New Study Finds Key to Faster, More Effective Dog Training

Story at-a-glance

  • Researchers are realizing that good techniques alone are not enough to successfully train every dog
  • A recent study concluded that what dogs do immediately after a training session has a significant impact on their ability to remember what they learn
  • After a training session, give your dog a “recess” — allow him to nap, take him for a walk or give him a toy to play with

By Dr. Becker

When people are trying to teach commands or behaviors to their dogs, or a professional trainer is working with a dog, the focus is primarily on how well the dog performs during the training session.

However, according to dog behavior expert Dr. Stanley Coren, psychologists are beginning to realize that good training methods alone may not be enough to achieve success with every dog.1 It seems that what a dog does AFTER training has a significant influence on how well he'll retain what he has learned.

"If a memory is to be useful in guiding behaviors after the training session ends," says Coren, "it has to be processed and stored in the brain in what psychologists call long-term memory. The process by which short-term memories are converted to long-term memories is called 'consolidation.'

Data has shown that getting some sleep after learning something can greatly improve consolidation. This is because it is during the REM or dream state of sleeping that memories are sorted through and finally stored in our long-term or permanent memory."

Study Evaluates How Post-Learning Activities Affect a Dog's Ability to Retain New Information

Recently a team of researchers in Budapest conducted a study of sleep and memory in domestic dogs. The goal of the study was to evaluate the effects of what a dog does after a training session on his ability to retain what he learned during the session.2 Since it's sleep that triggers the consolidation of short-term memories to long-term memories, the researchers decided to have the dogs take a nap after a training session. But first they had to validate that being trained affects what happens while a dog sleeps.

The study included two phases and involved a group of volunteer pet dogs and their owners. The first phase used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure the dogs' brain electrical activity after a training session in which they learned a task. The second phase looked at the impact of different types of post-learning activities (such as napping) on the dogs' memory consolidation, both short- and long-term.

Phase One: Dogs Learn a New Task, Take a Nap and Are Retested

In the first phase involving 15 dogs, some of the dogs were taught new commands for tasks they already knew how to do (sit and lie down). They were taught the commands in English (they already knew them in Hungarian). The remaining dogs weren't taught anything new, they simply practiced sitting and lying down when told to in Hungarian.

The dogs were then allowed to nap for three hours, during which their brain waves were recorded with the EEG. The researchers observed significant differences in the brain patterns between the two groups, and concluded the difference in brain activity was because the dogs who had learned a new task were consolidating the new learning into long-term memory.

When the sleepyheads awoke, those who had learned the new English commands were retested to see if their naps had helped them retain information about their new task. The dogs indeed did better responding to the English commands to sit and lie down after having slept.

Phase Two: Dogs Learn a New Task, Do 1 of 4 Activities and Are Retested

The second phase of the study involved a different group of 53 pet dogs and evaluated a variety of post-learning activities, including sleep, on memory. As in the earlier experiment, the new group of dogs was taught the English commands for sit and lie down.

The dogs were then separated into groups and spent the next hour doing one of four activities: learning more new behaviors, walking, playing with a Kong food stuffed toy or napping. At the end of the hour, all the dogs were retested on their ability to recall the English commands for sit and lie down.

The dogs who slept or walked for the hour did better than those who had more training or played with the Kong. A week and many naps later, the dogs in the sleep, walk and Kong groups showed significant improvement in responding to the English commands. Only the dogs in the group that went through more training showed no improvement.

Study Concludes Learning Breaks Help Dogs Master New Tasks

According to Coren:

"What this research was showing is that a dog who had gone through a training session, and then immediately after got another training session to learn a new task, was less likely to remember that original training.

In comparison the dogs that had gotten a break of some sort, either to nap, exercise, or play, actually had better memory and performance a week later. The best guess is that the additional training after the first session had actually interfered with the consolidation process for the earlier learned exercises."

Lead study author Anna Kis recommends that when dogs learn a new behavior during a training session, it should be followed by a non-learning activity that won't interfere with the new memory. Think of it as "recess" after classroom study. After training sessions, offer your dog some rest and relaxation time.