How Long Does Training Take?

There isn’t a firm easy answer to that question. Dog training is all about transferring information into a dog’s brain. Brains are complex and have multiple systems. Working with dogs crosses many disciplines, but primarily, psychology. To understand psychology, one must also touch on neuroscience, cognition and biology.

Trainers, often very good ones, refuse to give exact estimates on how long a specific task will take. There is a very good reason for this. Many factors are completely out of the trainer’s control. Families that work cooperatively and support each other, typically achieve faster results than those with conflict. New bad behaviours typically are faster to resolve than ones that have been festering. Some people have more mental capacity or time to do the homework. It’s not always about their desire to do homework. The single mom with kids and two part-time jobs has many stressors and demands on her time then the single woman with a stable job. It can become unethical to promise results in a specified time because the struggling single mom is going to feel cheated or ashamed at being unable to meet those expectations. 

At the other end of the spectrum is the “professional bar”. At some conferences trainers are challenged to teach a skill, put it on command and add in stimulus control in under ten minutes. It’s doable. People new to dog training do not, ever, need to reach the professional bar to achieve success. It does illustrate an interesting point. Significant variation exists. This difference is especially noticeable between the novice and the professional. There should be! Professionals ought to outperform novices in any industry.!

Setting aside the social and family dynamics and the novice abilities, people are taught, or perhaps assume, that if you teach the dog a skill, the dog should perform that skill. Such a premise is based off the idea that knowing is enough. Except knowing is not enough. That’s not how the brain works. Areas inside the brain need to grow and change.

The big myth that people are sold is: Teach the skill, and problem solved. That’s not how the brain works.

Brain gain is a bit like muscle growth. Going to the gym and lifting for one day is a great start. Looking in the mirror and flexing after one day is perhaps fun, but you won’t see any gains. Many repetitions are required. Growth comes from use. A novice with tiny muscles should be proud. And they generally recognize that those muscles are simply enough yet. More work needs to be done.

The second big myth people are sold is that if you go to a few sessions, your dog will be as good as the dogs in videos that the professionals post online.

What viewers are not often told is that many professionals spend hours at sports clubs drilling. What professionals do does not line up with what they sometimes advertise. You do not have to drill this much. Recognize that the lifestyle of those in the dog community is often not at all the same as the normal family home. Do the work. But also, cut yourself some slack!

How does brain growth happen?

Repetition leads to growth inside the brain. This growth involves dendrites. Dendrites are little finger like projections on the end of the cell. When the brain is exercised, it doesn’t grow more cells. More dendrites, or connections are formed. The more “fingers,” the denser the area becomes. It’s a cellular, dendrite dense “superhighway.” These cells do not touch one another. There is a gap between them. The brain “bridges” the gap temporarily with little balls of chemicals called neurotransmitters. If this sounds a bit complicated, don’t worry – there’s a good analogy for it!

Imagine a game of ball tossing. If you have a huge team, you can throw lots of balls. If the other team is big, they have plenty of people to catch those balls. Team two then throws the balls to team three. It’s not a perfect analogy, but think of the neurotransmitters as little balls of chemicals. One neuron “tosses” the ball to the next neuron, and maybe it might be caught. If your team is small, and the receiving team is small, there are big spaces and gaps making it harder for the ball to get where it needs to go. More “fingers” means more opportunities to “catch the chemical ball.” That creates a stronger path.

More dendrites creates a “spiderweb” of connections. This is “brain muscle.” It takes repetitions to build it.

When a dog is faced with multiple options, the superhighway will win. Dogs with manners issues generally have a superhighway for undesirable behaviour and a winding, slow, pebble lined country lane for new, “good” skills. The bad continues to win. Dendrites are added by practice and use. With practice, proficiency comes. Brain imaging shows that the brain actually uses different areas for many skills being learned and those that have been learned to fluency. It is this “jump” that pet people want, but perhaps don’t know that they want. They want a dog that listens quickly, accurately, consistently – AUTOMATICALLY.

The reason professionals can tip into automatic so quickly is that they are really good at doing many repetitions in a very short period of time. Professionals are immersed in training. Novices have to think about what they are doing. It’s fine. It’s truly, truly fine. But it will take longer for a novice to train a dog than a professional. Don’t forget that professionals have different lifestyles. They are immersed in drilling.

As skills are tied to number of repetitions, there is no way of buying ones way out of this dilemma. To get results, it takes reps. Just like muscle building takes reps.

If you feel overwhelmed, talk with your pet training professional and ask to schedule sessions every other week. This allows for more time to practice prior to the next lesson. People sometimes need to give themselves the permission to as for consideration because they fear being shamed or guilted. While it may take longer, so long as the work is being done, results will follow. Many professionals, if able, will accommodate because we want you to succeed.

NB – Repetitions are not the only mechanism behind learning and there are other processes. Recency, priming effects, value, temporal relationships OH MY…..Best left for another blog.)