Dog Training Tip: Sleep On It!

Alces_FocusHave you ever gotten frustrated with your dog because you feel like they just won’t learn a new trick? Or have you ever heard the saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? Being a dog trainer, I’ve learned you CAN teach them new tricks (and obedience), no matter their age, size or breed. Two dog training tips: are consistency while training and then putting them up for a good nap afterwards. Your pets are just like you…they enjoy a well-deserved rest after a hard day’s work!
I have a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology from North Carolina State University. One of the concepts we studied in animal behavior class was the role sleep plays in solidifying learning. It helped me understand the importance of putting your dog up for a nap after each training session. And it not only work for dogs but for all animals!

One of the examples used in my class included the Zebra Finch studies. Biologists observed two groups of finches, both trying to learn the same new song. One group was allowed to sleep afterwards, while the others were kept awake throughout the night.  In the morning, the birds that slept sang the song perfectly, while the sleep deprived group could only sing pieces of the new song. They concluded that these birds more effectively learned a song after they had a good night’s sleep. I think we can all relate to that. I know my days usually start out better if I am well rested, as opposed to having tossed and turned all night.
Interestingly, sleep has been shown in experiments to play a major role not only in memory consolidation after learning, but also in preparing the memory for encoding before a learning experience. Sleep gives the brain time to go back through their recent memories and decide what to keep and what not to keep.IMG_0137

There are two stages of sleep important in helping dogs solidify what they’ve learned. Stage one is when the dog is first falling asleep and stage two is REM sleep – just like with humans. The brain works during these stages to store all the new tricks and commands you just taught them.
When your dog starts to doze off, their brain focuses on declarative memory. This is the knowledge of facts and events, or “what” they know. For example, when a dog hears the word “sit”…it means to put their butts on the ground. Or when you call their name, they come to you. During the second stage, which is REM (rapid eye movement), your dog is actually dreaming. These are the times when you may notice your dog running or barking in their sleep with their eyes twitching. This is when everything in their brain comes together and they wake up and almost always perform at a higher level.
Teaching my dog Alces how to back up on command was one of our most challenging experiences. I tried numerous approaches like using treat lures, stepping into his space and slight leash pressure. I would reward him (treats and marker words – you can read more about how we use markers in our KeenDog E-Book) for just stepping one paw backwards and then two paws or “baby steps”. Then I would release him for some free play time. Expecting a little more from him after each play break, I would end our training session on a positive note and then put him up for a nap. After his nap, he understood the concept better and was faster at offering up this new behavior of stepping backwards. After a few days of this consistency in our training sessions he now backs up, on command, with ease.

Next time you’re working with your dog, remember you are also training yourself, in a matter of speaking. Try to be very precise and repetitive in what you are expecting them to learn. Break the training task into smaller pieces if the dog is struggling with the command.
If they do not understand it the current way you are doing it, try it from a different angle or approach like I did. Taking baby steps in the right direction is the key instead of overwhelming the dog with an overload of information he does not understand. You will notice that your dog mentally fatigues faster when you are in a training session rather than if you were to just do a “chuck it” session or physical exercise. Once the dog gets bags under their eyes or becomes mouthier these are the signs to watch for so you can end the training session.

Remember to have patience and always end on a good note. Once you complete your training session put them up for a nap in a quiet room or crate. I’d recommend a crate for puppies, as it gives them less room to wander and play when they should be sleeping. As noted with the finches, once they learn something new, the best way for them to remember it is to sleep on it. This helps them strengthen memories they’ve formed throughout the day, as well as linking these new behaviors to earlier ones.
Well that’s it for this edition of my dog blog. Stay tuned for the next one coming soon!

– Ashley Rodriquez, KeenDog Trainer