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You *Can* Train More Than One Thing At A Time

Motivation

You *Can* Train More Than One Thing At A Time

“Always train one thing at a time” seems to be a phrase as old as dog training itself.

Dog trainers all over the world tell it to their clients when – in the most prevalent example – explaining how to teach your dog to sit: only work on duration, distraction  or distance.

The classic reasoning behind this is that the dog will get confused if we address more than one parameter of a behavior at once.

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(Fusion practicing sitting pretty and holding his toy and duration)

Because I strongly believe in never accepting a statement without examining its origin and truth (in all aspects of life), let’s take a look at why this recommendation may have come about and whether or not we need to take it into account when training.

Dog training needs to be very black and white for the dog. While I can give another human detailed feedback that specifies correct and incorrect parts of a performance (eg “Your presentation was nearly perfect, except when you started suddenly rushing the slides in the second half…”), we do not have that option with dogs. The only possible reactions to a behavior are rewarding, ignoring, removing rewards or punishing (hopefully not a lot of the latter). We can either tell the dog he has done right – or that he has done wrong. There is not a lot of middle ground for “sorta right with a little bit of wrong”.

Here is where the recommendation to only train one thing at a time comes into play. If I am practicing a stay and at the same time increase the level of difficulty of duration, distance and distraction and the dog fails, then yes – I do not have the option to communicate what exactly just went wrong. The dog only knows I am withholding his reward. I also do not have the option to know what just made the dog fail – was it the combination of the three? Or is just one parameter the one that was challenging? We won’t know without further experimenting with it.

Here’s where my doubt of the usefulness of “Don’t train more than one thing at a time” comes into play.

Your dog shouldn’t be failing a lot in the first place.

If we need to make plans about how to explain to him repeatedly what mistake lead to failure, we should rethink the setup of our training plan in the first place. Reaction to mistakes should not be the main thought or driving force behind our training philosophy.

Your dog shouldn’t fail more than 20% of the time. That means that in 4 out of 5 tries, we only have to think about how to increase his learning success through rewards. And during these successful tries, we want to be able to communicate as much as possible.

Let’s take a look at the example with the stay. I could ask my dog to sit and then stand in front of him counting down 15 seconds until I reward him. He would learn that waiting while we stand still produces a reward.

But what if we waited 8 seconds, while we take small lateral steps and maybe raise our arm up in the air? If our dog stays, he just learned to wait regardless of our position while we move around and distract him. He is a lot closer to putting an abstract concept to the stay than the dog in the first example. One could argue that this constitutes a greater training success – communicating more behavior specifics in a faster time.

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 (Kix practicing sitting and holding a flower with duration and distance)

If the dog would fail, then of course we need to take a step back, investigate and ask him – was it my walking around that made you fail? Was it my raised arm? Was the duration too long for the level of training you’re at?

As long as the dog doesn’t fail however – which should be the majority of the time – it is a waste to not add as many different parameters to the behavior as possible. Why explain only one thing to him when you can also explain three?

While your dog is successful – train as many different things at once as you like. If your dog is unsuccessful – isolate the reason for his failure and explain it to him in detail.