A recent article in Time Magazine entitled Shhh! Genius at Work discussed findings on the links between human creativity and sleep. Many sleep benefits were discussed, including its ability to help us to think and learn more efficiently when we’re awake. The article cited a 2009 study conducted at UCLA: a group of volunteers were asked to solve a RAT (Remote-Association Test), where three words are given and the subject is asked to figure out how the words are linked. The volunteers were tested, and then were told to take a 40-minute nap. Some rested, some dozed, and some dozed heavily, entering the depths of REM sleep. Everyone was then retested. On Round 2, those who had gotten some REM sleep had 40% improved scores; the others all saw their scores go down. The conclusion was that deep, restful sleep sharpened the brain’s ability to find links among words it might not otherwise have found.
Naturally, this made me think about dogs and training. Now, I’m not suggesting that based on this study alone, that dogs will perform better on puzzle-solving and perhaps training if they get deep, restful sleep first—but it sure is an interesting concept. Here’s a research idea: take two groups of dogs, say, 50 in each group. Test all dogs on a puzzle-style food dispenser such as the Nina Ottoson toys, where sliders must be pushed or other pieces moved in order to reveal hidden treats. Then, keep one group awake while the other is allowed to sleep deeply; the subjects would, of course, have to be wired to measure their sleep cycles. Then, retest using a puzzle toy of equal difficulty (using a different toy would prevent the dogs from doing better the second time due to repetition of a familiar task). It would be interesting to know whether the dogs who slept deeply would perform better. If that conclusion were true, it would also explain how dogs who experience chronic stress—those who are globally fearful and startle at any slight sound, for example—might be somewhat learning-impaired. Not only are they chemically and hormonally unbalanced, but they might not be receiving the optimal amount of deep, restful sleep. And we all know what it’s like to try to focus and learn when we haven’t slept well or are otherwise on edge; just something to keep in mind and perhaps look into when a dog can’t seem to learn quickly or efficiently.
Other factors that can impact canine learning are the length of training sessions, and how often they take place. It’s been proven that dogs and children both learn much more efficiently when they’re taught in small increments. Most modern trainers have ditched those old-style drills (half an hour to an hour on block heeling—shoot me now!) in favor of short-burst sessions sprinkled throughout the day. An article in Wired magazine online discusses researcher Helle Demant of the University of Copenhagen’s study on dog training. Demant divided 44 laboratory-raised beagles into four groups. Training included skills such as jumping into a basket, sitting, and staying. Each group received the same amount of training sessions, but, “…those taught once or twice a week for a short period performed much better by the final session than those trained several times a week for a short time, or those trained one to two times per week for a long time. The dogs coached daily in long training sessions fared the worst, the scientists reported in June 15 in Applied Animal Behavior Science.” I expect that might surprise a lot of owners and trainers alike! As certified applied animal behaviorist James Ha mentions in the article, “…learning takes time. The brain needs to process what it has received.” I’ve noticed this phenomenon in my own efforts to learn French; practicing with longer breaks in between sessions seems to help my retention, since it allows my brain to process what I’ve learned. I don’t doubt the same mechanism exists in dogs.
I can only imagine the relief of owners who would much rather train once or twice a week for short sessions than daily—actually, I’m guessing this learning phenomenon explains why, despite the busy schedules of many training clients, the dogs are still able to make progress. The Wired article did go on to mention, though, that even though the short, spaced sessions helped the dogs to learn more efficiently, it did not help in long-term retention. So owners aren’t off the hook for continued training sessions. The best bet seems to be to teach dogs in short sessions once or twice a week, while allowing them to get plenty of deep, restful sleep in between. Who knows, switching to this type of schedule might just be less stressful for both parties, and get better results.