Training myths: End the session on a good note

I regularly hear trainers say that you should end a training session on a good note. This phrase can mean a few different things. However, I find that people often mean that you keep training until your animal does several good repetitions of the behavior you’re practicing.

I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to end on a good note. In fact, trying to end on a good note may actually make your training less effective.

Let’s imagine the following scenario: 

You’re working on shaping a new behavior with your horse, dog, or other animal. 

The horse does several repetitions of the behavior that are decent, then does several not-so-good repetitions. 

If you follow the “end the session on a good note” rule, you will be tempted to keep going. 

And going. 

And going. 

Until the horse (hopefully) manages to do one or two more good repetitions of the behavior. 

Guess what? 

You’ve now spent a lot of time having your horse practice a bunch of unwanted behaviors. 

Taking this approach wastes time. 

Taking this approach may confuse or frustrate your horse. 

Taking this approach may make it harder to teach the correct behavior because your horse has repeatedly practiced incorrect versions of the behavior. 

When should you end the training session?

When teaching new behaviors, I prefer to work in short sessions of five to ten reinforcers. Each session is followed by a brief break. 

Each break allows me to evaluate my progress and decide what to do next. 

In addition to pre-planned breaks, I also end the session if the horse’s behavior is not quite right.

Not-quite-right behavior may mean the horse is offering extra or unwanted behaviors. 

It may mean that the horse is slow to respond to cues or needs to focus on other things in the environment.

Or, it could mean that the horse is displaying tense or uncomfortable body language. 

In these situations, if I keep training and try to end on a good note, I run the risk of accidentally reinforcing unwanted behaviors or frustrating my horse. 

A better approach is to stop.

Take a short break.

Evaluate the situation, and try to determine why it is difficult for your horse to do the correct behavior.

Then, figure out how you can adjust your training plan or your training environment so that it is easier for the horse to figure out what you want. 

But, it’s so tempting to keep training!

I know how you feel! I understand! 

I was always taught to “end on a good repetition of the behavior.” 

I still sometimes find myself wanting to keep training when I know I should stop. (See photo below.)

Knowing that it’s okay to stop takes a shift in thinking. 

But, stopping more frequently helps me make faster progress with my training.

What do you think? When do you stop your training sessions? 

Mary and Apollo (a chestnut Arabian horse) practice weaving together through cones using clicker training
A recent session with my horse, Apollo. We were practicing weaving through cones. The session went well, overall, but I should have stopped earlier than I did.
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