Wondering how often you should train your dog? Ask Science! (Part 1)

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.

References :

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

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Dog Parks: Not Just For Dogs. Alternatively, How the Dog Park Has Made Me A Better Owner.

When I first moved to my current location for graduate school, I was firmly rooted in the camp that dog parks were nothing more than a gathering place for rowdy, possibly aggressive dogs owned by people who could not be bothered to train their dogs to sit. (Please read the rest of this post before you start slinging bags of dog poop!)

Fast forward nearly 3 years, and I cannot imagine my life without my local dog park, the dogs I’ve grown to love, and the owners who have become some of the closest friends I have ever had. When I first began frequenting my local dog park, I had just gone through a breakup, and because I’m human, I needed to get out of the apartment that seemed to only house memories. As luck would have it, a group of people were just starting to become “dog park regulars” and we hit it off instantly. Granted, it was months before we knew each as anything more than, “Geordi’s mom,” but very quickly the dog park became the highlight of my day, and all of us connected through our mutual love of our dogs. All of of this is not to say that there were not occasionally rowdy, just downright obnoxious dogs (with owners who could be described the same way!). Those dogs and people are always a possibility at dog parks, but you learn ways to recognize them and more importantly, you learn ways to deal with them whether it be physically removing yourself from the situation (i.e., moving to another section of the park or leaving altogether). This is part of being an advocate for your dog and it’s the most valuable lesson the dog park has taught me.

My 12 year-old Beagle, Geordi, is a prime example of the kind of situation that most owners warn of when they advise people not to go to dog parks. I would agree, were not for how on top of him I am and the fact that I take active responsibility for his possible behaviors. Geordi has never been a “merry go lucky hound” as the Beagle breed standards states the Beagle should be. He has always had a chip on his shoulder and he couldn’t care less where you are or about other dogs most of the time. There is one exception. If an intact male dog comes into the dog park, Geordi becomes aggressive. This behavior worsened once Geordi was neutered, and I have been in contact with animal behaviorists regarding this issue. As of yet, I have not found a solution. Due to this, if a dog I do not recognize begins to enter the side of the park Geordi and I are on, I always ask if the dog is neutered and then I explain why I am asking.* If the dog is unneutered and intent upon entering the side of the park we are occupying, I take Geordi to the other side, or we leave. My other dog, a 9-year old Brittany named Paris is the epitome of the low-key, friendly dog park dog. Out of the two, he is the one I worry about the least but I still keep my eyes on my dogs at the park and if things start going awry, I act. Being a dog park-goer has taught me how to stand up for my dogs and how to withdraw them from stressful situations without worrying about offending another owner. These are things that as an introverted people-pleaser were difficult for me in the past. On top of friends and advocacy, the dog park has been a networking goldmine.

I have become friends with professors at my university in a multitude of departments. These connections have opened doors for me that would have remained closed in terms of research opportunities and mentors across fields willing to look over my work and offer advice. Many of my dog training and dog grooming clients have also come from the dog park. They were friends first. In fact, I honed my dog grooming skills by grooming friends’ dogs for bags of coffee before I ever began charging money for my services. These people talked to other people, and my clientele base has grown.

Becoming a better advocate for my dogs, the friendships, and networking I have found through the dog park are reasons that I recommend dog parks to clients who I think are ready for them. There are always inherent risks when you place a bunch of dogs in an enclosed area, but I believe that if both owner and dog are prepared, the benefits outweigh those risks.

Please comment with your dog park experiences and opinions, whether you agree or 1235124_10153175103980640_1903458074_ndisagree. I look forward to reading them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Unneutered dogs are not technically supposed to be in the dog park but this rule is usually not reinforced unless an unneutered dog is causing problems with multiple dogs and a physical safety of dogs or people becomes a concern.

Pictured: My Brittany, Paris (yes he is a male, named after a Star Trek Character) at our local dog park.