Errors, Mistakes, and Failure in Conservation Dog Training

In this episode of K9 Conservationists, Kayla talks about mistakes, failure, and errors. 

This week’s science highlight: You Are Not My Handler! Impact of Changing Handlers on Dogs’ Behaviours and Detection Performance.

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  • Everything is just data; it’s just information 
    • Now we have all sorts of interesting questions to dig into – was it search conditions? Target odor? Study design? Time of year? Training sample quality? Dog-project fit? Criteria? Splitting? Timing? Stress or exhaustion? Handler interference?
  • While applied behavior analysis isn’t always the answer to all training issues, it’s a great place to start. 
  • Remember the ABCs of applied behavior analysis: antecedent, behavior, consequence. If you’re seeing a behavior in your dog that you consider an error, there’s likely an antecedent or a consequence that’s cuing or reinforcing the behavior somehow. 
  • There are so many ways to frame the concept of failure, errors, mistakes. As much as possible, strive to set your dogs up in training for low frustration-learning. Rather than teaching my dogs to deal with failure, build up their resilience, enthusiasm, endurance, and problem-solving skills consciously through training. 
  • When you select ultra-high-drive dogs for a job, frustration is never far away. These dogs are desperate for their reinforcer, and that can be problematic by creating aggressive behaviors towards the target or handler, difficulties in toy play, off-target alerts, and more. Clean training is SO important. 
  • Of course we can’t completely cut frustration and errors from real life: but our training plans don’t intentionally introduce adversity. Instead they focus on building the dog’s skills so the dog has the tools and the confidence to deal with long, hard, difficult searches.
  • In training, sometimes the dog doesn’t find the target. Video is really helpful with this, but the next question is whether or not the dog actually caught the odor at all. In other words, is the problem that the dog completely missed the odor, or that the dog couldn’t source the odor completely? 
    • If the issue is that the dog didn’t catch the odor, it’s a clean miss. Take note and make a plan – handle the dog so that they’ve got a good chance of hitting the odor based on what you know about air flow and odor dynamics. 
    • If it’s a sourcing issue, we’ve got even more problem-solving to consider. Did the handler move on too quickly and pull the dog off of odor? Did the dog get distracted by off-target odors? Did the dog show a change of behavior but then move on without giving a final response? Did the dog attempt to source the odor but get stumped by lofting, an elevated hide, or an inaccessible hide? Your training plan is going to be different based on which of these scenarios describes your situation.
  • Challenging searches often scare people because they’re worried about failure. Blind searches, blank searches, or long searches can make handlers’ palms sweat. That’s ok! Getting used to a search that’s more like an “operational” search is an imperative part of training and field prep. While we never want to demotivate the dog or the handler, embrace challenge in a safe and progressive way. 
  • Most of these minor mistakes can be addressed through teaching the dog specific cues to help direct them in the field and returning to foundational search skills.
  • Again, this is all just information. These errors, big and small, point towards new things to focus in on for training. 
  • Safety is always the first concern. Whether it’s a dog investigating a snake, a handler getting lost, or a predator getting too close for comfort, now is not the time to think about training. Act to keep or get you and your dog safe. If you’re really stressed out, angry, afraid, or otherwise really shaken, take a break from surveying or even consider ending the survey early. 
  • It should be clear by now that just about any error on the dog’s part is actually a hole in the training needed for the dog. Each dog is an individual based on its learning, environment, genetics, and self, and therefore they all need something different to succeed long-term in this career. However, this does not mean that with enough training, any dog can succeed. And while it’s the handler’s responsibility to address concerns that come up with a dog, don’t feel guilt or shame for mistakes that happen in training or in the field. We’re all learning all the time, and perfection isn’t attainable. 
  • Sometimes a handler error forces a dog error, but sometimes the handler just messes up too. As you’re training your dog to prepare for getting into the field, think about mistakes you may make – or even things your dog may find frustrating and then ACTIVELY TEACH THE APPROPRIATE RESPONSE TO YOUR DOG. In early training, you’ll be able to mark and reward your dog the second she finds the target odor. But over time, it’s important to start actively training your dog to hold a patient alert while you confirm the find, enter GPS data, or whatever else needs to happen. It’s also important to actively teach the dog a cue that means “you found that one already, let’s move on,” as well as a “not that one, we’re moving on” in case your dog finds the same target twice due to airflow or search pattern or your dog makes an alert that for whatever reason you cannot reinforce. 
  • If you’re finding that you are too slow to confirm your dog’s alerts or not trusting your dog’s alerts, it’s time to take a step back in training and build up foundations like I mentioned above.
  • Introducing failure to young/novice dogs
    •  What happens if a dog fails in the field
    • How do you handle that?
    • Failure on the handler side: slow alerts, not trusting the dog’s alert. Second alerts. 
  • To recap, mistakes are information. We can use the ABCs of behavior change to try and get to the root of what’s happening in specific errors. More importantly, hammering the foundations hard and intentionally introducing distractions, durations, and specific search skills will set you and your dog up for mistakes. If there’s a big whoops in the field, focus on safety first, emotional recovery second, and creating a game plan to remedy the error third. Most dog errors come down to either a long-term training deficit or a real-time handler error or both. 

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