Have We Reached Success in Training?

How can one measure whether the training done with a dog has been successful? What parameters should one have in order to evaluate if success has been reached?

While the questions above are valid, we also must keep in mind that behavior and changes in behavior are quite complex which requires that we take a different approach to measuring the end results.

Behavior and measure of success are complex for many reasons; here are some of the main ones.

  1. If the motivation for performing a given behavior, which was present when the dog was learning it, fails to be present when the dog must perform the behavior, it will go into extinction. What I mean is that it will not happen. There must ALWAYS be some reinforcer for the animal (and this includes all animals – not just dogs BTW). Good news is that the reinforcer should not appear on a one-to-one ratio (also known as continuous schedule of reinforcement) but it should be on a thin (or at least a variable schedule) of reinforcement. In other words, the dog will get reinforced on occasion, which in essence makes the behavior stronger, i.e.: less likely to go into extinction which is, of course, what we want. Now, in the real world there might be more than one motivator for behavior, so again, we are moving away from the notion of … dog sits, dog gets a click and a treat… as we might do when teaching dogs new stuff.
  2. The environment is now substantially different to where the (initial) behavior was taught. Part of reaching success in training is to have the dog perform the behavior where we want the behavior to take place. This is called proofing. If I only work with the dog in the garage, I cannot expect the dog to perform at all or at least with consistency when I am out and about with my dog. This is a big problem when working with clients. They fail to understand that in order for their dog to perform, they must continue to practice where it matters. As I am here thinking of this example (funny because I don’t play tennis), but think about a tennis player that always trains on a rubberized, artificial court. Now when she goes to a tournament and the court happens to be clay she will quickly realize that the ball has a different bounce or that she is always late to reach the ball because the ball falls short due to the different terrain. In order for this tennis player to have a chance at success, she must practice under those conditions and adapt to the new environment. Same for our dogs 🙂 with the difference that even a slight variation between the learned environment and the new environment can throw our dog for a loop. These are just but a few examples that might derail good learning.

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Now, back to my client’s and their expectations for success. It is also part of my job to exactly learn where the dog is engaging in behaviors that are problematic for the owner – dogs never have a problem when they act as dogs – it is always us! Or in the case of aggression, etc. behaviors that can prove dangerous so that I can resolve them in that context. When it comes to teaching new stuff, I also need to know where would the owner want the dog to exercise the behavior at hand… In their backyard? The kitchen? Out and about? Or all three?

I think it is fair for clients to want to know if their dog’s behavior will improve since they are spending considerable amount of resources in the form of payment and time invested in the training of their pooch. So for this reason, the conversation of… is their dog not engaging in “x” or “y” behavior as a result of training or performing with more consistency the target behavior as a result of training, needs to take place.
As such, another conversation that I also have with my clients is to make them absolutely aware that behavior is not a “straight” line but more of a fluctuating experience. Once again, the same can be said about us: consistency eludes us and we have the bigger brain. 🙂

By doing my job correctly, their dog performs. But only as long as they continue to practice where it matters. They also must keep in mind that their dog is not a robot but also subjected to influences in its environment and as such, not always consistent in responding. And this my friends, is part of adaptation, which we all need in order to thrive.