Let’s go back a few steps

If you’ve spent any time training animals (or humans, for that matter), you know that things don’t always go as planned! Particular steps may end up taking much longer or shorter than your initially anticipated. And at certain steps, the animal may behave in a way that you didn’t expect at all.

You should always start with a plan. However, you should also always be prepared to change your plan, depending on what actually happens.

If things aren’t working, go back a step (or two or three or more!)

If the animal is struggling with a certain step, don’t keep working on that step.

There are several different things that you can do at this point. You could make some minor changes to what you are doing at that step. Or, you could go back a step or two and review some of the previous steps. Alternatively, you may decide that you need to completely redesign your whole plan.

Let’s talk specifically about the second option. That is, going back a step or two and reviewing some of the previous steps. This is sometimes called backtracking.

Trainers often backtrack when the animal is struggling. However, they don’t always use this technique effectively. This is because they often just go back only one or two steps. Often this results in some improvement, but the animal is still uncertain about what to do and is still doing a slightly wrong version of the behavior.

Goldiamond (2004) writes that “In backtracking, the level at which backtracking stops depends on the organism’s behavior, rather than an arbitrarily set return point.”

What does this mean?

You should go back enough steps until you can find a point where the animal can be completely successful. Occasionally, it may be fine to just go back one step, but often it may mean going back three steps, or five steps, or even ten steps.

Backtracking will be more successful when you go back a certain number of steps based on the animal’s behavior, not based on a certain number that you pick.

It may seem like it will slow you down if you go back a bunch of steps, but this actually often speeds up training. This is because you will get back to a point where the animal is confident and knows exactly what to do. This makes it much easier to begin building the next pieces.

For example, if the animal is really struggling at Step 9, there may have been some issues going on at Steps 6, 7 and 8. These may have seemed very minor at the time, but they may begin to snowball because you moved on without resolving them.

If you go back an arbitrary number of steps, such as going back two steps to Step 7, you may arrive at a point where the animal is still doing the behavior somewhat incorrectly. As you now practice this step, you will continue strengthening unwanted behaviors.

Instead, if you go back even further, such as to Step 4 or 5, you can find a point where the animal’s performance was exactly what you wanted. This allows you to start again from success. You can now reteach the next few steps, cleaning up any unwanted behaviors and clarifying to the animal exactly what you want.

So, the next time you’re training, remember this: If you’re going to go back a step, don’t just go back one step. Instead, go back enough steps so that you reach a point where the animal again can be successful all or almost all of the time.

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  • Guest

    I’m working with a pony now who seems to be both very, very smart and very, very fast, but also very, very stuck!

    Free feeding by handfuls has helped. That meant we backtracked about 100 steps; but if it helps to move forward again, so be it.

    Now for the forward part. At her readiness. 🙂

    • I’ve had similar situations, where it felt like we had to go back 100 steps…. often, though, it does help!

  • Jenny H

    I have experienced this personally. In my dotage I have taken up learning the snare drum. I am rather a slow learner — but impatient. My teacher keeps telling me to ‘go slowly’ 🙁 Recently I was having trouble with ‘rolls’ and finding it frustrating. So one day I decided to go RIGHT back to basically my starting point. By doing this I actually reached a good speed much more quickly than if I had persisted in practising just where I was having problems. (And it IS muscle memory rather than understanding.)

    • Great example! Thanks for sharing.
      This idea about backtracking certainly doesn’t just apply to animal training, but to all kinds of learning situations.