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!)
I think the discussions have started to come up again based on a study with similar results that was just published last month: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016815911100181X
Though the conclusions are the same. Fewer sessions to acquire behavior, however not a shorter overall time span to acquisition.
I think that in a vacuum, the results aren’t immediately relevant, but did think there were some interesting questions generated in the discussion portion of the paper. Whether sleeping overnight between sessions may be an important factor. They also speculated on why they might be getting these results. Most interesting, I thought, was the idea that when a new session doesn’t start for a day or two, the dog brings a fresh perspective to the learning situation and this may be enhancing overall learning. As opposed to doing several sessions with only short breaks in between – where the dog comes back to the session with pre-conceived notions of what it should do (maybe results in learning plateaus or points where the dog is more likely to get stuck.) Of course, it would be easy to speculate that the carryover between short sessions helps more than it hurts – particularly when time is of the essence (calendar time!)
I find the study interesting, but also realize that calendar time often places more pressure on my results and so I don’t have the luxury of waiting months for my dog to acquire a new behavior. However, I guess it does relieve some of the guilt around those crazy days when time gets away and no training gets done. Those days off here and there, at least, I think, aren’t going to hurt our long term training goals.
Beth with the Corgis says
Thank you for explaining the study in layman’s terms!
For me, it really depends on what I’m training. For simple obedience commands (like teaching a puppy to sit) I do several short sessions a day, every day.
For inherently stressful activities (teaching a dog to leave food lying on the floor for TDI testing, for instance) I might practice every 3rd or 4th day, to keep the dog below frustration threshold.
Similarly, for more complex behaviors (learning a turn on the forehand, for instance) I believe in leaving days with no training for mental processing to take place.
The exception to the above rule for me is weave pole training. I’m using Susan Garrett’s 2×2 method with great success. I know she has said (and perhaps she’s oversimplifying) that the method works because it makes the dog “think” about it and make choices. I’m not sure I agree with that, though. As I watched the method unfold with my dog, it seems to be more a case of building what we call muscle memory. Early on, when the poles are far apart, the dog IS thinking (“Go between these, not around them!”). But as the dog actually starts weaving, it seems more a case of setting them up to get to understand what weaving “feels” like. My dog hits correct entries 90% of the time after using this method, but if he goes in from the wrong side and actually starts the weave, there seems to be nothing in his little head that triggers the thought “Wrong!” Once he’s weaving, it seems more a case of a golfer knowing if his swing is off or on, rather than a mathematician realizing he approached a problem wrong.
So since I’ve categorized it as “muscle memory” in my mind, I tend to think that regular practice with the occasional break to rest is the better option there. For a true thinking exercise, days off in between to process information seems better to me.
Just my two cents!
Beth with the Corgis says
And I love the cranes!
To me, a nonprofessional, it depends on the dog. My GSD picks up on everything almost immediately, as soon as she sees the clicker, she gets into excited learning mode. She can’t learn fast enough. It took me about five minutes to teach her to bring the three dog bowls to the kitchen after dinner. Another five minutes and she was placing each of them in the dishwasher. She is clicker charged for sure.
My cocker–not so much, we just keep going with short lessons and eventually she’ll catch on if she’s in the mood. The german wire hair pup picks up on training almost as fast as the GSP but she’s so hyper about everything (squirrel!) that it’s not all that fun. =)
The short lessons are great, the dog’s interest is piqued and the treats are fresh and exciting. We always try to end on a high note with extra treats, an ear scratching session and a “Thank you, that’s all!”
Why beagles? No offense to beagle owners, but there’s a reason they’re described as a nose with four feet.
The pictures are gorgeous. I was hoping for Willie news…(hint)
Thanks for this Post Patricia. I have been pondering this study as well as it is getting a lo of attention at the moment. My thoughts were going towards the many short sessions I do during the day and the number of different exercises/behaviours we train. In the study they only teach this one behaviour I gathered and as you so rightly point out, taking a month for one behaviour that can be done in days would not be my choice either.
However the days to ‘think about the training’ I find also happens because I tend to train different behaviours on different days. That is I hardly ever train the same behaviours two or three days in a row. I tend to mix them up and keep the sessions ‘fresh’ by not going into the same routine. I am thinking this also sort of acts as a day of rest, for that behaviour anyway and the dogs seem to come back to the behaviour with new ‘ideas and skills’.
I agree that it’s helpul to take some days off from formal training sessions, although of course some form of training is always happening when I interact with my dogs.
I train my young dog 1 to 3 times a day, 5 to 7 days a week, for 5 to 30 minutes at a time. The biggest impact on her learning and retention seems to come not from the training schedule, but the quality of the training. I’ve been making an effort recently to only train when I can give it 100%, and to hold my dog to very high (but still attainable) standards. No cookies for ‘good enough.’ This means that I’m training less often, since I’m skipping those quickie sessions that I used to try to fit in, and I only train when the session is well planned out. The results have been very positive!
However, for pet dog owners working on house manners, I still recommend multiple daily training sessions. For those owners, integrating the training into every-day life with the dog is part of the goal. Manners training is very different from teaching the precise execution of one specific skill, which is what the study looked at.
Thanks Mary, I’ll read over the entire study tomorrow. Lots to think about. But I’m already speculating, and riffing off the comments above: I too suspect that type of task is highly relevant (is the behavior part of a dog’s normal repertoire? If so, I can’t imagine not pairing the cue with the behavior many times a day.) Is the task something out of a dog’s normal behavior? Ah, perhaps this is a different case altogether… like Beth it depends very much to me on what we’re working on: Sit training versus learning to drive sheep for example. The harder the task, perhaps the fewer the sessions per day? That’s simplifying, but it’s a start. Also, I do wonder greatly about the difference between dogs who live in laboratory kennels who presumably don’t get out except for training sessions. That is significantly different than the life of a house dog, and might have a significant effect
on how the dog’s respond.
I always thought Otis was an oddball because he actually seems to prefer and do best with less frequent training sessions with plenty of “downtime” between them. I can’t say for sure that he learns more quickly that way, exactly, but he seems to get less stressed and enjoy himself more. Since he has a strikingly good memory, very short training sessions with days between them seem to work fine for him. He was a bit unusual in his response to training, though. He is more “normal” now, but when we first brought him home, Otis was a) mostly indifferent to food treats b) anxious in situations in which he was unsure about what we wanted or how he should behave c) uncomfortable around people showing signs of excitement-he would either avoid them or become increasingly anxious/excited, losing focus and acting out by barking, jumping, etc.
He also seemed confused by repetition. Having learned a trick (typically in a single session), he’d repeat it perfectly when asked the first time and usually the second. By the third or fourth repetition in succession, he’d start to seem confused, and if we continued, eventually he’d become anxious, offering different behaviors first, then becoming increasingly avoidant, turning his head, staring at the ground, even turning his back on one occasion. (We had a bad obedience class experience) . He did better if we mixed it up, asking for two or three different tricks instead of the same again, but eventually even that would start to stress him if we kept at it more than a minute or two. He had no problems sustaining focus–he’d easily and willingly hold a stay or a down for many minutes, but he got very nervous around repeated commands.
I think that Otis’ learning style is very different from most of the dogs I’ve owned. Sandy, for instance, thrives on repetition-she’ll sit and pop up and sit and pop up all day long with a wag in her tail and a smile on her face. She seems to respond directly to cues with her gaze fixed on my face, and her mind firmly on any treats I might be handing out, and immediately forget what she was doing one moment before. To really learn a new trick, she needs to do it over and over before she really seems to grasp what she’s doing. Otis, in contrast, thinks things out. He moves more slowly and seems to actually mull things over (anthropomorphizing, I know). Once he figures out what I want him to do once, he remembers it, sometimes for weeks without repetition. Asking him repeatedly for the same behavior seems to confuse and upset him…I don’t know for sure, but I think that he begins to worry that he’s doing it wrong, or that I actually want something else-why else won’t I be satisfied? He hates it, in any case.
What works for Otis is very, very short (single repetition, generally) practice sessions, once or twice a day. I brush up on his basic skills occasionally as part of our walks or play or feeding routines and he’s relaxed tremendously about training in general.
Well… um… the first thing I get from this is that laboratory Beagles seem to be not so smart. Or was this an insanely difficult criteria of target touching? My Staffordshire Bull Terriers learn to touch a target in a session or 2. I taught my last litter that as their intro to shaping (since I first taught them sit, down, stand, & right and left spins via luring) And just because she was so cute:
(12 week old puppy practicing her target touch. This is the pup I didn’t keep, I kept her brother. He had better focus in training.)
I tend to not be a daily trainer, mostly because I’m lazy and easily distracted. I worked with these puppies daily from about 7 1/2 to 8 1/2 weeks, then I got busy and missed it frequently. I’d say I worked with them a few times a week. It got a little easier when I got the bitch pup off to her own home. In general, my dogs are lucky to train a few times a week, and I always thought it was an idiosyncrasy of my dogs that they learn well with sporadic training, but maybe my laziness has me really onto something?
I do train weave poles daily, or nearly daily in the initial learning phase, I think they need to build muscle memory. I think the tasks that benefit most from a more sporadic training schedule are the things that require a lot of thinking on the part of the dog. When I’ve trained a dog for Utility in obedience, for instance, I find that I can’t train scent articles more than every few days, it’s too much for them. Heelwork tends to be something that benefits from frequent training. Agility, other than the weaves, and beginning jump training, I’ve never worked more than twice a week. Usually once. That has more to do with equipment access than anything, but my dogs do well with it.
I do wonder what role breed plays into it? I just have the Staffords, and don’t have a lot of experience with training anything else.
chloe De Segonzac says
I also think it greatly depends on the dog, and how the teaching is done, and what they are learning. My dog is very very different from her sister who is low drive and shuts down super fast. ‘find your ball’ is so different from ‘watch me’ although I know you (the dog) want to go after the dog across the street. Some training is very tiring for dogs emotionally, others not so much.
My girl is very high drive but also super sound sensitive. So the best for us is active short training sessions with lots of play and fun, taking advantage of quiet times and places. Almost everyday we do a little something new, coupled with a review of something she really likes.
Time between difficult learning sessions makes sense to be. Physical rest also is important especially in dog sports.
Interesting. It makes me think of when my Dad was training. He was on the road many days a week. He would have only a few training sessions per week – sometimes none. But his dogs still performed well at the shows. I often speculated that this is because the dogs were highly motivated to work/play with him because of his absence.
In my own training I have found that there are times my dog is unable to grasp a new concept initially. But give the dog a mental break from the new task and a day or two later, he is able to perform the new task. Perhaps it is like what humans do to solve complex problems – we sleep on it or mull it over. Perhaps the dog is still problem solving even when not working.
This is so interesting. I am an amateur who has been training her dogs for fun for the past 10 years or so using a mix of methodologies, primarily shaping, and never any physical corrections. I use multiple very short 1-2 minute training sessions to introduce a concept to a dog, and then over a few days increase the duration of the training, never going over 5-10 minutes of focusing on one exercise. My dogs are sponges for learning. I have yet had it take more than a few short lessons for them to get the basics of the behavior. I do always break up our training sessions with play play play, lots of fun, tug, and learning games that they love. They get very excited when I say “who wants to work?”. They equate learning with fun times with the human (that would be ME). Once they learn a behavior, we simply integrate it into our daily routine, e.g. practicing rally or obedience on our walks, agility groundwork while playing in the backyard, and fun learning games at odd sporadic times. When I am teaching something new, I do give them days off, then come back to that lesson after 1-2 days.
I am really surprised at the results of this survey. I can’ t help but wonder if the lab dogs live a more isolated lifestyle, so are really eager and motivated when they get out to train?
We play we train. It is so mixed up it is hard to track. When they know it well, it is play, when it is something new we do it until they look bored or preferably just before that. Then repeat again… Either later in the same play session or a month later when I remember what I was doing! One of my dogs needs LONG sessions and then has it and will remember it best with a break. The other needs lots of short frequent sessions and he starts to get it. Got to know the dog and work your routine around it. Then if it is something I need, like waiting on the new porch before hopping down the stairs, we repeat it every time the behavior occurs.
Beth with the Corgis says
em, your description of Otis’s behavior is actually fairly common, at least in the initial learning phase. When I’m trying to teach a more complex behavior (say, backing up), the FIRST time they do it exactly right I have a big praise party and end the training session, period. No repetition. In the initial shaping phase I might repeat, but once they get it right, we are done.
What I think happens is the dog is trying to figure out what you want, and to please you. They do it right, you SEEM happy, but then you ask for it again and they think “Uh-oh, I thought I understood, but if I did it I would not be asked again, so that must be wrong.”
Think of it this way. Imagine you are at work, and your boss says “Can you get me that report?” And you hand over the report, and your boss says “Great job, thanks! Can you hand me that report?”
Guaranteed you’d be confused and stressed too. You thought you’d done what she asked and then she repeated the exact same request. Uh-oh, there must be some miscommunication somewhere….
At least that’s how I tend to think of it. Once a behavior is mastered, I tend to only ask for it once in a training session. There are exceptions of course (heel work, leaving it) but I would not ask a dog who knew how to sit to repeat that over and over again. Both of mine look at me funny when I do that. Things that involve muscle memory are of course different, and things the dog really enjoys (retrieving, for instance).
Even in agility, if Jack gets a line of obstacles right, he might do it for me one more time but then he gets sloppy and loses focus.
Very interesting post and comments. Rescue Beagles are my breed of choice. This discussion reminds me of when I put in the dog door. Penney was a hound mix found prego in a ditch. Her initial rescuer had a dog door so she knew what and how to work it immediately. Louie was a stray I adopted from the local humane society. He was a whip smart Beagle; I used food cues to help get him back and forth through the door. Took minutes. Oliver was a local stray I had adopted with blessing. Oliver took at least half an hour using the same manner as with Louie. When I related this to my vet, she chuckled and said, “you know, Ollie’s bulb is just not that bright” with great affection as she much preferred Ollie over Louie, whom I adored.
Considering how lazy I can occasionally be, it’s a good thing that week to week retention of things for dogs can be good!
To use the targeting example, I’ve really only used it a few times in a “training session”, but I can vary object or hand, and the situation (during play, before filling a water bowl) and ask for a touch and she has a good percentage of success.
Jen Ticsay says
I was once attempting clicker train a dog to wave. I left the lesson believing the dog did not get it at all. The owners did not attempt the wave, but when I returned the next week the dog greeted me waving over and over. He wanted me to see that he had figured it out in my absence. They are little geniuses no mater what the number of sessions.
My training schedule is rather random, and dependant on what else is going on, but I generally do it in the evening, using the kibble from his dinner. So: Lovely sunny evening – get the weave poles out; quiet period during cooking – lets spend that time doing some target training, or shaping, or recall, or tricks, or retrieve; busy evening, put the kibble in a kongwobble and get on with life…
I dont’ have to feel guilty about being so inconsistent any more!
When my dog was 3 months old we attended a puppy class where we had to learn a ton of tricks to teach pups how to use their bodies and how to think. We practiced for every meal, that is 3-4 times per day, every day. Pretty soon we would be working on 6 tricks per day, polishing some of them and just starting with others. I had a feeling that he forgot a lot of what we were doing if we didn’t work on a trick every day unless the trick was almost done.
I know that not everybody in my class worked every trick this often, but really for the first year or so it seemed my pup forgot things with lightening speed. I’m not sure that the training schedule from the study would work well for him 🙂
Then something clicked and now if we leave a trick partly done and return to it months later it’s still fresh in his mind. But then again there aren’t many weeks when we would train as intensely as we did for that puppy class 😉 I know for humans interference from studying different subjects can cause some loss of retention. It might be the same for dogs.
I didn’t have time to read the other comments, but in my experience if I am teaching a physical skill many short sessions are better, both for muscle memory and physical conditioning. If I am teaching a mentally intensive skill, it is better to have fewer sessions spread further apart. I taught my agility dog the physical obstacle skills like weave poles, how to jump, running the dogwalk etc. in many short sessions, sometimes three times a day. I taught him handling cues like go to the back side of the jump or turn left/right on a verbal cue in only a handful of sessions, but spaced days or weeks apart.
I developed the theory of threes in my horse training days. I felt like I needed to do a new activity three days in a row to feel it was a “success” and had really sunk in. So when I was backing my young horse I would lay across him three days in a row, then give him time off again. Then I sat on him three days in a row, then time off. Then three days of walking, etc. A friend had a good explanation of why this worked and I don’t recall the details, but it’s something that has stuck with me.
When teaching a new trick to one of the dogs, I find I still work in threes. I’ll do three short sessions in a day and/or work three days in a row and then take time off. It was a little different when I taught the last dog to weave — For her I followed the 2×2 program and we did three sessions per day for six days, by which time she was weaving six poles and we took a couple of weeks off from weaving. The next time I asked her to weave it was with 12 poles and she did it!
For regular maintenance training (agility) I tend to work the dogs no more than three times per week. I try never to do two days in a row and instead play frisbee, ball or go on walks those days.
I definitely feel there is latent learning that goes on in down time, but in general I don’t recommend that anyone go a week between training sessions because it takes forever to get results. Take for example the dog who only works on weave poles when attending a weekly class and never between. It will take that dog MONTHS to learn to weave. Yes, they might learn with fewer cumulative repetitions than the dog who is drilling them several times per week at home, but the overall time it takes the dog to understand the concept is very long and causes quite a bit of frustration and wasted time in class.
In my experience with the shy pup, he really needs a day or two of processing time before a new trick really becomes ingrained well. I noticed this particularly when I was training him to spin in a circle and when I was training him to roll over.
To introduce the behaviors to him, I used primarily a mix of luring and shaping. I have a difficult time shaping alone because the clicker noise scares him – I’ve tried a few different types of clicker and it doesn’t seem to be the volume of the noise that is the problem. He has no problems when I’m clicker training my cats. It seems that when the click is “at” him that seems to make him nervous.
Anyways … once he’s performed the behavior I want (or some approximation thereof), we don’t make much further progress with seubsequent training sessions for the same trick until a few days later. When this first happened (when I was teaching spin-in-a-circle), I actually gave up on the trick because it felt like it wasn’t sinking in. Several days later, when I tried again, I got better results than before. And now that this pattern has been repeated with another trick, I think this is just the way he learns.
Kerry M. says
I am fascinated by this topic. I love that researchers are now trying to determine the most effective way to train. I have so many questions about how best to maximize training, but it seems that most people just do what works… can’t really fault them, since that is what I do, too, but I love when a good study has something to say in the matter.
Based on experiences of people here and at other blogs, I’ve been trying shorter training sessions and I’m enjoying it. It helps that we don’t have any urgent training needs, we’re just having fun now teaching tricks and reinforcing stays and the like. I can’t say if it’s working better, but it doesn’t seem to be working badly and is much easier to fit into a day if you just want to add in a quick little 5-minute session here and there.
My favorite change to the training is I bought these pretty little airtight jars from Amazon and I now keep treats in my most commonly used rooms so I can just jump up, ask for a behavior and treat without having to walk the 15 feet to the kitchen. Yeah, I know it could sound ridiculous that this helps, but it was a mind change probably more due to the awkward nature of getting the treats than the distance. Get it in advance and you know they know that treats are now on the table. Get it after you ask and there is a pretty big delay before the behavior and the reward. I’ve always heard that I should keep treats in different rooms but it took buying pretty jars for me to want to do that. And if you’re going to go with small frequent sessions, it’s a great help.
Beth with the Corgis,
That’s exactly how I interpret Otis’ reaction. The only thing that seems to mark him out as odd, really, is just how extreme his sensitivity to training ‘pressure’ he is. Even basic shaping quickly becomes onerous to him. Our basic obedience class was a nightmare for this reason (I’d had dogs all my life but never actually taken a class before-this was a bad one and in hindsight, it was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made with a dog to ignore my own instincts and stay in that setting despite Otis’ obvious misery). He’s actually ridiculously easy to teach skills to, even some very complex ones, but he has an extremely limited tolerance for nonsense. As long as he understands why I want him to do something, he’s happy to do it and will remember how to do it almost indefinitely. But if not, he frets and balks.
My shepherd-rottie mix, on the other hand, has no such hangups. She doesn’t know why I want her to sit ten times in a row or jump over a gate she could walk around and she doesn’t care. As long as I’m paying attention to her, it’s all good.
The two of them are actually suited for very different sorts of tasks. Otis is an extrapolater and a problem solver-I can take him on a hike through the woods and only need to speak to him twice in two hours. He’s picked up some really challenging skills-crossing plank bridges, crawling under low obstacles, mastering a whole repetoire of coordinating moves (go slow, go first, follow me, wait, stand still while I lean on you) with almost no deliberate, premeditated training at all on my part-we confront a challenge, I give a cue, he figures out what I want from my gestures and body language, then remembers the cue for that behavior when we confront a similar situation. He thrives on this type of situation-given a general task (stay with me), he’s able to mostly make his own choices, pick up new skills and implement them with no trouble or stress.
But despite his physical skills, he would hate agility. Hate it. The excitement, the pressure, the inscrutable decision to engage with an easily avoided obstacle- his head would explode.
Sandy, on the other hand, LOVES it. The excitement, the attention, the fun challenges-crawling through a tunnel or weaving through poles in the middle of an open area for no reason? NO PROBLEM! It takes her a little longer to learn a new skill than it does Otis, but she’s willing to do almost anything just because I say so, without troubling her mind about why, and certainly without ever forming the ghost of a suspicion that it might not be worth the reward.
So to train Otis, it seems to work best to pretend like I’m not training Otis-infrequent and very, very low pressure. But Sandy does great with formal sessions, practice, and repetition. In fact, if I don’t practice a new skill regularly, she absolutely will forget it. Otis will remember a command I haven’t used in months.
I find my guy learns new, harder, things best if I do a bunch of short sessions for a week and then take a week off. Then I go back to it and do longer sessions every three days or so.
And I can’t see sandhill cranes without thinking about the time I encountered a bunch of city boys arguing about if a couple of sandhills were geese or woodpeckers!
When em says
Kerry M. says
I checked out the reviews for the Sean Senechal book but never picked it up because some of the claims seemed farfetched. Such as a question-answer on why a dog ate a remote: pizza. Not even sure why you would want to teach a dog a way to communicate the concept of pizza. Perhaps they were kidding in being overly specific but the reviews seemed so outlandishly good that it lost some credibility. Do you like it, Kat? What types of communications are most useful? Any downsides?
I definitely agree with it being boring to our dogs to do the same thing over and over again. This could also be another issue with the study. If I ask Huck to do some variation of Sit-Down-Stands, he has a limit of about 3-5. He has this look he gives me before he stops entirely. It could be what others said above, “is this right?”, but I take it to mean, “seriously? this is getting kind of ridiculous, but I’ll do it one last time for you, so pay attention.” I’m usually holding his dinner hostage here (I’m a very mean owner), so he’s pretty motivated to play along – up until a point.
“LESS IS MORE” is emblazoned on the wall of my training center…my students seem to do better when they aren’t feeling like they have to train every day…my own personal dogs do fine with a few days in between training sessions…although wouldn’t you agree that everything in day to day living with a dog can be a “training opportunity.
Rebecca Fouts says
Isn’t latent learning grand? I’ve had some fantastic, crazy results with it, and have been trying to figure out how I might better use it to my advantage. But it can be quite bizarre when it works. For example, once I was working on a behavior I just couldn’t seem to perfect, and frustrated, finally gave up. I was convinced the dog would just never learn it. More then 6 MONTHS later, I asked out of pure curiosity and the dog did it perfectly, when he’d never been able to perform it perfectly before.
What I find interesting about this subject is that you often will find that same need to process we sometimes see in animals, in people with autism. Which leads me to assume there’s some connection neurologically with the learning process of the two. I’d seen this connection already between the various types of animals I’ve worked with over the years and my autistic service dog clients — so when I read Temple’s book, I can’t tell you how exciting it was to know I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed this similarity — that I wasn’t crazy.
I find I get better results if I give down time — at least 24 hours, but preferably even more. They just need time to process. I’ve found very little, if any benefit to rapid firing sessions throughout the day, for days on end. I can do MORE with LESS — if I give space for the dog to process the lesson.
And I can still do it without losing valuable time if I stagger my lesson plan. I can still do 3 sessions a day, if I want, but I rarely work on the same behavior in those sessions. I’ve often got at least 10 other things to teach that week, anyway; so it’s not like I don’t have plenty of other things to work on. So when I sit down with my lesson plans for a particular dog, it will usually look something like this:
Week 1 — Introduce the first 10 behaviors of Set A.
Week 2 — Introduce the 10 new behaviors of Set B; Perfect and begin to generalize Set A.
Week 3 — Introduce Set C; Perfect and Generalize Set B; finish anything still needing work from Set A.
Week 4 — Introduce Set D; Perfect/Generalize Set C; Finish up anything still needing work from Set B; Rotate Set A randomly.
If something is truly complex, then it may take longer to perfect. But usually I break down things that complex into much smaller interval behaviors anyway. An obedience “front” might have 6 different steps to it; each step is introduced as if it’s a new behavior.
As the weeks progress, I will randomly rotate in finished behaviors among the set I’m introducing and the set I’m perfecting/generalizing that week. This way the dog is always learning something new, always perfecting and generalizing something, and always reaffirming something he already knows. And he has down time between to think on each. I rotate through the behaviors so everything gets worked on at least twice a week — but not several times a day or even every day. If the dog is having trouble with a particular behavior, then it might get cycled in a bit more, but still not every day.
The beauty of this approach is the dog never gets bored. I think when you hit the same behavior, session after session, for days — the dog just gets bored with it (beside frustrated) — and any PRODUCTIVE, EFFICIENT LEARNING stops. It doesn’t seem to matter how interesting or fun you try to make those sessions.
It’s like a child learning fractions. Doesn’t matter if you add a cutesy little game one day. From the child’s perspective: it’s still fractions, they’re still hard, and we’ve been doing them for WEEKS! A game doesn’t change any of that, no matter how fun. Better to move on to something NEW for a while, then come back.
I’ve constantly been amazed at the results of latent learning. When I first started training, I would frustrate myself (and the dog) for days trying to learn/perfect something, rapid-firing it with session after session for days, with no apparent progress. I find if I get stubborn about it like this, I tend to hit a learning plateau at some point that neither I, nor the dog, can get past.
Where as if I give it up for a while, a few days, a week even, the next time I ask, the dog has miraculously figured it out; the block is gone. And through experimentation, I’ve found I don’t need that set of rapid-fire sessions in the beginning to get that latent learning pay-off later. If I just introduce it a few times and leave it alone, I get the same results, if not better — without all that extra work and frustration. And when I DO use those rapid-fire sessions, I notice the dog begins to dislike our training sessions, because no matter how fun I try to make them, it can’t overcome the stress and frustration of constantly hitting something he fails at.
Horses are the same and need time to process things. When they start licking their lips, it’s time to back off and let them think it through. I’ll let them stop and just stand there or eat grass for a few moments even while I chat with the client (or even just finish the session right then and there). The client thinks I’m being social instead of working; when in fact, I’m doing what the horse needs — which is time to process what I’m trying to teach him. I had already figured this out on my own, but I believe this nugget of insight — give them time to think — in addition to the concept of “it’s not about the trailer” (or the ball, or barrel, or tarp, or anything else you’re trying to teach the horse) that has been the biggest contribution Pat Parelli has given to the horse world. (BTW — that “it’s not about the trailer” stuff translates perfectly well to the dog world. It’s not about teaching your dog to stop running out the front door every time it opens, or running away when off leash. It’s not about teaching your dog to keep attention when working around other dogs – if that’s his particular issue. It’s not even about sit or heel.)
So far, this need to process has been the same with every animal I’ve worked with — dog, cat, horse, camel, zebra, ostrich, monkey. Some species or individuals may just need more time to process then others. I see trainers rushing through their behaviors or session, when they need to just let the dog (or horse, or cat, etc.) just stand there so they can think for a few minutes.
I do think it also depends on the behavior. I don’t see much of the same value of latent learning in teaching house manners, for instance; for things like stay off the furniture, don’t run in the house, or toilet training; or with behavior/emotional issues, either; like fear, aggression, resource guarding, anxiety, etc. Those all seem to need daily consistency or frequent, regular sessions.
But complex tasks, or otherwise simple tasks like sit or down that you’ve decided to make complex by adding more criteria to them — when the behavior requires some sort of precision, not just what they might do on their own — or something they aren’t necessarily predisposed to do, either as a species or as an individual — then yeah, the seem to need time to process. Even if it’s a behavior that I need to build the criteria with in order to achieve it, I’ll build it to a certain degree within that session, then leave it the heck alone for a few days. I won’t try to push it any further later in the day.
I’ve found it also depends on the formality of the training session. I find I can get away doing more repeat sessions of a behavior throughout the day if it’s done casually about the house — and not in formal training sessions. For example, I can get away doing repeat ‘sits’ or ‘waits’ if I just do them casually as we go about our day together.
For example – for a basic, pet “Sit” (not an obedience tuck sit or anything fancy): Drinking my coffee in the morning — Sit. Waiting for the sink to fill with water so I can wash dishes — Sit. While I’m sitting on the toilet — Sit. Before I feed you or let you in the house — Sit. While watching TV between commercials — Sit.
For Wait: Walking through a door — Wait. While I grab something in a room –Wait. Making my bed later — sit, or wait outside the door. etc.
But the moment I put any sort of formality to it (even for a short 5-min session in the house!), or even ask for repetition of the behavior within that same moment, then any advantage seems to evaporate. I don’t know if it’s a matter of the repetition being spread throughout the day but NOT within the same moment that still allows it some value — or something about my body language during ‘formal’ sessions.
Great topic though!
I don’t do a lot of formal training – my dogs have been taught good manners, which are regularly rewarded and reinforced, and we have done some agility, but I tend to only do “trick” training when the weather is too bad to get out, and in England that rarely happens! We do have several Ottosson toys, though, which again tend to be used mainly in Winter. A friend was asking about them, and I got them out to show her. It must be at least six months since the dogs last played with them, but their excitement, and instant recollection of the different methods needed to get the treats out of each toy, showed how thoroughly they had retained what they knew about them.
Ah, SUCH an interesting topic. Not much time to write now (gotta go over my talk for tomorrow!) but this is such important stuff. The newer study is extremely interesting, and does indeed show that “less is more” when it comes to training lab beagles to sit and stay in one area. The authors conclude that complicated or difficult tasks are best taught sparingly, while simpler ones (and I would add ones that require muscle memory) are better off taught in more frequent sessions. I absolutely agree with Rebecca about sprinkling training throughout the day as part of life. That’s exactly how I teach things like sit, lie down, come too. Only asking once or twice as part of a daily routine, reinforcements are what dog wants at the time, food, going outside, chase me, belly rub etc etc. One thing I’m going to mention tomorrow about this that must be taken into account. The dogs in the studies were lab beagles who live in kennels with 5 other dogs, out for 3 hours a day to play outside with other dogs and minimal contact with people. Context and environment has a HUGE effect on behavior, so we need studies on house dogs before we radically change any training schedules. That said, I’ve seen over and over again dogs who did better after a rest (and have experience it myself….) Lots to think about here!
Gotta go get ready for tomorrow but more on this soon, so so so important for the training world.
Beth with the Corgis says
Both of mine get stressed with lots of repetition. They have totally different personalities and show this in different ways. My bossier male will start looking away, wandering off, putting back his ears and making his “stubborn child” face, etc. Or if he’s keyed up he’ll start offering a random repertoire of behaviors he thinks I found particularly charming before. Waving is his usual first choice; he’ll wave madly with first one paw than the other while throwing in some frustration barks. It took him awhile to learn wave (I think it’s the short legs that make it confusing; Corgis don’t use their paws for much the way longer-legged dogs do), so he thinks it’s very important to me.
My much more submissive female eventually gives up and goes back to her default position: standing stacked up, watching my face, and sighing at me. She was a show dog before I got her and must have practiced standing square a lot, and when all else seems to fail she drops back on that tried-and-true behavior. While pet and performance dogs typically learn that all good things come to dogs who sit, show dogs learn that all good things come to dogs who stand, and she’ll stand for ages if she’s run out of ideas about what I want. While it’s cute, it’s my cue that the approach isn’t working or she’s bored and frustrated with trying.
I have just discovered Patricia’s blog and this one single topic has probably just turned me into a daily reader! What a JOY to be able to learn so much from so many people who are so seriously interested in finding the best ways to teach their dogs — not control their dogs, TEACH them. My sincere thanks to all of you who are adding thoughtful, detailed comments about your experiences and techniques. (And I’ve recognized both of my Border Collies in your various descriptions!) At the risk of sounding thoroughly corny, I feel like I’ve found a whole new community — this is going to be fun!
Welcome Marcia! And I too am inspired by the breadth of knowledge and experience expressed by the readers of the blog. I learn something every time. What a joy!
Well, it is encouraging to know that agility classes once a week are not a complete waste of time even if it would take much less real world time to practice between classes. My dog, Tom could remember a trick I’d started teaching him 6 months before and then forgot about. In a 10-15 minute session he could get to the same level he was when we’d left off.
Another quick comment re trg schedules that just occurred to me: For 2 years I took horse back riding lessons (dressage and jumping). One year I went once a week, and the second I went twice. The difference in my learning curve was HUGE. I learned much much more riding two times a week than one. When I went once a week I felt like each week I was starting over again, while twice a week I progressed between lessons. But keep in mind, riding is a very physical activity, and is very very different than learning something conceptual…
@Kerry M. re: K-9 sign. I’m still not sure that Ranger isn’t doing a Clever Hans sort of thing but we have fun and I like interacting with him on a different level one where he can tell me what he wants. “Do you want chicken or cheese?” and he signs one and gets that treat. Or “What is this?” and he tells me what flavor treat I have in my hand. He tells me everyone in the dog park that is packing treats, pointing them out and signing food. When we’re hiking I can ask if he wants water and he can tell me if he does. As I said above he’s labelled the cat which amuses me no end. I don’t know that teaching him to sign was a critical component in anything except giving us something else to do when the weather is nasty out. He seems to enjoy it but he’s always been a very effective communicator so a shared repertoire of signs has made it easier for him. If you’re interested in our adventures you’re welcome to check out our Blog http://rangerandhiskat.blogspot.com/2010/09/first-language-lesson.html which is mostly about teaching him to sign.
Beth with the Corgis says
Trisha, having ridden for several years, I agree that once a week is not enough— and I was fortunate enough to ride at a stable that allowed me to do some grooming and tack cleaning and the like in exchange for time to exercise horses, since twice a week was out of my family’s budget. You are right that some of that is learning, but so much of riding is actually fitness; those muscles that we use to keep a nice seat are not ones we use for almost anything else. The plain fact is that once a week riding does not allow you to develop the muscle tone needed to have your body respond to the cues your mind is trying to give it.
I think that’s why things like weaving for dogs are best trained more often.
Kat, that sounds great. I’ll definitely check out the blog. I love the idea of communicating about a preferred treat. I love watching kids work through choices as they grow up and it could be great to give some of that to our dogs. Any “choice” I can think of giving to my dogs is binary – walk or not, food or not – to try to communicate a real choice, that sounds pretty cool. And even if it doesn’t work, worst case is Huck gets a little extra chicken. I think he can cope with that.
Just saw this clip -> http://www.dogstardaily.com/radio/16-interview-jordan-shelley of the bbc dog trainer with Kelly Dunbar. Sounds like he’s been hanging out with her and Ian for the week and he’s getting exposed to lots of new training methods. Kudos to him for staying with it and not hiding out or doubling down on bad techniques after the controversy.
I brought it up here since I first saw it mentioned here in the comments of another post.
My gsd and I are about to finish an 8wk beginner agility class [because our herding trainer had knee surgery and we needed something to do]. We went once a week and were told that we needed to practice, especially the the weave poles on a daily basis, a few times a day. I never once practiced anything at home and my dog did really well, in fact the entire class of 5 big male dogs all did very well. The trainer was so pleased and said many times that it was obvious we all trained at home because the class was way ahead of her novice class. So I asked the others if they did practice and not one of us did!! We haven’t had the nerve to tell the trainer that we just showed up one night a week and put no effort into it other than that. Now I think I’ll tell her and bring up this discussion.
Trisha and Beth with the Corgis – I completely agree about the horseback riding. I always made so much more progress when I could ride a few times a week. There are a lot of unique muscles getting worked and they have to be very strong. There is also a certain feel to riding that is like nothing else and really requires a lot of practice to train your body to understand. It’s probably akin to a toddler learning to walk in some ways.
Not to get anyone off topic, but it is hallowe’en and I’m sure some people dress their animals up… but this video is a bit sad… these dogs look stressed out…
Though the article is kind of entertaining.
Happy Hallowe’en everyone!!!
I think that allowing some time off between training sessions seems to help my border collie absorb something new. When I’ve had the option, I schedule 2 (shorter) private sessions with agility trainers who come to our club instead of one longer session, and I’ll leave a day between. Seems like a better use of my training $$ than wearing him out with one long session.
The results actually make sense to me. The reason we break up sessions into small chunks is, in part, to avoid losing interest but mostly to allow for processing of the information between sessions.
If we accept that as valid, then we can presume that longer breaks (within reasonable limits) will allow for better processing of information. I’m sure we’ve all experienced a good surge in learning after a break of a few ays on any particular behavior.
That said, is it practical to take several weeks to train a targeting behavior? No, for most of us who can achieve it in a couple of days it would be just a waste of time. But if we imagine having a finite number of training hours in a month, and didn’t care how quickly we achieved results, training infrequently would probably be the most efficient way to go.
I guess it’s something worth considering… If hypothetically we planned a month’s worth of training (that does sound daunting!!) then we could train each behavior just once or twice a week. At the end of the month, if the study’s results are valid, we could have achieved more overall than if – for argument’s sake – we trained a single behavior each week.
I wouldn’t be too quick in dismissing this study. Seems to me it’s valuable material to think about!
Great blog, invaluable insight for anyone in the company of dogs! I share my little life with a 90-pound rescued woolly-Catahoula cur… first time training an alert/service dog of the ‘herding’ persuasion. I know, what was I thinking..? He taught me so much and patiently waited for me to process our lessons! Targeting & shaping had him reliable and working in less than 6 months making me a true beleiver in the science. The retrieve was shockingly easy (herding dog?), it was difficult for me to keep up. He’s 12 now, off-lead perfect and still chair-side though no longer pulling. And to think, he ran terrified the first time I used the clicker. He’s very clicker-charged but I have to bring it closer so he can see what I have in my hand first.. his eyes aren’t as sharp. We still work on whatever comes our way, as it comes our way with ‘open’ shedules for manners and tasks. Nowadays it’s more a space issue… elderly attitudes, I suppose. No time or desire to deal with foolishness, whatever it’s source.
Does anyone know if there’s a ‘hands-free’ clicker device? Wheelchaired trainers here in Seattle could sure use some help.
Thanks for sharing, everyone.
Since I’m doing the ever popular Susan Garrett 2×2 and 2 on, 2 off methods (that woman seems obsessed with twos for some reason, probably b/c it works) I’ve been keeping it short and sweet. 5-10 at the most in the morning and the same just before bed or when we get home from work. Occasionally I work extra training sessions in when we’re at the park (aside from the constant maintenance of or recalls and such). I’ve found the short sessions keep things exciting and he’s usually disappointed that the fun has stopped, but it means he’s eager for more next time. When I try to do it for longer he gets board and wanders off. I also find that dividing the sessions up gives him time to think on it and he’s learning rather quickly. As well, I think because it happens more than once a day when we apply it to other things (like jump work) he tends to apply the same principles. Like, before we started the 2×2 training, he was for jumping with push-back and jam or doing a lead out, but if we did circle work to an obstacle he wasn’t particularly reliable. Now, he sees something and he goes for it, and he does it with a lot more enthusiasm than when we started. We take the odd day or half a day off once or twice a week and that seems to be working for us.