Your Questions: How Do Dogs Cope With Failure?

Hello Katarina,

Your site is a breath of fresh air. I just got my first dog, a 5 month old mix breed (I suspect he has a lot of Australian Cattle Dog in him, but I can’t be sure, markings seem to fit). You say to sometimes use food or not too after they first learn a action. Will not giving them the food sometimes create a sense of being cheated? It would make me pretty obstinate, of course I’m not a dog.


Hi Charles. Your questions prompted me to think of an interesting analogy that I hope will put this question in to perspective. It is the story of a food vending machine, and is a famous one in dog training circles.

Outside your place of work, is a food vending machine, and that each day you have bought food from this machine. You have learned that by placing money in the slot, and pushing the correct buttons, gives the food up for you to enjoy. You have been doing this for some weeks, each time receiving some food. All is right with the world.

Then, one day, you put your money in the slot, push the right buttons, and the machine does not respond. It spits the money back out. You take a crisp note out of your pocket, insert this and your food comes out. The next day, you put your money in the slot, push the correct buttons and the machine still is not forthcoming with the food. You try again with another note, and the food comes out. Voila, the machine has just taught you something new. It will only release the food if you give crisp, undamaged notes.

Then, let’s say, that there is another machine inside the building, that has been reliable. It has given food each day for weeks regardless of the condition of the notes, then just stops, no matter what you do it will not give the food up. You may only try one more time, and if that machine does not work again you will probably give up and never use it again.

So what have you learned? You will probably continue going to the first one, even though it is a little temperamental and may not work every time, chances are you will get the food from it more than the second machine. Sometimes you may need to simply try harder or something new to get the food.

So how does this relate to dog training? The first machine works on a schedule of intermittent reinforcement. That is, it gives food out every now and again for the correct behaviour. This is the rate of reinforcement we need our dogs to become comfortable with to improve their behaviour.

The second machine was very reliable on constant rate of reinforcement and when this stopped your behaviour of putting money in to the machine also stopped, very quickly.

Sometimes people feed their dogs for everything, and their dog comes to expect food for everything, when it does not get it once or twice, it looses heart, it may have never had this happen to them, so they give up. The importance of intermittent reinforcement is to build resilience in our dogs so that they try harder, or try something different.

If we intermittently reinforce our dogs they can expect failure, but know that if they try again, or try another behaviour they might get the food. It is also mental weightlifting, as your dog must think of what they need to do in order to gain access to the food.

Hopefully, now you can see why it is so important to move away from a constant stream of food for everything. Intermittent reinforcement creates the strongest drive and the most reliable behaviours.


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