One of the concerns that many new puppy parents have is about the frequency of training. Although it is a wonderful experience to have all the right tools to train your dog, and equally exciting to see the fruits of your labor as your new pup begins to perform and behave as you would like them to, it is not without the question: how often should I be working with them to get the most optimal results out of my hard work? The answer to this question is more complex than you might think, but here’s what I think everyone with a puppy really needs to know and think about.
What is training, anyway?
Like with most things, it is important that we first define what we mean by training. At its simplest, there are two basic ‘types’ of training. There are structured training sessions where you will teach your dog very specific behaviors through multiple trials. This is the type of training that will be needed to train a dog to perform specific cues, such as sit, stay, and fetch me a drink from that fridge, please (in an order that builds gradually on difficulty). This is the type of training that the bulk of my video tutorials focus on. The second type of training is equally (and sometimes far more) important, and also the area where most people fall short. This is what happens every other minute of the day when you are not doing structured training sessions. Let’s call this incidental training. Fortunately, (or unfortunately if you are unaware of this fact) dogs are constantly learning from the events that happen around them and to them. This intrinsic orientation to continuous learning is what makes them such fantastic companions and workers. It is by paying attention to your dog’s reinforcement patterns throughout the day that you can regulate their behavior and help them learn what they need to in an optimal manner.
To illustrate this distinction a little further, let’s apply it to an example. Take the behavior of teaching your pup how to appropriately greet a guest when they arrive for a visit to your home. You may plan to work on this specific skill in a structured session by enlisting the help of a friend who pretends to be the visitor, carrying out all the behaviors that any visitor would, such as ringing the doorbell, knocking on the front door, and so on. Given that this ‘visit’ is planned, you would be ready with your training equipment to reinforce the wanted behavior and can repeatedly conduct the greeting exercise until your dog is performing at a high success rate. However, there is a different and equally potent training opportunity to work on this same behavior via incidental training. These are all those moments when guests actually arrive in a ‘real-life’ and unplanned context. Perhaps the gravest mistake would be to give your dog a ‘free pass’ to behave as they please during these instances, as it could not only undo the hard work you had done previously with your friend, but it could serve as the gateway to reinforcement for unwanted greeting behavior, such as jumping up!
The more you teach your dog, the better they become at learning, and the better they become at learning – the more you can teach them
Learn to read your puppy
Now that we have an understanding of structured versus incidental training and why both are absolutely vital to pay attention to, we can discuss frequency. I want to emphatically point out that there is no one perfect formula to training your dog. There are better approaches, and there are approaches that could be better – but the most essential ingredient in becoming an effective trainer is learning to read your puppy. As you begin to work with your dog, you will notice that they are more attentive and interested early on in a training session, but their attention wanes and weakens after a few minutes. Over time, their capacity to learn and attentional endurance will increase and improve. The more you teach your dog, the better they become at learning, and the better they become at learning – the more you can teach them. This beautiful and self-perpetuating cycle is what makes working and training dogs an enriching experience, and it is this characteristic that over time becomes the foundation of a powerful working relationship between a dog and her human.
The three-solid-session rule
To simplify the training strategy even further, having a benchmark can be useful as a starting point. I have found that there is an obvious but subtle secret to nurturing your dog’s desire to work, anticipate training sessions, and commit their best efforts to every session. This is also the very technique that I used with Solea for years, who many of you may know and love through my video tutorial series. For lack of a better (and perhaps more clever) term, I have begun to refer to it as the three-solid-sessions rule. There is nothing magical about the number three, except that it is the number of meals that growing puppies are often given during a single day. In this approach, all three of these meals are distributed through structured training sessions that work on one or more different behaviors. For example, with a new puppy who has no prior training experience, you may choose to work on sit for breakfast, down for lunch, and stay for dinner. The next day, you could change the order, starting with stay for breakfast, sit for lunch, and down for dinner. Over time, you may notice that your dog has acquired these different skills well and is beginning to generalize them in different environments and with different distractions (with the proper training). This may be a good time to transition to working on two or even three separate behaviors during a single session – for three solid sessions each day.
By scheduling training sessions in this way, we take advantage of the dog’s natural biological hunger clock, and that builds their desire to work as they are taught at an early age to work for food. Keep in mind that you do not need to make your dog work for every last piece of kibble, but you do want to foster their drive to work by slowly increasing how much you ask of them and for how long – over the course of time. We also reduce the need for fancy, expensive, and sometimes-unhealthy dog treats. While I have nothing against dog treats, I have found that by reducing your dependence on them through this method, their value is automatically inflated for those tougher training tasks where the regular kibble just won’t do. This, as you can imagine, is the trainer’s dream – to be able to magically alter the responsiveness of their dog to the rewards that they possess. This is also helpful when we want to boost our influence against strong distractions that compete with food rewards in challenging scenarios.
As for incidental training, the emphasis needs to be on management and supervision to set the puppy up to be successful in different situations. This will continue to be an ongoing process for several months until the dog has acquired all those must-have skills that we expect of a well-trained and housebroken dog. They include but are not limited to: knowing the difference between toys and non-toys, control over bladder and bowel, greeting guests appropriately, and tolerating children and other animals in the household.
It is by consistently maintaining this structure to training that we maximize our potential for success, and do so with the most efficiency. The three-solid-session rule also sets a limitation to how long you can maximally extend a single session, as the number of trials per session is limited to the quantity of kibble pieces that are available for each meal (and perhaps less if you like jackpots). Lastly, while there is no single correct formula, it is important to remember that training needs to be fun and engaging. For dogs, this means having variety and also a genuine level of enthusiasm that comes from your emotions as the trainer. By all means, if you are pleased with how your dog is doing, emote it! Enthusiasm is contagious and your dog will mirror your level of excitement. This also means stopping short of that point in a structured session where your dog is no longer interested in the activity. Leave them wanting more. It won’t be long until the next fun session.