When I first started training my mini Goldendoodle puppy Mary Berry, I was so excited to work on new tricks. I made sure to set aside lots of time to train her to “leave it,” had my training treats ready to go, a nice treat pouch clipped to my pocket, and I was ready to be the best puppy parent I could be. But then reality hit, and after just a few minutes of training Mary Berry’s attention was on everything but me. If you have a puppy, you can probably relate. You’ve got everything ready but they just won’t get with the program! You’re now frustrated and ready to give up. You try again later and get the same results. What went wrong?
Too much of a good thing
Puppies have a short attention span, meaning that training for longer than a few minutes at a time can cause your pup to burn out. This is called training fatigue. We humans experience training fatigue as well — how does your brain feel after sitting in a class for hours at a time? Signs of training fatigue in dogs include:
Loss of interest in what you're doing together
Taking longer to respond to cues
No longer interested in treats or toys
Displacement behaviors (e.g., sniffing, yawning, shaking off)
You can set your pup up for success by committing to shorter training sessions. The magic number is about 1 or 2 minutes per session. You can do lots of mini training sessions throughout the day, rather than trying to get all your training done at one time. It’s easier on your puppy’s brain, and much easier on your daily schedule. Setting aside a few minutes throughout your day is more realistic than trying to block out an hour for dog training. This also gives your puppy’s brain time to digest the new information they’ve learned.
The magic number is 1 or 2 minutes per session
Training Should Be Fun
Now that you’ve set yourself up for success by switching to short training sessions, focus on having fun when training your puppy. Not only will this make your dog happy to engage with you, but it will make you more motivated to train as well! Frustration kills motivation, for us and our puppies. Celebrate your dog’s successful behaviors, and don’t focus on the small mistakes they might make.
Give Your Puppy Time To Learn
Many dog owners are under the impression that their puppy should completely learn the behavior before they quit the training session. This is simply not true. Many cues have multiple steps. For example, when training the “go to bed” cue, you’ll work on a chain of behaviors to get to the desired end behavior — starting with getting your dog to put one paw on their bed, and ending with them staying on their bed. Even with non-complex behaviors, it still takes time and repetition for a puppy to build fluency.
When working on "leave it" with Mary Berry, I’m making sure to not make it too hard, too fast. This way she has lots of successful repetitions before moving on to a more difficult context. I don’t expect her to be able to leave a piece of chicken alone when she sees it fly off the kitchen counter since I haven’t practiced that level of difficulty yet. I start with a stationary piece of food in my hand that she has to leave alone, then slowly raise the criteria by placing the treat on the floor, dropping it on the floor, then rolling it on the floor. Once she has these, we can train with higher value treats or "treats" like wrappers she likes to pick up on our walks.
Set Reasonable Expectations
Manage your expectations of your puppy — don’t set the bar so high that they have little chance of succeeding. When teaching Mary Berry to “leave it,” I would put a delicious training treat in front of her, tell her to “leave it,” and expect her not to eat it. Guess what? She would eat the treat. I told her to “leave it,” why didn’t she? Rather than focusing on the steps that build “leave it,” I was only focusing on the end behavior. Now, we break it down into multiple steps and keep working up to the desired behavior of her pulling her head away from that tissue on the ground when we pass it on a walk.
Your expectations are too high if you expect your puppy to be able to get it in one training session. Not only does this set yourself up for failure, but you and your dog will also likely be frustrated by the end and less likely to want to try again later.
Behaviors take time to learn; your puppy will learn faster with short sessions and positive repetitions.
Now that I’ve switched to multiple short training sessions a day with Mary Berry, I can see a lot more progress with the behaviors and cues we train on. She’s a fast learner, and now that we’re working for just a minute or two at a time, she’s making huge progress on cues we’d previously been working on for weeks (like “leave it!”). We still have a long way to go until she’s fully trained, but I’m reassured these shorter training sessions are working when she’s learning and attentive for the whole session.
More Training Resources for Puppies:
- Take Advantage of Daily Dog Training Opportunities
- How Many Treats You Can Give Your Dog During Training
- Dog Training Aversives: What Are They and Why Should You Avoid Them?
- When to Start Socializing Your New Puppy
- The Right Way to Stop Your Puppy From Nipping and Biting