Posts Tagged With: motivation

How Much Will My Dog Remember?

A friend asked me how much do dogs remember if they only train something once per week. The reference was to our weekly agility trainings. The answer, as Facebook would say, is complicated.

First, I would like to point out the 2011 study The effect of frequency and duration of training sessions on acquisition and long-term memory in dogs. While the study was focused on how would different training schedules impact how long the dogs would retain the knowledge afterwards (the answer: once behavior was learned all groups retained it for four weeks regardless of training schedule used), the interesting point for our discussion is that not only have those Beagles that trained only once or twice per week remembered their training, they learned faster than those who trained every day.

Whoa! What are you saying here? Should I just train my dog once per week for fast learning?

Well, it depends on how you define ‘fast’ and I think it also depends on what you’re training. In the study all groups trained the same behavior. Would results differ if the behavior trained was more complex? Who knows.

BeagleRetentionStudyHere’s the graph showing how quickly each group progressed through stages of learning the task of jumping in a basket. One session = 6 repetitions.
W1 – trained once or twice weekly for 6 reps
W3 – trained once or twice weekly for 18 reps
D1 – trained daily for 6 reps
D3 – trained daily for 18 reps

Dogs that trained once or twice weekly for only 6 repetitions (W1) reached training level 7 in 10 sessions (60 repetitions) while those that trained daily for 6 repetitions (D1) reached the same level in 18 sessions (108 repetitions). Obviously the group that was only trained once or twice per week had no problems remembering their training sessions. They even learned faster! However, for group W1 those 10 sessions took 7 weeks while for group D1 their 18 sessions took less than 4 weeks. If talking about treats delivered, group W1 learned faster. If talking about how long it took, group D1 learned faster.

Another interesting tidbit from the study’s discussion: “Results of Maslovat et al. (2004) suggest that interference of an extra task might be as beneficial to acquisition in humans as extra practice on the initial task, which suggests an important effect of the intervening interval.” If this is also true for dogs it seems that we could safely practice other things during the week and they would not interfere with learning in our once-weekly sessions.

From this study it seems that if I had a dog that could eat only a handful of treats per day (or would only be interested in a few treats or whatever) and I wanted to teach him several behaviors it would be best to practice those behaviors once per week. Even if the dog would only get 6 treats per day I could train 7 behaviors simultaneously. Each behavior would take a little longer to complete, but I would maximize the number of behaviors learned over a month or two.

I would like to note one thing though: those Beagles were only learning one behavior and they were always brought to the same room with the same equipment. Dogs are very sensitive to the environment in which we teach behaviors, so for my above scenario to work I would have to practice each behavior in a different location and/or with different props.

Now back to our original question on training agility and to my very unscientific observations of what is going on. This was a laboratory experiment and the environment in which our dogs train agility is very different, so we need to take this into account. The Beagle study made sure that the experiment room looked the same during each session and there were no distractions that could interfere with learning. This is crucial when teaching a dog new things: there must either be very weak distractions present or the dog must have learned to cope with those and stay focused on the task regardless. Our agility environment is quite a bit different: we train outside, there are other dogs present, new smells each week and other distractions.

The behavior we were discussing with my friend was sending the dog through a tunnel which is in a way similar to the behavior the Beagles were training. They both work by building the value for an object – a basket in Beagle’s case or tunnel in our case. The more value the object has, the more our dog is going to gravitate toward that object. The value is built as we feed the dog on the object or reward looking at, walking toward, touching and walking on/through object. Running through a tunnel is not an intellectually difficult task (at least not until the dog needs to find an entrance from weird angles). It could be scary or uncomfortable for some dogs, so it could be emotionally difficult, but once the dog has run through the tunnel a couple of times, there is nothing intellectually difficult about it. It’s all a question of whether the dog finds it worth his while. Is running through the tunnel worth more than sniffing or visiting the classmate? That is the real question.



Value building is an interesting thing to observe. If your dog is one of those who is usually slow(ish), try to teach your dog to go to a mat and lie down using his dinner kibble. Observe the speed with which he moves. Better yet, record a video. Next day use very very good treats – dinner leftovers (lots of dogs think that people food is the best), baked liver treats, chicken gizzards cooked with asparagus (Ruby loves those), cheese – whatever your dog loves above all else. Of course the dog will already know how to go on a mat, but watch the speed. Any difference? I’m betting he was faster this time! Now this doesn’t conclusively prove anything because he could be faster simply because he already knew the behavior, but in my experience this isn’t the case. I was actually working on this exact task a few years ago using kibble for several sessions and Ruby was going through the motions, but without much enthusiasm… And then I used really good treats the next time. Wow! I wasn’t expecting such big speed difference!

Caution: do not try using better treats in the middle of a session if your dog is slow – you would only be teaching him that moping around will make you produce better treats. Instead, end the session and wait at least 10 minutes before you go and get those better treats. You don’t want the dog to learn I’m slow -> she cuts up better treats -> then we train using better treats! Score! Being slow pays off.

In the example above you can determine how much value you have built for the mat by how fast the dog approaches it. Another way to see the value is to take the mat into another room: is he still just as keen? How about if I take it outside? Now we’re testing the value of the mat against the distractions of the outside world. What is hard is not the intellectual knowing that he’s supposed to go lie on the mat (though for dogs with poorly developed generalization skills the ‘knowledge’ part will be difficult, too) – it’s the decision to say “no” to distractions and “yes” to the mat. The thing with the higher value wins.

Back to our original question. By now I hope it’s obvious we’re not really teaching the dog to run through the tunnel as much as we’re building the value for running through the tunnel. How can we build this value faster? As we have seen from example with the mat the object gets bigger value if our rewards are better. If I reward running through a tunnel with a piece of kibble the dog might decide this is not enough and sniff next time instead of running through. If I reward it with a piece of meat, it might be like putting 1 EUR into the tunnel’s bank account. Three pieces of meat + me running and praising excitedly might be an equivalent of 5 EUR. And a Two Toy Game after the tunnel might be worth 10 EUR. Each dog has their own value system.

What motivation looks like

What motivation looks like

So if my friend runs her dog through a tunnel ten times rewarding with a piece of meat she will put 10 EUR into the tunnel’s bank account (if the dog is even willing to do 10 repetitions in the row – this might not be the case with some dogs). Then I run my dog through the tunnel three times and play Two Toy Game each time. I just put 30 EUR into the tunnel’s bank account and it’s very unlikely my dog has quit on me on just 3 repetitions (plus, as you saw in the Beagle study, less repetition might actually be better).

Distractions can decrease the value you put into that tunnel, because the dog must work harder. So if my dog’s friend is near, my dog will need to use self-control to stay and work with me instead of going to play with his friend. I will not be just paying for the tunnel, I will also pay for that self-control, so from my imaginary 10 EUR only 5 EUR will go toward the tunnel (but 5 EUR will go toward self-control, so his self-control will grow stronger with time).

As all analogies, this analogy with money is not perfect or scientific or even original (I think picked it up from Susan Garrett, but then it grew in my head to explain more and more events). But I find it helps me predict dog behavior, create training plans that work, and explain what is happening to others. Not too bad for an imperfect analogy 🙂

I hope I have showed you that “remembering” is not just about memory, it is also about motivation. And motivation is not about how often you practice and how many repetitions you do, it’s about how excited your dog is about rewards you give for those repetitions and about the distractions that compete for his attention.

The source of Java's motivation

The source of Java’s motivation

Thanks to Helena Mesarič and Monika Pleterski for photos!

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Day 12&13: Why Are Whippets Fast When Running, But Slow In Training?

Today I was reminded of something I read a long time ago on a blog:

In my experience Whippets can suffer a bit from the ‘good dog’ syndrome. (disclaimer: of course there are exceptions to every rule!) It’s really easy to teach a Whippet to be well behaved, and I think that might be why one occasionally sees slow-ish Whippets in agility. Unlike some dogs who can take constant reminders not to go wild and act like heathens, Whippets seem to take the lesson to heart too quickly and once they’ve been convinced not to go wild, it’s hard to convince them that sometimes wild is appropriate.
Frankie Joiris

For those who don’t know her, Frankie is a remarkable animal trainer. She has trained several breeds of dogs, cats, birds (sorry I forgot which kind) and turtles for film industry. Heck, she taught her dog to tightrope walk! So when she talks I sit up and pay attention.

You know how with some whippets the handler says “Sit” and a whippet takes like 5 seconds before their butt finally reaches the floor? Are those ‘good dogs’? Sure. Are they well behaved? Possibly. Would I like my dog to sit like that? Hell no! If the butt is not on the ground within 1s (and that’s on a bad day) I’m seriously reconsidering my training session.

I don’t think Ruby was ever in danger of being one of those whippets who slow down because their owners want them to. He had another reason to be slow: he just didn’t care about what I wanted and about my stupid training ideas. He was fast and crazy when doing the things he wanted to do (usually mischief) and slow when it was “training time.” He was one of those 5-second-sit dogs. Well, maybe a little less, but he was sloooow. I don’t think anyone who sees him work today suspects how slow he really was.

Puppy Java in playtraining (c) Yinepu

Puppy Java in playtraining (c) Yinepu

Java is different, she definitely cares about what I think and though she is naturally fast it would be easy to make her slow down so she would be more user-friendly for slow human reflexes. That would make it easier to teach her precise heeling because she wouldn’t be so all over the place from guessing what I want. It would be easier to click at the right moment. But the downside would be that the resulting heeling (or sit, or down, or retrieve, or recall, or tunnel,…) would be slower and less intense.

The thing is, it can be difficult to get a fast, enthusiastic performance of a behavior that was taught in a slow manner. In that case you say “sit” and the dog hears “sloooowly move your butt to the ground”. Whereas if you teach sit in an enthusiastic way then you say “sit” and the dog hears “the quicker you sit, the sooner I’m gonna throw this ball!”.

If you want to see fast, energetic responses you have to train your dog when he is in the fast, energetic state of mind. You want to see sparkling eyes and wagging tail every time you train, so first play, then train. If your dog doesn’t like toys you can play with food, too. Just run around and give him food when he catches you, or roll it on the ground.

Also, try to remove “no” from your vocabulary. “No” is slowing the dog down, decreasing the energy and doesn’t actually tell the dog what to do instead of the “bad” behavior. Instead of saying “no”, teach the dog what it is that you want. Don’t want the dog to jump up to get the food? Teach him that all paws on the ground make food appear. Don’t want him to bolt out of the door? Teach him to automatically sit when you put your hand on the handle and wait while you open the door. Don’t want him to pull? Teach him that only loose leash moves forward.

Whatever you reward is what you will get more of. So if you want to see excitement, reward excitement. Don’t tell the dog “no” when he jumps up. Instead, if he’s jumping up because you’re holding a toy and he’s not usually totally crazy about playing with you (I’m going to contradict my advice a bit…) REWARD that energy by playing with the dog. Don’t say “no”, “calm down”, “feet on the floor”. Just play. Jumping up is energy, so if you want more energy, then jumping up in a training situation is your friend.
Yes, that means he will be more likely to jump up on you next time you’re holding a toy. BUT it also makes it more likely that he will show more excitement and energy when you play. Sometimes you must temporarily sacrifice one goal (your dog not jumping on you) to get another goal (sparkly eyes when playing and working).

Does this mean I let my dogs do whatever they want so they will work with excitement? No. Well, I let them jump on me, that’s true. I find it useful to see when they are at the right level of excitement and ready to work.

Here’s an example of how I teach them my rules AFTER I taught them that working with me is fun and exciting: Yesterday we had a Rally Obedience class after another class where one of the females was in heat. For Ruby this was the first time of doing RO under this particular distraction. He can do agility without a problem, but he would sell his soul for agility, so that makes it easier. We were getting ready to begin and Ruby found a particularly nice sniffing spot. I asked him “Are you ready?” He just chattered his teeth at me, no doubt still very interested in that female’s smell. I smiled and thanked RO gods for a wonderful opportunity to make a point. I could have asked him “Are you ready?” again and then kept correcting him every time he would drop his head down to sniff during RO sequence. Instead, I didn’t say anything. I took Ruby back to the car and got Java out. She was more than willing to take his spot in the class and within 2 seconds Ruby knew that he just lost his opportunity to work. (Java did great! But sorry, no video 😦 ) During next round I let him have a go again and he was a superstar. “Smells? What smells? I don’t smell anything, just don’t let that black bitch take my spot in the class again!” Much, much more effective than saying “no”. And the best part? If done correctly it increases dog’s energy instead of squashing it. With enough practice distractions become cues for the dog to focus on the job more intensely.

Training, communication and building a relationship with your dog is a wonderful, positive, HEALTHY thing to do. And if the dog isn’t having a total blast while you’re doing it, you’re not doing it right.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 7 Comments

Day 2: What A Difference Some Play Makes

Such a cute little face! Who would have thought this little thing could be crazy?

Such a cute little face! Who would have thought this little thing could be crazy?

We’re on Day 2 of my 30 posts in 30 days challenge. I have to say it feels weird to write about my dogs again since I wrote about them yesterday ;), so today I’m writing about my sister’s pup and her training challenges.

My sister called me with a question: why is her not-yet-thee-month pup Trinity much less interested in training than she used to be? Why is she starting to look around, throw herself on the ground, bite Mateja’s feet and generally having other ideas what to do while they are training? This happened particularly with things that Trini didn’t know well yet. I asked her to send me a video to see what is going on.

As she sent me this video she commented that she was surprised to see that they worked for 5 minutes straight (it always pays off to video your sessions because you will often find you’re doing something wrong – like letting the sessions go on too long – and you can fix it next time). But length of session was not the only problem. Trinity was not excited about it to begin with.

For everything we do in life there is a specific level of excitement that allows us to perform the task at hand to the best of our abilities. If we’re solving a math problem, we need to be calm and focused. If we’re preparing to run in a 5K race a bit more excitement would serve us better. It’s the same with our dogs – some mental states are more conductive to learning and staying in the training game with humans than others.

For this reason I suggested to Mateja that she should play with Trinity to get her happy and engaged, then train for only 6 repetitions (we don’t want her to practice finding her own entertainment like she did in above video), then play again. The whole session including playing will be less than 3 minutes long. Remember how I said the dogs are taking snapshots of their emotional state as we train? If we keep it exciting and short they will only have exciting memories which will make them love training and with time we will be able to have longer and longer sessions with that same excited attitude.

I also asked her not to give so many pieces of kibble for a single behavior because it takes a while before Trini chews them up which deflates her energy, plus too much food sometimes puts the dog in a sleepy state.

The progression of exercises in that training session was also less than ideal. They started with easy ones and progressed toward new exercises in which Trini wasn’t as skilled. The best approach is to start with the difficult exercise when dog’s brain is still fresh and progress toward easier exercises. But since I suggested to begin with 6 repetitions per session for now this means that if she wants to train several exercises she needs to take a few minutes of break between two sessions, during which Trinity will be a little bored of course, but fear not – boredom between sessions is a good thing!

It is also helpful to prepare the environment, treats, clicker and toys in advance so that once the session starts it goes smoothly. Every time we forget an item and have to retrieve it, move it etc we’re not engaging the dog and their energy visibly deflates. With more sensitive dogs this could be enough to cause some problems in concentration and learning.

Mateja did great at implementing all the suggestions and this was their very next session:

They had four more sessions after this video (with a few minute breaks in between) and Trini was working with focus and excitement in every single one of them. Score! Many excited training snapshots produced 🙂

Still, one question remained: why the sudden change? Trini used to be much more interested in training. The answer was getting too many treats outside these training sessions. Just as it happens to many other unsuspecting puppy owners out there Trini was training Mateja to give her more and more treats as she started declining kibble as reward in some situations. The solution was simple: no more treats until she will accept kibble in all situations. After just a few days Trini happily accepts kibble anywhere.

Thank you Mateja for letting me share your videos & your story!

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: