Using breaks to improve your training

How do you structure your training sessions? How long is each session? Do you take breaks during the session, or just train continuously? We had an interesting discussion about this recently on one of the online horse clicker training groups. This was one of the replies I wrote to the group and I thought it was worth sharing here. I’d also love to hear how you structure your training sessions.

I usually train in sets of 10 treats. I started doing this originally with the horses, but I’ve found it works great for dogs, rats, fish, and all sorts of other animals. The animal and I train for 10 treats, then take a break, then do another bit of training, then another break, and so on.

The length of the break and what constitutes a “break” can vary widely depending on the animal and his/her level of training. With an animal new to clicker training or when I’m working on a completely new behavior, a break might mean putting the animal up and spending a good chunk of time thinking about what happened and what to do the same or differently the next time. If I’m taking video, I might even watch back through part of the video.

With a clicker-savvy animal, especially when practicing or refining a previously taught behavior, a “break” might mean switching to a different behavior or activity. With a horse, for example, if we’re working on correct bend while trotting circles, a break might mean walking for a few minutes on a loose rein. Trainers can also use favorite behaviors as breaks, which I’ve written about before.

Once animals learn that clicker training is fun, many animals want to keep going and going and going… And many are able to keep going and going and going for quite long sessions. Because of this, trainers are often tempted to keep training for quite long sessions.

Using breaks for decision making

What I’ve found, though, is that breaks are so beneficial for ME.

I use breaks for decision making.

Before I start, I figure out what I want to train during the next 10 treats.

After the 10 treats, I take a break and I figure out whether what I thought was going to happen, actually happened!

If the session went basically as I had planned, I get to decide whether to stay at the current step or whether it’s time to move to the next step.

If the session went quite differently than I planned, I spend a few moments trying to figure out why. Should we be working on a different step instead? Were my criteria too high? Did I change something during this session without realizing it? Does my training plan need a small tweak or a major overhaul?

Using breaks for problem solving: An example

Breaks are good for problem solving.

It’s a lot easier to train, then assess, then train, then assess, rather than trying to assess how your training is going and make decisions about what to do next while you are in the middle of training.

Importantly, I’ve also found that when I’m stopping to take breaks, I end up making decisions a lot earlier than I might otherwise.

For instance, I was at my parents’ house recently and I was doing a bit of clicker training with their dog in the kitchen. During one of my first sets of 10 treats, her performance was so-so. She was doing okay and getting the hang of what I wanted (something we had worked on previously), but was often missing cues.

We took a short break (less than a minute) and I reevaluated the situation. During the training, my dad had been moving around the kitchen working on something. Too big of a distraction for this dog for what we were working on that day!

Would I have figured this out if I hadn’t stopped to take a break? Yes.

But, I’m almost certain it would have taken me longer to make this decision. I probably would have kept going and clicked at least another five or six times.

During the break, we moved to a different room. The next session went great because we had fewer distractions. Of course, once the behavior is more solid, we can start working on it in more challenging environments.

Having a scheduled break gave me the opportunity to evaluate why training wasn’t going as planned and what I needed to change, rather than keep doing what I was doing.

Overall, I’ve found that I get just as much trained (if not more) if I divide the session between training and predetermined breaks, rather than just training continuously and taking breaks randomly.

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