What’s a “Better Learning Performance?”
A study on training frequency by Meyer and Ladewig (Applied Animal Behavior Science 2008) is getting some attention lately, and I thought it’d be useful to mention it here. It’s a great example of how a ‘rose is a rose is a rose…’ (but not.)
Cutting to the bottom line, the authors found that dogs “learned better” if they were trained only once a week to touch a target rather than five times a week. They divided the dogs into 2 groups and one group received only one training session once a week. The other group received 5 training sessions each week. The results showed that the “once a week” group did “better.”
Wow. Really? What about those short, multiple sessions scattered throughout the day that I and many others recommend? Uh oh, have we all been wasting our time?
Nope, God is in the details here. Here’s the study in depth: First off, the dogs were laboratory beagles who lived profoundly different lives than pet dogs. Most importantly, look at how the authors defined “better.” It turns out that “better” means that the “once a week” group learned to touch the target (using shaping and clicker training; the training methods look pretty good) in fewer sessions than the “5 x a week” group. For example, the Once a Week group only needed from 5 to 9 sessions to reach criteria. The other group needed more sessions–from 6 to 12.
But wait. If the Once a Week group only had one session a week, then the fastest learner in this group (5 sessions to criterion) took a minimum of 29 days or almost a month to learn to touch a target. However, the fastest “5 x Week” dog only needed 8 days, because the 6 sessions it took him to learn lasted from Day One to Day 8. (It’s best to figure this out with a calendar!). I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in needing 4-5 weeks to teach a dog to touch a target when most of us can do it in a few days, right? The issue here is one of definition: the authors were looking for how few sessions one could manage in a laboratory setting and still have the dogs learn something. That’s how they defined “better learning performance.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not how I’d define it. I’m interested not in how many individual sessions it takes, cuz I can run them off easily as part of daily life. Three sessions a day is nothing when we’re training something new and easy to do, right? Waiting weeks and weeks for a result? Not priceless, not at all.
What is interesting for the general dog owner however, is how well the “Weekly” beagles retained what they had learned from week to week. This supports my somewhat informed (and somewhat intuitive) belief that it’s important to give dogs some days off to “process” what they’ve learned.
I’m curious what you think? What is you favorite training schedule? Does it vary depending on the task? The dog? Your mood (smile)? I’d love to hear what you have to say.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm. The sheep are stuffing themselves with wild apples, the kitchen is overflowing with squash of all colors and the Sandhill Cranes are congregating just a few miles from the house. We spent an hour on Sunday watching them; how lucky we felt to be able to get so close and watch them for so long. What elegant and beautiful creatures. I’m glad we got it in since I’ll be inside all weekend at the seminar this weekend. Small price to pay though… I’m truly excited about seeing everyone (We have 240 people coming!). All blog and FB readers come up and say hi! (And if you aren’t coming to Madison, come see me in Orlando in January… I’ve got the greatest videos for us to watch and evaluate!)
Here are a few of the crane photos. They are magazine cover good, the light was pretty dim, but you can still see how beautiful they are. (For scale, they’d come up to your hips.. they are TALL critters!)