How Do Dogs Learn Best?

Suzanne has been taking steel pan drum lessons now for about 4 years.  This year, she even added an instrument – the bass pans – in addition to her regular double seconds.  If you don’t know about steel drums – learn more at the website of Rocky Mountain Steel Bands.  But – on with the point of this article.

Lately, she’s been quite frustrated because she hasn’t been able to devote as much time to practicing as she’d like.  Some weeks, she’s lucky if she can spend a few hours practicing on Sunday before her rehearsal with the class on Monday night, rather than being able to practice everyday. 

Intuitively it makes sense that the more Suzanne practices the better pan player she’ll become.  We don’t think there’s any research that reveals what kind of practice schedule produces the fastest improvement in pan playing skill, but we did come across new research in the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science about training schedules for dogs.

For many years psychologists and behaviorists have been interested in the effects of what are called massed versus spaced training schedules.  For example, my dissertation research involved subjecting puppies to either one, one hour period of social isolation each week or six, 10 minute sessions per week to see how these two different patterns of experiences affected the puppies’ response to a subsequent 4 hour period of social isolation.

In the research recently reported in Applied Animal Behavior Science, Dutch researchers, using the click-treat method, shaped two groups of 9 Beagles to touch a mouse pad on the floor that was placed 1m away from them.  One group of Beagles had once/week training sessions, while the other was trained 5 days/week.  One person trained all the dogs and each training session ended when the dog had met pre-determined criteria. 

The dogs trained once/week learned the task in fewer sessions than did the five times/week group (6.6 sessions versus 9 sessions).   Seems somewhat counter intuitive doesn’t it?  The researchers suggested several possible reasons for their results, including that the weekly trained dogs were more likely to offer more variable responses than the more frequently trained dogs, who may have been more likely to get “locked in” to a particular response (these data were not collected as part of the study) making the shaping process more difficult. 

Bottom line is, more research is needed to explain the “why” of the results.  It’s important however that we not generalize these results to dogs and training in general without more research.  The dogs in this study were laboratory Beagles that were all raised and kept under the same standardized conditions which eliminated breed, housing and husbandry as sources of variation (something that would be virtually impossible to do if the subjects were owned, pet dogs). Different results might be likely with a different learning task, different breeds, and different training methods. 

If you want to learn more about learning theory and how dogs learn best, you'll find it in our DVD program “How Fido Learns Best”   Or take our 5 session ON DEMAND course "Fundamentals of Animal Learning"  which is the basis for the DVD program. 

This program is recommended by CCPT as a resource for prepare for their certification exam.  And if you REALLY want to expand your knowledge about pet behavior and have 24-7 access to information you can use with YOUR next client or with your own dog at your fingertips, join our Behavior Education Network and take advantage of the year-end BEN Blitz of TWO Member Only Webinars each month from now through the end of 2010.  From cat behavior to the "sacred cows" of dog training to problems between family dogs,


  • Contact Us

    Animal Behavior Associates, Inc.
    7900 W. Layton Ave. #905 Denver, CO 80123