Dog Training Programmes: How often and for how long should you train your dog?

Author:

Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy MVB MRCVS MSc LAS CertWEL Dip. ECAWBM (BM)
Behaviour veterinarian
Veterinary Referral Centre de Wagenrenk, Wageningen, The Netherlands

14 June 2015

This Blog is also available in Dutch

“The more, the better”?
“The more often you train your dog, the faster he will learn”. Apparently this mantra may not be the correct. Additionally, “the longer the training session the better” may also be a misnomer. People training dogs for obedience, service, police or military will often train a dog for at least one or more hours a day. Research shows that this may actually be detrimental to the dog’s learning process and retard the speed of learning instead of increasing it. In fact, dogs may actually learn better if they are not trained everyday for long periods!






Dogs trained once a week need fewer training sessions than dogs trained 5 times a week!
The performance of Beagles trained to carry out a task using positive reinforcement was analysed. Dogs in Group 1 were trained once a week and were compared with dogs in Group 2 who were trained on 5 different days over a period of a week. The same person trained all the dogs in the same environment. The researchers found that the dogs in Group 1 required fewer training sessions than the dogs trained more frequently in Group 2.  Although the training schedule of the Group 2 dogs required almost 50% more training time spent by the trainer for the dog to learn to perform the task, they did learn it within two weeks of training whereas the Group 1 dogs took 6-7 weeks to perfect it.

“More is less!” The more often a dog is trained and the longer the training session is, the less the dog learns!
A later study compared the performance of Beagles trained to perform a task slightly more difficult than in the previous experiment. This study also examined the influences of the duration of each training session on task learning. The dogs were split into 4 groups.

  • Group 1: These dogs were trained once or twice a week with one training session.
  • Group 2: These dogs were trained once or twice a week with 3 consecutive training sessions.
  • Group 3: These dogs were trained 5 days a week with one training session on each of the 5 training days
  • Group 4: These dogs were trained 5 days a week with 3 consecutive training sessions on the 5 training days.

Each dog received a total of 18 training sessions. The same person trained all the dogs in the same environment. Thus the major variable was how the training sessions were distributed and not the time the trainer spent with each dog. The researchers didn’t manage to teach all of the dogs to perform the task perfectly. The results were as follows:

  • Group 1: These dogs were the most successful.
  • Group 2: These dogs (the dogs receiving 3 training sessions in a row once or twice each week) were considerably less successful than Group 1 dogs.
  • Group 3: These dogs did slightly worse than Group 2 dogs
  • Group 4: These dogs had the worst overall performance.

Again the amount of time the trainer spent teaching each dog was exactly the same. Thus it would seem that the Group 1 dogs training schedule is the best, as at the end of their sessions those dogs were performing more than twice as well as the dogs receiving long, almost daily training sessions.

What about time constraints?
However time wise, the dogs with the long daily sessions will complete their course in less than 4 weeks, whereas those with the short, bi-weekly training sessions will take a minimum of 9 weeks. But the dogs with the training sessions spread out will do twice as well as the dogs with the almost daily chock-full training sessions.  Thus the regular dog owner, training his dog at home with only one or two short sessions every week can wind up with a well trained dog even though they only spend a small amount of time per week training their dog!

But does this apply to other dogs?
This research was conducted in Beagles who were taught to perform one task. It may not precisely reflect the situation in pet dogs or dogs kept for other uses that are taught several tasks at a time. Nevertheless, this information is valuable and gives us insights as to how other dogs may function and provides a foundation for further research in other breeds with dogs kept for different purposes.

Basic tips
When training dogs it’s essential to look at the individual dog you’re working with and how he’s reacting to the training programme you’re putting him through. For pet dogs, training once or twice a day, a couple of days a week in 5-15 minute training intervals is probably more than enough to achieve good results. If you take you dog to one hour training classes, make sure you give the dog several breaks during the class. Don’t try and keep him attending to you for a full hour. If the dog seems to switch off, lose his focus or reduce his performance then stop the training and give the dog a break for at least a few minutes. Although it’s great to end on a good note there’s little point in trying to force a tired or distracted dog through another exercise.

References:

Demant et al., The effect of frequency and duration of training sessions on acquisition and long-term memory in dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 133(3-4): 228-234 (2011).

Meyer and Ladewig, The relationship between number of training sessions per week and learning in dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 111(3-4): 311-320 (2008).

In my next blog, we’ll discuss learning and memory formation, which will help us to understand the research findings and the basic tips presented in this blog! Happy training!






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