Updated: Jun 14
I was in the backyard with my dog Whimsy working on some agility drills. Agility is a lot of fun, but it can be a difficult sport to learn for both the dog and the handler. We were struggling with one particular exercise, and I wanted to keep going until we “got it right”. All of a sudden Whimsy sat and refused to move when I tried to direct her over a jump. Whimsy was officially on strike. My efforts at a “fun” training session with toys, treats and praise were stressing her out and caused her to shut down on me.
Wanting my dog to learn something as quickly as possible has many times led to it taking longer to achieve that goal. This seems counter intuitive, I know, but it will become clear as I explain.
In my effort to move things along I’ve made mistakes that put pressure on the dog and cause them to shut down. There are three typical errors that I’ve made – sometimes at the same time. And I didn’t make this error just once, but too many times. (What can I say, I’m not always the fastest learner…) I’ve finally learned my lesson, to the benefit of my dogs and my clients.
How many training sessions a day for a dog?
One of the errors is too many training sessions. In my zeal to make my progress zip along I’ve sometimes trained 4, 5 or even 6 short (5 minutes or less) sessions a day. While my dogs love training, earning yummy treats, and hearing my enthusiastic praise, they really don’t appreciate multiple sessions per day and tire of being drilled. I suppose it’s the same as a kid who likes school, but wouldn’t want to attend 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. Learning requires a lot of brain power, and is fatiguing. When fatigue sets in, it’s no longer fun.
How many training sessions should be held depends on the dog; some dogs may be able to do more than others. I would say two or three short sessions a day with different skills being worked on for each session.
While many dogs really enjoy training sessions – especially those involving treats, toys and play, but they also need a break from it. Sometimes a dog just wants to be a dog enjoying doing doggy things.
How long should dog training sessions be?
Running a training session for too long is another error I’ve made. Seeing your dog catching on and figuring out what you want them to do is exciting, and it’s really tempting to keep going to see how much more progress you and your dog can make. But again, learning is a tiring process and continuing when your dog’s energy is flagging does you no favors.
I know when I work with clients on manners training, many of them think they need to set aside a 30 to 45 minute block of time to train their dogs. However, professional trainers know that it’s more beneficial to work in 2 or 3 minute chunks of time. That sounds like such a short amount of time, but I’ve found that keeping my training sessions under 5 minutes does keep my dog’s energy, enthusiasm and motivation high, and we tend to get more done when I don’t feel the temptation to go on.
As a matter of fact trainers groan about how “just one more” often comes to haunt them. Your dog is doing great so you want to try it again, and then the dog has had it and shuts down. “Just one more” ends up with the dog not learning anything more, and likely even sets them back. If training becomes a stressful chore your dog won’t learn as efficiently.
I’ve learned the hard way to get a really fantastic repetition, exert some self-control on my part, and then end the session. It really is beneficial, because the next time we work on that behavior the dog has a great memory of success and having fun, and makes even more progress.
Skipping steps in the training plan
The last error I’ve made in my efforts to get training to progress faster is to try and get them to move forward and skip a few steps in the training process long before they’re ready. An analogy with a human child would be to plunk a chapter book down in front of a first grader after they’ve mastered being able to read a couple of dozen words.
An example in dog training might be working on stay, turning your back on your dog and walking 5 steps away when you haven’t yet introduced movement or even turning your back. When that fails and your dog gets up from the stay (it almost always goes this way), putting them back and trying again (and again…). What ends up happening is that instead of having a high rate of success and building a great training foundation, you’ve introduced repeated failure and a lack of understanding from the dog what it is you want.
The problem with both trying to teach the child to read something too advanced for their readiness level, and working with a dog on a stay too advanced for their skill level, is that you’re setting the learner up for failure. And anyone, whether human or canine, who feels pressured to do something they’re truly not capable doing is likely to get frustrated, shut down, and be resistant to learning in the future.
Remember also that dogs are individuals and you need to tailor your expectations to your dog and not compare their capabilities to other dogs. There are dogs at my training club that have no problem repeatedly running the same agility course and seem to enjoy every run. This is in contrast to what I’ve learned about Whimsy – she’s good for two or three repetitions and then we’re done. Any more and I’ll stress her out and she will quit on me.
All of this applies to training a dog specific skills, but it also applies to training with a goal to change emotions, such as working with dog separation training. My clients will desperately want to make progress with their dog’s ability to be left alone. It’s tempting to want to train 2 or 3 times a day 7 days a week to get to their goal faster. But this can backfire, cause additional stress and make progress go slower, or even go backwards.
So know your dog and train the way that keeps them happy. If you see signs your dog is anxious you know you’re putting too much pressure on your dog in your training. Going slower will make training success go faster!