Although consistency is key when training dogs, naturally there will be training breaks that happen. Work schedules, family commitments, and vacations can all result in even the most serious dog sport competitors needing to take some time off from training or reduce the amount of time they have to train. Similarly, injuries to the dog or handler can lead to some much-needed rest. But when you’re ready to come back after an extended break from training, you’ll want to be intentional about how you bring your dog back into their training.
Returning to Training Work
When it’s time to bring your dog back into training, you’ll want to be gentle and intentional with both your dog and yourself. When starting to train again after any kind of break—regardless of how long it was—it’s helpful to start with some foundation training sessions. Start by working on skills your dog knows well, such as any conditioning or stretching work, warm-up exercises, or training cues you typically do with your dog. Beginning with skills your dog knows well can be a helpful confidence boost for your dog and you before you start working on more complicated tricks.
Checking in With Your Vet
If your dog has taken a break from training because of injury or to have surgery, it’s important that they are fully cleared by a veterinarian before you return to training. But dogs who have been out of training for an extended period of time, even without an injury, could use a checkup. It can be useful to schedule an appointment with a veterinary physical therapist, as well, to help your dog rebuild muscle tone so they can safely return to higher impact sports. Explain to your vet about the kind of training you do and make sure that it is appropriate for their current level of health.
Preparing to Take a Break
If you know in advance that you’re going to need to take a break from training, it’s a good idea to start to slow your dog’s training sessions in advance. This can help your dog be less stressed and have an easier time adjusting to the reduced training schedule. For example, if I know I’m going to go on vacation, then I will begin reducing the amount of exercise my dog gets and the number of daily training routines a few weeks in advance. This is because when a dog sitter is staying at my house and caring for my dog, they will not be training them.
It’s not always possible to know exactly when you’ll need to give your dog a break from training, but if you have an upcoming schedule conflict that will impact your training, try to help your dog prepare by slowing down instead of abruptly stopping to allow their routine to adjust.
Depending on how long your dog has been out of work, it’s important to remember they may have less mental and physical stamina than they did before the break. When you are bringing a dog back to work, you want to keep training sessions short and fun, so your dog isn’t overworked. If you’re someone who loses track of time while training, it can be helpful to set a timer for a short training session for you and your dog.
Rebuilding your dog’s stamina won’t happen overnight, but by building back to regular training sessions, you can help your dog get physically and mentally back to where they were before.
Have Realistic Expectations
Just like if you haven’t done something challenging for a little while it may take you a little while to get back in the groove, the same can be true with dogs. When you are bringing your dog back into training it’s important to be realistic with the expectations you have for your dog’s performance. Regardless of what sport(s) you train in, be aware that if your dog has had a break from work, they may be a little rusty when you start training again.
Recognize that when you bring your dog back into training, their reaction times and ability to remember skills might be a little rusty. In addition, while your dog has been on break, you have been too and your timing may also have been impacted, which will influence your dog’s performance. Keep your training goals realistic when you come back into training and don’t expect your dog to remember everything as they did initially. Most dogs who have had extended time off from training will remember some skills but may need a refresher on others to get back to the level of skill and coordination they once had.
To ensure gradual success, start at a lower level of skill than your dog was at before the break and incrementally make your training more difficult until your dog is back to where they were.
Why Breaks Can Be Good
Although it’s important to be realistic and not expect your dog to return to training at the same level they were initially, some dogs do benefit from time off. If you and your dog are struggling with mastering a specific skill, sometimes it can help to take a break, focus on something else, and return to the challenging skill at a later time.
For example, although my Newfoundland Sirius had learned dozens of tricks as a puppy and adolescent, she got frustrated with tricks that required any kind of extreme precision, like playing basketball or ring toss. I recognized that at two years old, as a giant breed, she was still mentally maturing, so I took a break from those kinds of precision tricks. I was pleasantly surprised that when we revisited those tricks after her third birthday, she had matured and now had the patience, coordination, focus, and interest in mastering more complicated tricks. In fact, in the 2020 AKC National Trick Dog Competition, she was the top Newfoundland.
Some dogs just need more time to process what they are learning, or the skill may have been too challenging for them at their current age or skill level. For these dogs, taking a break to allow them to mature and focus on other training skills can be extremely beneficial.
All of us have training goals with our dogs, but there will always be times that schedules get in the way and that’s OK! When you bring your dog back to work after some time off, it’s important to ensure your dog is healthy and able to return to training. When your dog returns to training, go slow and be patient, as it may take your dog a little while to get their head back in the game.
Keep your training sessions short, fun, and upbeat with a focus on foundation skills. Be generous to your dog and avoid making negative comparisons between how your dog performed before in the past and how they are performing now. Chances are once your dog gets back into the training routine, their skills will be back better than ever.