If you know me, have stood next to me in a grocery store queue, or have hired me to help you train a dog, you’ve probably heard me say “Five minutes, five times a day.” When clients ask how much they should practice with their dog, I tell them “five minutes, five times a day.”. When asked how much time a client needs to work with a new dog, I tell them the same. Unless you are training a working dog, my 5×5 rule works perfectly. If you are training a dog for a specific, demanding job, the amount of training needed on a daily basis increases as the dog learns more cues. But as general advice for the average family, 5×5 is all you need.
Families or individuals with busy, full time schedules can easily accomplish the 5×5. Five minutes when you wake, 5 right before work, 5 when you get home, 5 at dinner time, 5 before bed. If the family is really busy, these times can be distributed among other family members. If there is only one human in the family, a dog walker or sitter can be hired to help take up the slack during especially busy times. Most dog professionals are perfectly happy to spend a few minutes asking a dog to perform cues and passing out treats. If your hired help objects, consider looking for another assistant who is willing to help.
If your schedule accommodates, most dogs are perfectly happy to have more than 5 training interactions a day. In the beginning, when a dog is first starting to learn, it is important to keep training sessions short and fun. With some of the more enthusiastic breeds (mostly shepherds, collies, and dogs renowned for intelligence), it is often a good idea to work in even shorter sessions, but much more often. A minute or two, ten times a day.
No matter how long or how often you train, remember to always end on a positive note. If your dog is struggling to grasp a new concept and you feel that you or your dog is getting frustrated with a lack of progress, back up to an easier step in the shaping, reward success, and call it quits for the session.
With my new Service dog, Cookie, it is important that I teach her to retrieve. I want her to be able to bring me objects I have dropped, medicine, my phone, and I’d also dearly love to have a companion who is happy to play a game of fetch. Since I lost Jack, I lost my favorite playmate. Ritchie is perfectly happy to retrieve a time or two, but he isn’t very enthusiastic about the game so much as the rewards.
As a rescue, Cookie has some…interesting habits. She used to think that every time she picked something up, she’d be in trouble. She became comfortable with carrying things in my presence about a month ago. Three days ago I finally got her to bring me one of her treasures. Yesterday she retrieved a ball I’d tossed for her. This new found trust began with me throwing treats at her whenever she picked up something. This training was literally seconds, several times a day. What started off as 2 or 3 times a day, increased dramatically over the last three months until Cookie is spending half of her time or more carrying something around the house. Not only is it adorable, but also serves to keep her from chewing shoes.
If you’re realistic about training, you’ll understand that every interaction you have with your dog is an opportunity from which they’re likely to learn something. A reaction from you as simple as a smile or a laugh may be enough reinforcement for your dog to repeat the behavior, developing into a habit that the dog understands better than you do. (This is very commonly the reason that dogs act like lunatics when they even SEE a leash.) All of this helps the dog enthusiast to keep in perspective that while you’re spending time with your dog, whether you mean to or not, you’re training. And the minimum amount of time you probably need to spend formally training your dog (working on things that don’t always matter in the course of your day, but do matter in your efforts to communicate) is at least 5 minutes, 5 times a day.