July 31, 2008

How often to train a dog? It depends.

Chip — pride of the Beagle Brigade [with his handler, Customs Inspector Carla Blackmon].

Researchers in Denmark have published a study in Applied Animal Behavioral Sciences demonstrating that "dogs" [that is to say, the 18 laboratory Beagles used in the study] "learn" [to touch a mousepad with a front paw, taught by a person using a clicker and treats -- not that there is anything wrong with that] better when taught once a week than when taught five times a week.

Which tells us exactly nothing about how often to train stockdogs, assistance dogs, search & rescue dogs, agility dogs, companion dogs or just about any other kind of dog. How often one trains depends on the individual dog, the trainer, the task, and the training environment, for starters.

Check out the first sentence of the abstract:
Despite the fact that most domestic dogs receive some kind of training, surprisingly few studies have been undertaken to analyze the process in detail, e.g. the question of how often training should be done has not been investigated in dogs.
Surely you jest. Is it, I dunno, within the realm of possibility that guide-dog trainers, hearing-dog trainers, trainers of great working stockdogs, trainers of Schutzhund world champions, and trainer/authors like Jean Donaldson and Karen Pryor might have given some thought to "how often training should be done"? Did it occur to the researchers that these authorities might have insight worth sharing?

My first dog was a light-speed learner of a Beagle, a dog who understood everything, and reading this study made my heart ache. Excerpt:
In a survey on the use of training in establishments using non-human primates as laboratory animals, it was demonstrated that even though there is general awareness of the benefits of training, it is not very widespread, partly due to a perceived overestimation of the time investment needed (Prescott et al., 2005). To optimize both the economy and the welfare of laboratory dogs it is thus of interest to know how much time needs to be put into training and, perhaps more important, what kind of training schedule is the most efficient.
Cripes, those poor critters. See how little time you need to spend with them? If this hits the mainstream press I can imagine lots of pet dogs getting a lot less attention. The less the better! I mean, it was proven scientifically, right?

And this gem: All dogs showed interest in the food during training.

Beagles?! Showed interest in food?!! The mind boggles.

You can find the entire study here, and read Christie Keith's rather different take on it over at Pet Connection.


ronswerd said...

i've used clicker training a fair bit in the past with amazing results. i'm not at all surprised by these findings


Shane said...

This study is not supported by any obedience class I've ever seen. You can tell the difference between dogs who get training only once a week and every day.

But who are dog people to think we know more about canine behavior than lab geeks?

Texas Homes said...

around our house it is mostly the dogs doin the training!
Training me to feed
Training me to open the door
training me the best way to scratch
And they do this every day several times a day!