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"Goofing Off" with Your Dog, or the Importance of Taking a Break

On Training Tuesday, we talk about how to use breaks during training sessions to improve outcomes.


Today is International Goof Off Day. While it probably seems strange that such a holiday actually exists, it's a good time to think about the benefits of "goofing off" or more correctly stated, taking a break and time to be fun with our dogs during training sessions.

Any form of training, particularly in the early stages, can be mentally, and in many cases physically, taxing on a dog. Just like with humans, the more focused we are on learning, the more we can easily get tired and taking time to stop and do something relaxing can recharge our batteries so we can get back to the task at hand. If you find yourself working with your dog and losing his or her attention and focus, consider if your dog simply needs a break -- some time to "goof off" before refocusing.

Taking "goof off" time during training can take many forms. You can pull out your dog's favorite toy and do some tug or retrieve sessions. Or, you can simply allow your dog to rest and do nothing. Gail Fisher, trainer, author and owner of All Dogs Gym in Manchester, NH, states that in her experience, "the best training break is to simply let the dog relax, or "veg out," uninvolved with any specific activity or cue, after which you can go back to working on the behavior you were working on, or move on to a new one."

Fisher recommends taking a break every five to ten repetitions of a behavior, and an easy way to stick to this plan is to count out the number of treats you will be using for each set, and putting the rest aside. However, if you find that the dog is losing focus before you've come to the end of your number of repetitions, take a break early. Judge by the quality of responses you receive from the dog. Assess your dog's demeanor--you may even want to take a break after one good repetition and focus on ending with success.

Another good time to take a break is if you see signs of your dog becoming stressed. Some of these include the dog turning or looking away from you and staring off into the distance, licking their lips, sniffing the ground, panting and sweaty paws. If you see your dog displaying these body language signals, it's a sign that you should give him or her some time to relax. Learning generally doesn't happen well in a stressful environment and taking a few minutes to help your dog feel "ready to learn" again can improve training success.

This isn't just a good idea for one-on-one training sessions with your dogs. Consider the usefulness of giving your dog a break during an agility training class. Dogs can become easily distracted and lose focus while watching other dogs running a course in the ring, or if you train at a facility with multiple classes taking place simultaneously, this can be a lot for a dog to process for an hour or more. Think about taking your dog outside, or away from the class area if it's outdoors, for a short break about halfway through the class to give both of you a mental breather from all the activity.

Concludes Fisher, "It is often hard for trainers to stop training -- to not just ask for one more repetition of a behavior -- but often not training, which includes taking breaks and/or ending a session, provides the opportunity for latent learning, which gives the best benefits for dogs and humans."

So on International Goof Off Day, give taking a break with your dog a try and see how it improves reaching your training goals!


Photo credit: Week 4 - Portrait: Headshot via photopin (license)

Photo credit: Silly puppy via photopin (license)

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