” because I think it’s more realistic.

The original concept as promoted by Skinner is great. I do absolutely follow the practices of this kind of learning, which I would describe as “setting your dog up to succeed and to reduce stress in learning, including with creative manipulation of the training environment and props.”

An example of this is the process of  making the right choice easier at first during an olfactory discrimination, such as the cups game. If you are teaching your dog to foot target the inverted cup that covers a smelly treat, first you start with only that one cup. Encourage her to use her nose to smell the cup and treat. Let her repeatedly practice touching the cup with the  treat under it. Lift the cup and give her the treat each time.

To start the discrimination, you introduce a second cup without a treat, but you introduce it way over to the side where the dog can’t reach it. You gradually move it closer and closer while the dog is still touching the correct cup. In this way you have made the correct choice easy and the incorrect choice hard, and the dog is gaining a reinforcement history for touching the cup with the treat. Only after this process would you start mixing the cups up.

The opposite of this process would be to put out multiple cups with only one with a treat under it, and mix them up each time the dog gives a try. Even if your dog knew a foot target, there would be no clue as to which cup to touch. And even if it seems like it would be obvious for them to touch only the smelly cup, well, I’m here to tell you that my hound couldn’t do it, even when I made it much easier than a bunch of mixed up cups. With several cups, the failure rate is apt to be so high that many dogs will quit after a few attempts. This is the difficulty with trial and error learning.

Applying Reduced Error Learning to Cue Discrimination

Verbal cue discrimination means you teach your dog to respond only to the correct verbal cue and not other words. The way this is generally done is to repeat the cue for one behavior several times, and reinforce correct responses. (If you are not getting correct responses, you aren’t ready to work on cue discrimination.) After about four of these, say a completely different word instead. If the dog doesn’t do the behavior (yay!), or hesitates, quickly mark and reinforce.

Note that this is harder for the dog than firing off a bunch of different cues the dog knows. Because in this exercise the dog must be discriminating enough and confident enough to do nothing if the word is not a real cue. Plus, in so many situations we reinforce clicker dogs for guessing. The first time you practice this it can be like pulling the rug out from under the dog’s feet.

So how can we reduce stress and errors? In addition to choosing words to begin with that were very different from the correct cue word, I also chose to use at first a different tone of voice and/or volume for the cue. I took pains to make the non-cues as far away in the auditory sense as they could be from real cues.

Sand colored dog with black muzzle and tail stays on a pink mat, relaxed and with her mouth open, as her female handler says a nonsense word. She is supposed to stay unless she hears her personal release word.
Clara correctly stays on her mat when I chirp out a nonsense word

 

The Process

Since the whole point of individual releases is that one dog comes and the other/s stay put, I practiced with each dog by herself, going through the following steps to insure that she learned to respond to her own release cue and not the other dogs’.

Special note:  I heavily reinforce my dogs for being on their mats, and I don’t require them to move when I give the general release cue, “OK.” Because of this I incorporated a hand target and/or other body language at first to encourage them to move, then faded it. Others would probably not need to do this.

  1. With the dog on her mat, I called her with her release word followed by invitation to hand target or other body language that invited her to move.
  2. Then I called her with her release word without a hand target.
  3. Then I said a word that was very different from the dog’s release word and in a different tone (I blurted it out, high and squeaky). I reinforced her for not moving. If she got up, I quietly escorted her back to the mat, walking side by side with her to avoid using body pressure. (This hardly happened at all, which was one of my goals.) If the dog did get up, I made the non-cue word even more nonsensical. Quieter. Or perhaps I turned away. Anything I could think of to make it less cue-like. Once she started getting it: lather, rinse, repeat.
  4. I started interspersing the dog’s release word. I reinforced when she came, and for the other words, I reinforced when she stayed. If she stayed for her own release word, I beckoned her a little. If she came for another word, I quietly escorted her back to the mat as described above.
  5. I gradually worked into using a normal tone of voice for the non release words. I continued to reinforce for correct behavior/s, staying or releasing appropriately.
  6. The final step was to work in the other dogs’ release words to make sure the subject dog wouldn’t release on them. At this point I was saying all the words exactly the same way without helping the dog. The goal was that she released for her own and was steady for the others.

Link to video for email subscribers.

Outcome

This method worked very well for Clara and Zani. Clara in particular got it very fast, and I loved how she lay there very relaxed on the mat while I said the other dogs’ release words.

Summer had the hardest time. She alone started offering other behaviors for the non-cue words.  That meant that the first few times I used a non-cue word, I had to withhold reinforcement or else reinforce a random behavior performed on the mat. In most cases she tried her “rewind” trick, a backwards inchworm move. I figured out to reinforce very fast, before she was able to move, and we got through it.

But then after I got her to stay still on the mat through the non-cue words, she lost confidence about coming on her own release word. She was not getting the difference.

I did some extra sessions with Summer. After I reviewed the video I realized what the problem was. My squeaky cues were actually prodding her to action. She is a bit sound sensitive and I think they stressed her out a tiny bit. In any case she responded by trying something, anything. So I did the obvious, and instead of squeaky blurty non-cues, I said very quiet ones. That did the trick. I was able to raise the volume almost immediately, and she is catching up to the other dogs.

I’m getting close to my goal of having all my dogs present and unfettered while I train one, with the others reinforced for their self control on their mats!

Thanks for reading! Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Retomar o significado: Generalização

Retomar o significado: Generalização

Para os meus leitores e seguidores portugueses.

Retomar o significado: Generalização (link)

Em Inglês

Obrigada Vitor Faibam e Claudia Estanislau pela ajuda na tradução para a versão portuguesa.

Small black and tan dog sits by her trainer. There is a fire extinguisher in the foreground.

Note to all my international readers and viewers: I will be happy to make more translations of this movie, if you want to help.  Thanks to Vitor and Claudia, if anyone wants to volunteer to translate, I can send a text document that has all the English from the movie, with spaces left for translation. It takes me only a couple of hours to change the text in the movie, and I can usually do it within a week or two of receiving the translation, depending on what else is in the queue. Hoping to get some takers!

And of course if you want to translate any other movie or post I would be flattered and will work with you on that.

Thanks for watching!

Obrigada por assistirem!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Errorless Learning II

Errorless Learning II

Seems like I’ve been eating a lot of humble pie lately. Pull up a chair and have a slice with me, won’t you?

This is an addendum to and correction of my post on Errorless Learning.

A knowledgeable Internet friend  gently let me know a few things about the origin of Errorless Learning that I had incorrect in my earlier post. She was generous with her time and patient with my learning curve. These misconceptions affected some of my conclusions as well. I’m letting my earlier article stand, since there is still much in there that I think is worthwhile and accurate. But I’m linking them and I hope anyone who read it will read this as well.

Mine were common misconceptions. Up until today, the Wikipedia article on errorless learning, along with quite a few other posts and articles, attributed the term to Herbert Terrace and cited his experiments with pigeons as the beginning of its usage, as did I. But in 1963, behaviorists, psychologists, and educators had been discussing errorless learning for 30 years.

Errorless learning was an instructional design introduced by B.F. Skinner in the 1930s. There was controversy at the time, and following, about whether errors were necessary in learning a behavior. Skinner wrote, “…errors are not necessary for learning to occur. Errors are not a function of learning or vice-versa nor are they blamed on the learning. 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.”

It helps to know that Skinner was responding to the then-famous 1898 Thorndike paper called “Trial and Error Learning” which posited that learning was a slow and laborious process. Skinner’s response was that it didn’t  have to be–with proper planning, the teacher could grease the skids for the learner and learning could be achieved through “trial” only. Hence “errorless learning.”

Skinner’s system has been summarized really well elsewhere so I’m not going to go into it at length in this post. I may later, since it seems overshadowed by Terrace’s work and is fascinating. My friend summed it up as an anti-lumping program: through good planning make the correct behavior so easy as to be almost inevitable, slice the desired behavior/s thinly and maintain a very high rate of reinforcement. This method is highly humane, in contrast to what I was objecting to in my other post. But it’s more than “setting the animal up for success” as we think of it in a general way. As I understand it, it entails much more planning and prompting than we usually see, even in clicker training these days.

Terrace’s work, on which I based my objections in the other post, was an example of how low the error rate could be pushed down with extreme planning and control of the environment and training. I still maintain that the level of control he maintained with pigeons in the lab would be not only unfeasible but some aspects actually undesirable in our home environments. And I maintain, if not skepticism, an appreciation of the challenges inherent in teaching a later conflicting behavior if one behavior were taught with controls similar to Terrace’s, and especially with the number of repetitions. However, these concerns cancel out. If we can’t attain the control and terrifically low rate of error Terrace got in the first place, we aren’t going to have the problems that Marsh and Johnson‘s pigeons had in learning a conflicting behavior.

Geikie, a greater sulfur-crested cockatoo, in a color discrimination session with a high rate of reinforcement
Geikie, a greater sulfur-crested cockatoo, in a color discrimination session with a high rate of reinforcement

Another astute reader questioned the logic of saying that the design of the experiment defined the concept or the term (thanks Margery!). Turned out she was right on target, since the concept and the name predated the experiments. Not only that, but the educational work she described doing herself in her comment on  the original post is directly related to the early learning methods for humans that Skinner worked on. Which were also very humane, pleasant, and natural for the learner.

The Method vs the Term

Which brings me back to one of my original gripes. The term itself. But first I can now say what is good about the term. It refers to the fact that a subject does not need to make errors to learn a behavior.

What I don’t like about the term remains: it is inaccurate and unattainable for lots of behaviors for most of us in real world training. Jesus Rosales Ruiz writes in a piece that discusses errorless learning in a positive way,

“At each step of the program, the learner has a reasonable chance of success….Good shaping is characterized by high rates of reinforcement and low use of extinction.”  (emphasis mine)

Dr. Rosales Ruiz trains in an academic setting, but also in the real world. “Reasonable chance” of success is not 100%. And “low use of extinction” is not 0%. These are much friendlier terms for the average trainer. But as my friend reminds me, if we treat the term “errorless” as an ideal and put our mind and heart into setting the animal up to succeed as much as possible, we will get really good training.

The Rosales Ruiz article is available as a download in this post in Mary Hunter’s great blog. It is a must-read.

I have a final objection to the term, not the method. It is probably the most important of all that I have said.

I don’t like it because it can make people feel bad, and thereby discourage them. Approaching zero errors requires not only great control over the learning environment, but great skill, which many of us don’t have. For literal people, the term itself, coupled with the amazingly low error rate in Terrace’s article that is always cited, can make the whole concept daunting and unapproachable.

In my other post I suggested a couple of candidate behaviors for errorless learning; behaviors for which there is no potential conflicting opposite behavior, such as scent work like a diabetic alert. There is another obvious candidate in the dog world: house training. We really would prefer no mistakes, and hardly anybody anymore would say that is is important that the dog have an accident in the house and be punished for it for their understanding to become complete. It’s a great example. However, I know several people who thought they were utter failures because they failed to live up to the “no accidents” and errorless approach that is written about in at least one puppy book, including dire predictions of terrible things that will happen if there are errors.

Is this use of a pee pad in error?
Is Summer’s use of a pee pad in error?

Which brings me to my final point. If the role/goal of the teacher is to set the student up for success and make the desired behavior the easiest and most likely, shouldn’t the term itself focus on success and not errors? Also, Skinner himself said that it was about the teaching, not the learning.  I would never have written any of these rants if the term had been something Enhanced Chances of Success Teaching instead of Errorless Learning. But I doubt if the whole educational world is going to change its nomenclature just for me.

Grins. Thanks for reading!

Coming up soon:

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P.S. A Project

The Wikipedia article has been amended to begin with Skinner’s role in errorless learning and now has several references for that. However, the bulk of the article is still about Terrace’s work, which is actually just one of the many offshoots.  Skinner’s method and the discussions from the 1930s on need to be the focus. It would be great if somebody who knows about that history, or wants to read up on it, would further edit the article.

“Errorless” Learning

“Errorless” Learning

Addendum, 2/9/13. Please be aware that there are some historical inaccuracies in this post, mostly related to the origin of the method and term Errorless Learning. The mistakes affect some of my conclusions as well. Please read Errorless Learning II if you read this post, or instead of reading this post. –Eileen

You will never hear me say, or see me write, “It’s only semantics.” I grew up in a family full of passionate readers, English and education majors, and teachers. Not to mention musicians, who are often quite obsessed with passionate about language as well.

Semantics is very important to me because it deals with whether or not we understand each other. Here is part of the definition from Wikipedia: “It [semantics] is often used in ordinary language for denoting a problem of understanding that comes down to word selection or connotation.” In other words (ha ha), if I use a word or phrase and it means one thing to me and to you it means something very different, we instantly have a communication problem, and we may not even know it.

That is the context in which I offer this post. Don’t worry, I’m going to make it to dog training, and there are actually some dog training hints in here.

Zani beginning the shell game
Zani beginning the shell game

There is a newish catch phrase going around the science-based dog training community: “errorless learning.” I am seeing more and more usage of the term, and reading pieces that equate it with the ultimate humane training. I think a lot of folks have picked up the phrase and are using it to mean setting your dog up for success in a general way. I’m aware of some others who associate it with training with positive reinforcement only. Some use it to indicate that they do not use No Reward Markers. (If an error happens in the forest and no one says anything, did it really happen? Sorry.)

But actually the phrase is not new at all. It refers to a specific teaching methodology that has been well investigated by research.  I am going to describe the original research on so-called errorless learning, some subsequent research, and explain why I think the term is currently being misused and perhaps wrongly proposed as a goal in our companion animal training.

Initial Research about Error Free Learning

Skinner box

Herbert Terrace published, “Discrimination learning with and without ‘errors’,” in 1963. The experiments were performed on pigeons in Skinner boxes. The discrimination behavior taught to the pigeons was to peck on an illuminated key for a food reward when the key was lit internally with a red bulb and not peck when the key was illuminated with a green bulb.

At the beginning of the experiment, the key (in the darkened enclosure) was lit bright red. Apparently it is easy to get birds to peck on a colored, illuminated key, and importantly, they generally will not peck a dark key. The pigeons got reinforced for pecking on the brightly lit red key. The key went dark between trials and no reinforcement was available.

The birds were divided into four groups.  After the birds had a period during which the key glowed red and during which they got food rewards for pecking it, the color and brightness of the key were changed according to four different protocols. For the pigeons who learned the discrimination the fastest, called the “early progressive” group,  the procedure was as follows: early in the experiment, after a “dark” period, the key was illuminated at an extremely low level with the green bulb, and no reinforcement was available when the birds pecked at it. (But mostly they didn’t.) This was alternated with periods where the key was illuminated bright red, and the pigeons were reinforced for pecking it. The duration and intensity of the green light were very gradually  increased from a dark key of 5 seconds duration to a bright green key of 3 minutes duration. In short: the key morphed from completely dark to bright green so gradually that to the pigeons it remained “unattractive” to peck.

For the three other groups of pigeons, there were variations in how early the green key was introduced, and whether it was introduced gradually or at full intensity at the very beginning.

The pigeons in the “early progressive” group had an amazingly low error rate. They pecked at the green key well under 1% of the time.

This technique is the ancestor of what we often do nowadays in teaching a discrimination. If I want my dog to touch her paw to a cup with food under it and ignore another cup, I will first have only the desired cup present. I’ll reinforce some iterations of touching that cup. Then when I first introduce the second cup (which is empty) I may put it in an inconvenient place for the dog to touch it and only gradually bring it physically closer. In other words I will make it easy for the dog to be right, sneak in the “wrong” cup so that at first it is just part of the background, and raise the challenge very gradually.

But before we adopt Terrace’s term of errorless learning to apply to such techniques, let’s look at some differences between what he did and what we do–and are even willing to do–with our pets. Here are some of the primary differences between his training situation and ours with our pet or performance dogs:

  • The pigeons were food deprived. They were kept at 80% of their normal body weight for a period starting two weeks before the start of the experiment to the end of the experiment. This is very common in such experiments.
  • The pigeons were isolated in a Skinner box during the experiments.
  • White noise was played to block external sound.
  • The light intensity and duration on the keys were controlled with great precision by an electrical unit.
  • The birds had not been taught anything before.
  • Although it is not stated in the paper, it is fair to assume that the birds had no particular relationship with humans other than being handled; they were not pets.
  • The birds were being taught only one behavior (this is a crucial point).
  • There was no proofing. The birds were not challenged to perform the behavior under any other conditions. It’s fair to assume the behavior wasn’t generalized.

Again, the error rate of the highly controlled birds (only in the early progressive group) was less than 1%.

From the above points, it appears that impressively low error rate was possible at least in part because of the technology available to the experimentors and the extreme control over experimental conditions that was possible for them. We don’t generally have rheostats to gradually change the intensity of lights, or little trucks to drag in the “wrong” object in increments of exactly half an inch.

You Can’t Do This At Home, But…

The conditions under which the pigeons were trained cannot be emulated by the average trainer, for technological reasons, reasons related to environmental control, and also humane reasons.

But I wanted to show how that method is relevant to some teaching strategies we use with our dogs. I made a video of the descendant of Terrace’s method as applied to scent discrimination: the Shell Game. In the video I am teaching Clara to tap only a jar lid that has a treat under it. My goal was to demonstrate the method of sneaking the “incorrect” lid in from the side while the dog is happily bopping the food filled one.

As usual, I got more than I bargained for. For starters, I utterly failed at sneakiness. You’ll see. We survived that. But in addition, I got some interesting footage of Clara making an “error” pretty early on (tapping the wrong lid), which was probably because of my clumsiness and bringing it in too fast. However, although different dogs react differently, making this error appeared to help teach her more about the game. See what you think.

Mine is not a tutorial video. If you want to teach your dog the Shell game, here’s a really nice tutorial by Donna Hill. She uses a different method of helping her dog succeed, and does a beautiful job as usual. By the way, in my video Clara was standing in for Zani and it was her first time ever playing the game. All the paw flailing she did (including belting and grabbing me a few times) was because we’ve been spending quite a bit of time shaping a trick with a lot of paw movement. It took her a while to get that out of her system and figure out the new game. That’s another difference between training in the lab and at home. Whatever else has been reinforced recently or richly will likely creep into the new thing you are working on.

What you see in my video, however clumsily done, and what many people seem to mean by “errorless learning, ” is helping the animal to be right. Terrace’s work went far beyond making it easy for the pigeons to be right, however. Because of his use of technology and the controls available in a laboratory, he made it very, very difficult for the birds to be wrong. Is this a good thing?

Would You Even Want To? The Big Drawback of that Huge Success Rate

OK, so what if we could achieve that kind of low error rate while still being kind to our animals, and let’s further assume that we were able to teach it to fluency in a real life environment. Are there any other problems?

Yes. Back to the pigeons: what if later we needed them to peck the key when it was green instead? Biiiiig problem.

Discrimination Reversal Following Learning without “Errors” by Marsh and Johnson in 1968 demonstrated that pigeons taught to peck a red key and ignore a green one, using Terrace’s method, could not, even after five days, be induced to learn a new behavior of pecking the green key.

For most things we want to teach our dogs, that would be a huge problem.

Granted that there are some behaviors and tasks in the dog world that are standalone, in the sense that you would not be likely to teach a conflicting behavior. Diabetic alert dogs come to mind. As I understand it, they learn to react to one and only one odor for their working lives. (Correct me if I’m wrong, folks.) Cadaver search dogs. Perhaps some other types of search dogs, but not all.

But in the service dog, pet and performance dog worlds, it seems to me that these kinds of needs are rare. Most people teach their dogs both sit and down. Agility and herding dogs aren’t taught left turns only. They learn left and right. Service dogs typically learn to both push and pull, use left and right. They have to be ready to pick some stuff up and not even touch other stuff.

Anyone who has trained a dog, for example, to raise her right paw, got that fluent, then taught her to raise her left paw, is familiar with the period of frustration the dog goes through when the familiar behavior no longer pays off. I have a post related to that about the mini extinction bursts that our dogs undergo in shaping exercises. The research tells us that if we had trained the right paw raise errorlessly (a difficult challenge), the dog’s frustration when trying to learn the left paw raise would greatly increase.

The pigeons learned only to do one thing, and the exercise did not teach them problem solving skills or how to play other training games with humans. And it blew their little minds when they were asked to do something else.

This is the biggest reason I do not have errorless learning as a goal for my dogs, nor do I use the term for the teaching strategies I use and admire. Taking a long view, training them to do one thing using something close to Terrace’s method could set them up for tons of stress and frustration later.

Learning What’s Wrong to Learn What’s Right

It’s a little bit out of style to emphasize the importance of your dog knowing what the wrong behavior is. It smacks of corrections and punishment based training. But as clicker trainers say, the lack of a click is information. In my video, because I lumped a bit and moved the second lid into the picture so fast, Clara made an error fairly early on. Her error consisted of tapping the empty lid. She tapped it a couple of times, got no treat, sniffed and licked it, then proceeded to the correct lid and tapped it. She then ignored the “wrong” lid from then on in that session. I think she learned something really important. There are lids with nothing under them! She is going to have to use her nose to figure it out. It seems to me that learning that at this point was not at all harmful for this dog.

Let’s Add to the Terminology Confusion: Applications to Human Learning

Errorless learning is used very successfully in operant conditioning programs for autistic children. But the process is quite different, since we primates mimic so easily and often we can understand and follow verbal instructions. From this website comes a good definition:

[Errorless learning]: The use of instruction designed to prevent errors or incorrect responses. Typically prompts (artificial cues that provide assistance to the learner about the correct response) are presented so that an individual engages in a behavior that is being targeted. Once the individual is engaging in the behavior appropriately, then these prompts are faded or removed slowly and systematically so that the correct behavior is made with few or no errors.

Here is a lovely little video that shows that technique.

But think about whether we could apply that method to dog training. The child is learning to perform the initial task through either the verbal instruction, mimicking the hand movement of the teacher, or both. Neither of those are available to us with dogs. If the behavior is new, they don’t already know the verbal cue. And although there seems to be some small evidence of dogs learning by mimicry (of other dogs), you can’t take your average dog, put your hand on an object, then expect them to put their paw on it just like you did.

Aggression

Back to the birds. Terrace later claimed as a by-product of some later experiments that pigeons trained using a trial and error method rather than his “errorless” approach showed aggressive behavior when pecking the wrong key produced no reinforcement. The article is “Behavioral contrast and the peak shift: effect of extended discrimination training” and is available in full online. In that work and in a later study he claimed that these behaviors were not present with his “errorless” cohort.

I have heard this used as an argument for “errorless” learning for dogs. Our dogs might get enraged and aggressive if they make too many mistakes, so we need to absolutely minimize by any means possible the number of mistakes they make. But again, there are big differences in the training environment between the lab and training our dogs at home. Our training is relationship based. And a big part of the job of the human trainer is to monitor the emotional state of the dog as evidenced by its behavior and adjust the task accordingly.

Also, later research did not replicate Terrace’s results; i.e. the aggressive responses were also found in subjects who learned via the “errorless” methods. See Rilling: Extinction Induced Aggression. To me, for the dog to undergo some momentary frustration in small doses seems better than to get a big dose later.

Conclusion

In short: I think the methods used in the original “errorless” learning would be inappropriate, and in some cases inhumane to use on our pets, and the method by which the pigeons learned a discrimination behavior appeared to impede further learning.

I understand why people use the term. They want to clarify that they are doing their best to make the training experience fun and successful for their dog, and to emphasize that their approach is humane. Maybe there is a better way to say that!

Dr. Susan Friedman uses the term, “Reduced error learning.” To me it is more accurate, and doesn’t carry the baggage of Terrace’s term.

As trainers who use learning theory, we know the value and sometimes the difficulty of getting terminology right. And we understand that discussion is a lot more straightforward when everybody has general agreement on terminology. So from what I have learned here, I am encouraging folks to not morph a term that has a scientific, historical meaning into something a bit different, and especially not to attach a glamour to it because it sounds so nice.

I’m all for making it easy for our animals to be right in order to initially learn the behavior, then very gradually raise the difficulty. Of course! That is a basic tenet of effective, humane training. But it seems to me that striving to get an extremely low error rate can have a very high price.

Anybody have any examples of standalone behaviors that would profit from strict errorless methods? I’d love to know. Also, please note that I did not do a complete literature survey on errorless learning. It’s a large topic. Maybe I missed something important. If I did, please tell me!

Thanks for reading!

Coming up soon:

A New Resource, and our Rally Weekend

A New Resource, and our Rally Weekend

I have published a permanent page on my blog that collects all the posts and videos I have made that I have been told are useful for dog trainers to show their students.

It can be accessed here:

Video Examples for Teachers

but also is listed on the permanent menu above. I hope it is helpful. I will be adding more material as I develop it.

Our Weekend

For those of you who saw my last post on practicing Rally with Summer and attempting to reinforce appropriately, here are some pictures of how we spent our weekend. We trial very infrequently for a number of reasons, so it is a big deal for me when we do.

On Saturday we both worked hard but it wasn’t fun like it can be. I tried hard to make it easy and fun for her, but there were various stressors. We held it together in a difficult ring with an 88 and fourth place.

But on Sunday it was magic. We had a lovely run, stayed connected, and Summer stayed happy despite the difficult trial environment. I am pleased with the sequence of photos below that show her eagerly taking the jump, then beautifully collecting and checking in on her landing (fourth photo).

We scored a 98 and took first place. My unlikely competitive obedience dog and I.

Summer jump sequence 1
Summer jump sequence 2
Summer jump sequence 3
Summer jump sequence 4
Summer jump sequence 5
In the ring for awards
Accepting our blue ribbon
A Little Heavy on the Body English

A Little Heavy on the Body English

Part 3 of  Dogs Notice Everything (The Missed Cue)

This is really the opposite of a missed cue. The dogs are understanding the cues beautifully, but these are cues I’m consciously trying not to give!

Around the time I made the Missed Cue videos, I got very interested in cue discrimination in general and worked on teaching Summer and Zani the difference between the verbal cues for Crate and Go to Mat. Since it is so easy to teach these with hand and body cues, my dogs didn’t really know the verbals, although I used them regularly. So I took a stab at teaching the discrimination and made a video of our progress. The methods in the movie are not bad, but my test of the results leaves quite a bit to desired.

In the spirit of the blog, I present the embarrassing part of the video, where I attempt to test Zani’s knowledge of the verbal cues. The whole point is to refrain from giving any physical indication of which item I want them to go, and I fail utterly at this.

To complete my embarrassment, I’ve turned off the sound for this short clip. Even a human can tell which behavior I am cuing by my body language every time. I not only fix my gaze on the object, but I turn my body slightly in that direction. And dogs are probably 10 times better at noticing those things than we are.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been the whole focus and point of the training!

Does Your Dog REALLY Understand a Verbal Cue?

In case you want to test whether your dogs know a verbal cue, here’s Donna Hill of Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs showing how to do it correctly.

I’m making a goal for myself to teach some cues well enough to pass this test. The first step by itself,  teaching the dog to respond while I am out of sight, could be a challenge. This skill has to be taught gradually as well. Since my dogs can respond to some cues at a distance I’m hoping we have a good start on this.

Anybody else aware of cuing their dog without knowing it? It’s so easy to do. Want to share?

Discussions coming soon:

Thanks for reading!

Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson

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Cape Town, South Africa