Is repetition best when training?

April 18, 2014 

Dear Old Trainer: A dog trainer on TV said you should always have a dog successfully repeat a trick three times before you stop training and move on to the next command. Do you do that?

– Darren, Ft. Collins, Colo.

A: No. Nothing wrong with three, but I don’t use any particular number. I prefer to be flexible and vary my routine depending on the dog.

For a fast learner, I may have him do it correctly two times or seven times or whatever number comes into my head.

This morning, I had a smart dog do 10 jumps in 10 seconds, but if a dog is having problems, I may end the session when he does it right once.

My goal is to make the dog think work and play are the same thing. The human brain and the canine brain are identical when it comes to learning – both learn faster when they are having fun than when it becomes work.

The law of diminishing returns sets in when a dog becomes bored, and no two dogs learn at the same rate.

A dog may do it right twice and fail on the third attempt five straight times and lose focus. I am not on a timetable, so why continue a session with a bored dog merely because of an arbitrary number?

Length of session and number of reps are vital in keeping a dog focused. Sometimes you make better progress in the long run by ending a session when a dog gets bored and coming back to it in the next session.

I train dogs using the same philosophy modern football coaches use to teach NFL players – keep the sessions short, conduct them at a high rate of speed and always end on a successful repetition so you leave them wanting more.

By “short,” I mean five minutes. I may train a dog half an hour a day, but it will be six sessions of five minutes, separated by short breaks for play time.

Dear Old Trainer: My boxer/lab mix Zooey is a year old and is my first dog. Lately, she acts like she sees things in the yard.

She crouches and creeps across the yard and pounces as if something is there, then takes off running and jumping and starts the whole thing again. Should I do anything?

– Glenda, Santa Cruz

A: Yes. You should go out and join her in the game. Bruce Springsteen might have been talking about Zooey in a song on his new album, “I Am the Hunter of Invisible Game.”

Most dogs have rich imaginations and will devise endless games to play if someone will play with them. Zooey will have a good time whether you play her game or invent a new one she can play with you.

There is a direct correlation between imagination and intelligence in both humans and dogs. Dogs that invent ways to amuse themselves are smart and learn fast, so teach her tricks or train her as an agility dog or just play games with her. Put her brain to work. You are lucky to have a smart dog, so take advantage of it.

Jack Haskins writes as The Old Trainer. Send questions to theoldtrainer@gmail.com.

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