Learning Means Making Mistakes: Prelearning Dips

Does this sound familiar? We start teaching a dog to go onto his bed and sit. He’s doing well and nailing it! Then we add a cue into the mix. He sits on his bed a few times and then just… stops. He simply looks at you when you ask him to go to his bed. Or perhaps he goes and sits next to the bed. What gives? He was just doing it for the last couple minutes! 

Now before we start labeling this dog as stubborn, stupid, or forgetful, let’s talk about prelearning dips. Karen Pryor devotes a few pages to this learning phenomenon in her book Don’t Shoot the Dog! She describes the prelearning dip in animals as when you’ve started to teach something, they’re doing well, and then they’re suddenly not performing it well anymore. “It acts as if it has never heard of the thing you have [taught] it to do.” She goes on to affectionately call this phenomenon in humans a “prelearning temper tantrum” but that’s a post for another time. 

This is what the prelearning dip looks like!

Learning is rarely a straight line from point A to point B. We take massive steps forward and we take steps backward. And, unfortunately for us perfectionists in the world, making mistakes is vital to the learning process. It’s through making mistakes that we hone our understanding and discover nuances along the way. 

To anthropomorphize the dog in the above scenario, I imagine him saying, “Wait! I’m learning something! What is it exactly? Can I sit anywhere? No… Is it sit 3’ in front of my person? No… Can I stand on the bed?” He’s learning precisely what does and does not work for this particular cue and the only way that he can do that is by making mistakes. 

What does this mean for me?

I love pointing prelearning dips out to my clients because it allows them to create more space for patience throughout the learning process and ultimately train their animals better. Instead of thinking there’s something inherently wrong with either our training or with the animal himself, we can acknowledge this regression as a necessary part of learning. We can start accepting that mistakes aren’t bad; they provide information. We can provide the same constructive guidance and patience for our animals as we would like others do provide for us while we’re learning something new. 

What should I do when I see this happen?

I smile when I see an animal starting to go through that prelearning dip. I think, “Ah! They’re working it out!” I then make it easier for the animal to perform the desired behavior by taking a few steps back in our training plan. In the example with teaching an animal to go to his bed, I might stand right next to it again. Or I might lure him with food a few more times and then try just the hand signal again. When he makes a mistake I simply wait a few seconds and then try again– usually making it easier this time around. The absence of food is enough information; there’s no need to acknowledge the mistake in another way. By making it easier to get the desired behavior and treating mistakes with patience, he should get through his prelearning dip in no time and with the least amount of frustration as possible. 

What now?

  • Teach your pet a new behavior! I love teaching tricks when I’m trying my hand at a new skill because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if the animal actually learns it. That takes the pressure off of both of us! 
  • Take notes (mental or written). Does your animal go through a prelearning dip? What does it look like? 
  • Practice your new skillset: ignore mistakes for just a few seconds and go back to an easier step. It can be helpful ahead of time to briefly write out the steps you’ll use to teach your animal so you can quickly refer back. Check out YouTube videos on training that particular behavior if you need some inspiration. This video does a great job of laying out an entire plan. 

Happy training!


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