A comment came up recently on one of the Facebook groups that questioned how we train. I’m paraphrasing of course… but it sparked some thought! How often should you trial? Should trialing drive your training or should purpose drive your training? The two questions sound dissimilar however they are very closely related.

Trialing is essentially test taking… what are YOUR test taking (trialing) practices?

Let’s analyze this by comparing two hypothetical teams.

Team 1 takes weekly classes, trains once or twice more per week and has a goal for trialing twice a month. Titles are important to this team and this handler’s goal is the green ribbon. By calculation, assuming 4 weeks in a month, this handler trains between 8 and 12 times per month and trials 2 times. So trialing would be approximately 15-20% of the team’s time.

Team 2 also takes weekly classes and trains once or twice more per week. This team trials when they feel that they are ready to test their training. Trialing for this team ends up to being about once every 3 months. By calculation, assuming 4 weeks in a month, but extrapolating for 3 months, this team trials approximately 3-4% of the team’s time.

Before I get farther into this, let me preface this by saying that I don’t think that there is a wrong answer here. There are many reasons to trial, including social ones… but the question is interesting!

In my quest to learn more…

In my quest to learn more, I did some looking into exam practices. What works best with human students? What I found initially surprised me, however when I read deeper, it all made sense. I found this article in Scientific American (“Researchers Find That Frequent Tests Can Boost Learning”) and thought it was fascinating! https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/researchers-find-that-frequent-tests-can-boost-learning/.

My first thought from reading the title was, “that can’t be, because a short-sighted approach can limit long-term development!” I don’t think my thought was off-base, however, if you get deeper into the article, the manner of the “tests” makes a big difference. In the article, the author references “retrieval practice”.

Retrieval practice does not use testing as a tool of assessment. Rather it treats tests as occasions for learning, which makes sense only once we recognize that we have misunderstood the nature of testing. We think of tests as a kind of dipstick that we insert into a student’s head, an indicator that tells us how high the level of knowledge has risen in there—when in fact, every time a student calls up knowledge from memory, that memory changes. Its mental representation becomes stronger, more stable and more accessible.

Annie Murphy Paul, “Researchers Find That Frequent Tests Can Boost Learning”

So this speaks to the type of testing. Is your testing (trialing) contributing to learning or to anxiety?

I got even MORE curious and decided to do a little research on test anxiety.

There are essentially five types of test anxious students (Zeidner, M.(1998). Test Anxiety: The State of the Art):

  1. Examinees with deficient study and test-taking skills – this has to do with memory, preparation and application under pressure
  2. Failure accepting examinees – these examinees are used to low ability and accept it as explanation for low performance
  3. Failure-avoiding examinees – these folks are afraid of being seen as incompetent because they tie their self worth to the success of test outcome
  4. Self-handicappers – these folks create excuses for potential failures
  5. Perfectionistic overstrivers – these examinees have exaggerated expectations. Adaptive perfectionists’ hard efforts, gives them pleasure and when they succeed. However, maladaptive perfectionists experience a feeling of fear that arises from not meeting the self-imposed or externally-imposed standards and forces them to self- defeating overstriving.

Although these concepts are intended to apply to human students taking exams, there is a huge corollary to trialing a dog in Nosework or Scent Work!

So our first conclusion is:

It doesn’t matter how often you trial as long as you are testing your training in a positive manner. If you find yourself falling into one of the five types of anxiousness, then you need to reassess how you trial.

So what about the dog?

This is where the rubber meets the road. Remember that when you test your training with a trial, you aren’t the only one being subjected to the rigors of the day. Your dog is there with you.

From an emotional perspective, trialing really has 2 prospective outcomes:

  1. The trial will not overly stress the dog and the dog will come out even
  2. The trial WILL stress the dog and the dog will need recovery.

That’s it. It’s a zero sum game. Trials either negatively affect the dog, or they are neutral.

So our second conclusion is:

As long as you aren’t negatively affecting your dog’s emotional well-being, you aren’t doing harm with more frequent trialing.

But what about goals?

This is our other sticky point: Long-term vs. Short-term

In 2004, Princeton University conducted a study (https://pr.princeton.edu/news/04/q4/1014-brain.htm) using MRI imaging to show the effects of delayed reward and immediate gratification. The results indicated an emotional connection to the short-term and a more abstract-reasoning connection to the long-term.

Why is this important?

The Princeton study may indicate that given short-term goals (such as quick titles), might cause a person to make emotional decisions.

What sort of emotional decisions could be made?

The first thing to come to my mind (as an example) would be an emphasis on finding the hide, over establishing solid foundations. I see this so often when more novice handlers tell me that they “need a stronger alert”. I don’t believe that that the handler knows that the comment denotes a short-term decision, however the issue is usually associated with a desire to earn a Q ribbon. A longer term focus might include more observation and less pressure. In my experience, when I encourage these folks to look to root cause, some listen and address their dog’s confidence or their own observational skills, however many handlers just move on to the next trainer to build a more solid alert rather than addressing the root issue. This would indicate an association of short-term focus with emotion.

So our third conclusion is:

If training decisions are being made with the team’s long-term success in mind rather than short-term success, we can assume that decisions are being made thoughtfully.

Let’s revisit our two hypothetical teams… Team 1 and Team 2…

Which one is on the best path?

The answer is, “It Depends”.

In the end, whether you are Team 1 or Team 2, be aware of your trialing practices and the impact to your dog and your long-term training goals. Trialing is an excellent test as long as your dog enjoys the experience, and as long as you don’t suffer from the five types of anxiousness.