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Kay Laurence | Learning About Dogs | Background Fade In

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Fade-In Protocol

Introduction and background information

first published June 2018

– outline
The Fade-In protocol begins with teaching of a desired behaviour that is well reinforced and practised and then introducing a planned gradual event that may  cause disruption to the desired behaviour.

It can be used in many different situations where there is a high risk of the learner making a significant error that can cause uncertainty and reduce confidence.


Author: KL

The origins of the protocol were first documented over 50 years ago, but it is not a well-known or frequently selected protocol. Susan Friedman explains the original experiment succinctly in her article Clearing the Path to Reinforcement with an Errorless Learning Mindset:

Terrace (1963) researched errorless learning with a successive discrimination task. In the traditional successive discrimination procedure (different than Terrace’s procedure), a pigeon, for example, is reinforced with food for pecking a disk on the wall of an operant chamber (called a key light or key) when it’s illuminated red. After many repetitions, when the pecking behavior in the presence of the red key is well established the color of the key changes to green and pecking is no longer reinforced. With the standard protocol then, the red light is the discriminative stimulus (SD) that cues pecking for food reinforcement, and the green light is the stimulus delta (S ∆) that signals the extinction condition, i.e., pecking will not produce food reinforcement. The red and green keys are then alternately presented with the corresponding reinforcement and extinction conditions in effect. After initially making many errors (due to response generalization), the correct differential response to key color gradually occurs (Pierce & Cheney, 2013).
Alternatively, Terrace used two procedures in his errorless discrimination training not typical of standard discrimination training. First, the S ∆ condition, the green key, was introduced very early in the program before pecking in the redlight condition was well established. Second, Terrace used a fading (i.e., fading in) procedure to present the green key at different values, gradually increasing brightness, wavelength and duration over the repetitions. These two procedures resulted in faster learning of the discrimination and very few errors. The pigeons trained with the errorless discrimination procedures made about 25 errors (i.e., pecking the green key light) compared to 2000 to 5000 errors made by the pigeons taught with standard procedures. Only those birds trained with T&E exhibited emotional responses in the presence of the S ∆. The pigeons trained with the errorless approach remained calm until the red disk, the SD, appeared.
These findings have been widely replicated across species. Powers, Cheney, & Agostino (1970) found that preschool children taught a color discrimination with errorless learning procedures learned faster and with fewer errors, and they enjoyed learning more than the children taught with standard procedures. Roth reported similar results with dolphins (as cited in Pierce & Cheney, 2013).


Even though today we are surrounded by many available protocols for teaching with positive reinforcement, there is still a persistence that a dog should be set-up to make an error. The reasons for this are extensive:

“the dog needs to know when they are wrong so that they can focus on what is required”

“we are building resilience”

“this teaches a dog impulse control”

With this mindset underpinning the training, adding reinforcement to correct choices does not make it positive learning. Any time being wrong is deliberately included in the curriculum we are failing our learners. Sure, learning may be effective, unforgotten and lifelong but at a cost.

The cost can be a mistrust in the teacher. When the learner is faced with a new lesson they may first ask “what is the trap?” This is a negative view and likely to cause hesitation and a resistance to discovery and exploration. If you think your teacher is only setting you up for success you approach with an enthusiasm and eagerness for the learning.

All of us have been damaged by the error-trap. Whether it was deliberate on part of the teacher or not, it makes us cautious learners.

In addition to this approach to learning we then experience frustration, that can escalate to rage, when we cannot solve the error. If you have ever used a computer connected to a printer you have experienced this. And it wasn’t good.


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