When I first began training dogs, all of the books and trainers advised me to diligently train my dog every day to produce the best results. When I asked how long I should train my dog, I was often answered in units of time (e.g., one hour or thirty minutes) while the more force-based trainers advised, “until the dog gets it right.” Armed with this advice I logically concluded that I should spend an hour (or more!) each day training my dog. Thankfully, my knowledge of how dogs learn and dog training has grown since those initial summer evenings spent tirelessly working my poor 4-H dog. Now, as I train my current dogs and advise others on the most optimal way to train their dogs, I have science in my corner!
What they did: In 2008 researchers looked into the relationship between the number of training sessions per week and learning in 18 Beagles. One group of Beagles were trained once a week with 6 – 8 days between sessions ( Sound familiar? This is how most weekly dog classes are set up), whereas the other group of Beagles were trained five times per week with approximately 24 hours (72 on weekends) between training sessions. The researchers wanted to test what effect massed training (training sessions five times a week) and spaced training (training sessions once a week) had on learning.
Every dog was shaped via positive reinforcement to touch a mouse pad with their front paw. (This might seem odd but that is exactly what the researchers wanted, it was important for the dogs to not have had any experience performing a similar exercise.) Of note, is that the researchers defined a “training session” by an exact number of trials and the length of time between one trial and the next (intertrial interval) which is different than how (most) dog trainers define a training session, in that, most dog trainers say a session is 30 minutes/1 hour, etc. For anyone who is interested, there were a total of 15 trials each session.
What they found: Contrary to what those old dog trainers told me back when I was first starting out, training once per week appears to be beneficial. Dogs in the group trained once per week learned the paw exercise in fewer sessions and had higher success rates during all phases of the training than the dogs trained five times a week. Overall, it appears that at least when learning a specific task, weekly training sessions result in better learning.
What this means for us: Those old 4-H trainers were wrong! Although generalizing too much from one study is always risky, further research (which I will cover in part 2) supports what these researchers found. So, when you are training a new behavior, it might be prudent to scale back on the number of training sessions you do with your dog. It also appears that the standard class schedule for most dog classes (once per week) is supported by science! Take that to your next class!
Note: This study pertained to training new behaviors and did not cover anything about maintaining behaviors or working to make behaviors become automatic. Many people in the performance sports world engage in mass training in the hopes of having their dogs’ behaviors and reactions become automatic in certain contexts. There is no research in this area, to my knowledge.
I would like to issue an apology to my sweet American Cocker Spaniel/Beagle mix, Kes for all of those long, arduous evenings spent training during Nebraskan summers. Kes is pictured on the featured image of this article.
Meyer, I., Ladewig, J., (2008). The relationship between number of training sessions per week and learning in dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 111. 311 – 320. doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2007.06.016