How many times have you heard or said “Always end a training session on a good note?” I heard it repeatedly when I first went into the field and said it myself, until I saw how much trouble it could cause a dog and his handler. I got to thinking about this training aphorism when I was working sheepdog Maggie this weekend, and she and I weren’t able to drive the sheep in the “practice course” I’d set up for her. It was just too difficult a task for her and me on the particular day with those particular sheep. Years ago I would have switched tasks and set her up to do something easy before I said “That’ll Do”. But I didn’t. I just called her back, said “All Done, that’s a girl Maggie” and walked her back to the car.
It got me to wondering about why I made that choice, rather than “ending on a good note”. And it got me thinking about the concept as relates to family dog training, and why I think it often gets people in trouble.
I’ll start by noting that a significant factor in my stopping Maggie’s session this weekend was that she was hot and tired. Maggie loves to work sheep–if she could talk she’d edit that to “Maggie LIVES to work sheep“. However, when she’s hot and tired she has trouble focusing on both controlling the sheep and listening to my signals. She doesn’t want to quit, but she begins making mistakes and behaving as if her brain is a little rattled. It is not a misuse of anthropomorphism to argue that most of us can understand what that feels like. There was simply no value in asking her to get more tired by doing something she already knows how to do well. She doesn’t need me to build motivation, and I didn’t need to set her up to fail at something she’s normally good at.
I wonder if therein lie the answers to whether to quit when things don’t go well, or to continue by switching to something easy that the dog can do well. Maggie didn’t need motivation to want to try again later; she didn’t want to stop working when I ended the session. That doesn’t mean she would have learned anything good if we had kept at it. Dogs like Maggie remind me of young kids who’ve been in the pool too long. “I’m not cold!” they exclaim, their lips turning blue as they begin to shiver. Just because Maggie wanted to keep working doesn’t mean it would have been be good for her. More likely, she would have made a mistake that she wouldn’t normally have made. Then what? End the session then? Try something even easier?
This is the slippery slope I’ve seen people slide down in family dog training over and over again, and it often ends in a hard landing. The heeling session isn’t going well and so the handler switches to something the dog can do well. Except heeling wasn’t going well because Chester or Britches was distracted by children playing across the street, and so the sit response fell apart too. It’s just too easy to keep trying to find that “good note” while one thing after another falls apart. I’ve seen it happen hundreds if not thousands of times, and it’s impossible not to feel sorry for everyone involved.
If dogs are motivated to learn, whether working sheep or learning to their manners, then they are going to be happy to pick up a training session where you left off. And that’s on us. There’s nothing inherently reinforcing about heeling to a dog, unless we link it with a primary reinforcer like food or play. If we’ve done our job correctly, we don’t start training until we know what our dog wants as a reinforcer. For sheep dogs, it’s easy. Sheepdogs–sheep. Mission accomplished. (Although there is nuance here too: Maggie and Willie both love doing big, wide outruns and don’t like putting pressure on slow, “heavy” sheep.) For most dogs learning to sit, stay and come when called isn’t initially reinforcing, but getting treats or a play session is.
I also think it’s easy to forget how tiring it is to learn something new. Remember that when we humans are learning something new, say a sport, we have an idea of what we’re aiming for, whether it’s getting the ball in the basket or learning to jump over the pole. Dogs have no idea about the end game, and that can be exhausting. Ever played the clicker game in which the trainee leaves the room while everyone else decides what the trainer is going to train the subject to do? If not, you should, because to a person, the trainee, who is in the dark about what she is supposed to do, feels at best confused, and at worst frustrated. I’ve never seen a bite, but people have confessed they’ve been tempted. We can’t always tell when our dogs are mentally or emotionally exhausted, but we should always be cognizant of how tiring it is to learn something new.
I should be clear here: (Thank you early commenters!): I’m talking here about sessions in which things aren’t going well, and the tendency to want to “fix it” by trying to end on that furtive “good note.” That’s when, I’m suggesting, it’s time to call it a day, to let the dog rest and go back to it when you are both fresh and relaxed. I think it’s always best to end a session before you get into trouble if you can, especially if you are doing counter conditioning or desensitization. This is when it’s critical to know when to stop. (Which is usually before you think you should, at least in early years of training, right?). The last thing you want is to gradually work a dog up to being comfortable with an approaching stranger, and then push it too far by trampling too far over the dog’s comfort zone. But you can’t always predict how even a simple sit or stay training session is going to go, and if it’s going poorly, there’s nothing wrong, and perhaps something right, with giving it a rest.
I wish we had some research on the effects of ending a session when things are going poorly versus continuing in search of a happy ending. (Side note: How many times have I said “I wish we had some research on…”? Often enough for it to be a new drinking game?) It’s interesting to think about this issue from an operant perspective, although we can only guess how a dog perceives the end of a training session. Is it a relief? Or a kind of negative punishment, as in “Wait, you took my chance to get chicken bits away!” Is continuing a session with something more fun and easy a kind of positive reinforcement for messing up in the first place?
There is some interesting science that doesn’t address this directly, but does give us some guidance about factors that effect learning in dogs. Affenzeller et. al. (2016) found that Labradors Retrievers performed better if allowed to play after a learning session rather than rest for thirty minutes. On the other hand, we also know that sleep can consolidate learning: see Julie Hecht’s post about the research of Anna Kis of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Family Dog Project. In summary, dogs asked to sit and stay in a new language did better if allowed to sleep after the session rather than playing, going on a walk or learning something else new. However, that result only held for the short term. A week after the sessions, the dogs in all the conditions performed equally well, except the dogs who were taught something new. Because sleep has been shown to consolidate memory in so many species, perhaps the long-term results might have been different if the dogs were allowed to sleep longer than thirty minutes. Nevertheless, the results are clear that teaching a dog several new things in a row is not ideal. The lead researcher’s advice is:
“Learning a new command should be followed by an activity that does not interfere with this new memory trace (e.g. sleeping, walking, playing–but not learning other things) in order to achieve the highest subsequent performance in the long run.”
But that’s pretty much exactly what happens in training classes, in which three to six different things are often taught in one session. I don’t see anyway around that in a class setting, but we might be wise to instruct owners to go home and work on things one at a time at home. That’s actually how I do most of my family dog training at home, slipping in an exercise as part of daily life, which also has the advantage of being done in context. I’ve never forgotten Ian Dunbar’s advice on the importance of teaching and performing in context, and it’s served me well. Thank you Dr. Dunbar.
This research also relates to “ending on a good note.” I’d argue if it’s something that the dog already knows well, is motivated to do, and is not mentally fried, then it well might not cause any harm. Does it help? I don’t think we know. I can imagine situations in which it might help some dogs in some cases, but I suspect, in general, this maxim is more often for our own sake rather than the dogs’.
By the way, circling back to Maggie, I did work her again on my own sheep after she’d had a long rest and deep sleep. I set up a similar situation that was less challenging, and she did beautifully. I do think setting up a dog to succeed is a good thing, and that revisiting a problematic issue is important. The question is when, right?
Lots of nuance here: I’m curious what you think and what your experiences have been. Please chime in, I suspect lots of us are looking forward to what others have to say.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: We’ve had a heavenly weekend with a delightful guest from the east coast (more on that next week). Great weather, and lots of indicators that summer is waning. Most of the fireflies are long gone; we see a few hapless ones each night who apparently missed the memo and came late to the party. Garden spiders are spinning elaborate webs. Mornings are often accompanied by ground fog. The bees are busy. As a bee. (Sorry, but they are all over the yard, on dozens of types of flowers, and are well, busy.) It makes me truly happy that we have so many healthy bees in the yard, given how much bee species are struggling.
The day lilies are almost done blooming, but there are three late bloomers who I can see right now out the kitchen window. I’m trying to store up color in my soul like the bees gather pollen, because the Brown, Black and White Time is coming soon. This is one of my favorite colors.
All the dogs were sound asleep while I was writing this and I thought a photo of them sleeping would accompany this post’s topic nicely. This is what happened as soon as I got out my camera:
Hopefully they were consolidating a lot of useful, good memories.