When training any animal dog, cat, horse, child… athlete, it’s easy to focus on progress for days, weeks, months and years. We often forget that as we progress with particular behaviors the training doesn’t get any easier for the learner. Quite the opposite, criteria become more complex even though the foundation of the behavior is trained to fluency. This can get really overwhelming to learners in all species and training loses it’s fun and it’s purpose.
In the fitness world taking a break is known as recovery (taking a complete break) or deloading (light training).
Recovery can happen on a short term basis – what you do immediately after a training session. Some studies have suggested that having wakeful resting after learning something new (in humans) can be helpful to improve the memory of the learned material. I’ve seen this demonstrated in agility classes where dogs were taught something new and then placed in a crate to remain calm during another dog’s turn.
Recovery can also occur on a longer term basis – several days to a week off of training. This is often described when people are experiencing burnout at jobs. Instead of pushing ahead they go on vacation and return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive. I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in dogs.
With the holiday break for Christmas recently I had the opportunity to see this occur with a few of my clients as well as with my own dog.
With my own dog, we had been training in Nosework. She was doing well and we had taken two 6 week classes back to back. I practiced a few times a week doing only 3-5 hides each time. In November, the trainer decided to take a break from classes over the holidays and I forgot about training. Last week was our first week back to class. Yes, even as a dog trainer I still need to go to classes to hold myself accountable and learn new things! Evey did 3 hides and worked better on unpaired odor than I have ever seen her work. The trainer even commented on how committed she appeared to be.
What about deloading? Deloading is when you take a break from the “hard stuff”. In Weight training, it’s when you reduce the intensity or weight of your workouts. In dog training, I’d suggest this is taking a break from a behavior you’ve been working hard on but continue working on easy and fun behaviors. As we know training can be enriching and take a complete break isn’t always the right choice. But sometimes you just need to take a step back from a particular behavior. This allows the dog to build muscle required for some difficult tricks or memory for cerebral behaviors.
***I haven’t been able to find much research on this particular phenomenon but if you’ve got it I’d love to see it!***
Deloading was a great benefit to my client, Mica, this morning. We took 2 weeks off from behavioral training after training weekly to biweekly to work with her stranger aggressive dog. She continued to work with her dog on other fun tricks during the break. Last week was our first week back and all of our sessions we kept light and fun to ease Mica back into the training routine. She was stoked to be working again! This morning we reintroduced a neighbor whom she has met maybe 5 times previously but hadn’t seen in about a month and whom she was never really “warm” to. Mica was excited to play the game and while a little stiff at first she approached the fence all by herself – which was a first to that level of proximity, she maintained that level of comfort thru the whole session. We took a break and after the break introduced a cold appearance with the neighbor – the woman started the session out of view and then appeared after Mica was in the yard. Mica nailed it! She remained calm and collected and was happy to take treats. On repeat approaches, Mica started to offer sits as the neighbor approached.
So how and when should you take a break from training? I would venture to guess that breaks should be taken when you feel like you’re at a plateau in your training. You can track this on a training sheet or just go by how frustrated you are feeling. However, if you’re frustrated, give your dog a break for a week or two and during that time create a new training plan (I like using this staircase form) and then use a tracking sheet. They’re not perfect and you could certainly use a more scientifically driven tracking sheet like this one. Additionally, I’d suggest taking a break, especially from the harder behaviors/activities, every 8-10 weeks. Not only will you keep your dog fresh but yourself as well!