How Long Does It Take to Train My Dog?
by Robin MacFarlane
Answer: It depends. On a lot of things.
It depends on how much time and effort you can put into the training. A person that spends time each day practicing with their dog and integrating new skills into the daily routine has a huge advantage over someone who only does the homework once or twice a week.
It depends on your level of skill. The newer you are to training, the more learning curve there may be. But motivation to practice and work at it pays off, so don't let being a "newbie" deter you.
It depends on your dog's age. New pups learn quickly and don't have undesirable habits that need changing. Older dogs can have great success as well, but if bad habits already exist, understand that replacing them with more appropriate behavior will take some consistent effort.
It depends on your dog's personality. A well-balanced, stable personality is going to have an easier time catching on to things quickly. Dogs with anxiety, timidity or reactiveness issues are more easily flustered by what's in the surrounding environment, so expect it to take more time overcoming certain hurdles.
The speed of learning depends on what goals you are trying to accomplish and breed can have an influence on how fast you get there. Teaching a hound to do a heads up heel, or a Nordic breed to have a rock solid off leash recall versus teaching a Lab to retrieve and bring back a ball, or teaching a Border Collie to, well, just about anything with Border Collies!, they are very different things. So it all depends.
Breaking down expectations into component parts is key in developing a successful training plan and coming up with a realistic time frame to achieve your goals.
Here is my rule of thumb: Go as fast as you can, but as slow as you need to.
What do I mean by that?
Moving along smoothly as the dog progresses in his level of understanding is important not only so you make strides toward your overall goal, but also so the dog is challenged and remains engaged in the process.
Practicing a Down/Stay in your kitchen when the house is quiet over and over and over will certainly give you a reliable down stay in the kitchen when the house is quiet, but it won't get you any closer to having a dog that will lie down and stay when the doorbell rings and your guests arrive for the dinner party.
Nor will it give you a dog that has that bright and eager look that you see in dogs that are tuned in and earnestly working with their human.
To achieve a high degree of reliability and engagement you have to learn to slice the pieces of your goal into component parts. Then understand how you put them together effectively to proof the final behavior.
Lets take for example a dog that you want to go to his Place (dog bed) when the door bell rings and remain there when visitors enter the house. Remaining on that place through all that excitement of visitors is the vision we have planted in our head as the crowning achievement of training this particular behavior.
We first have to teach the dog what the command Place means. We go through the process of assisting the dog onto the bed and rewarding him for getting on there. In the early phase that reward is immediate as soon as four paws are on the bed. After a number or repetitions the dog will begin to show understanding of what is expected. How many repetitions will it take before you see that understanding? It depends. But as soon as some understanding is achieved that the dog is to get on to the bed then you start prolonging the idea of remaining in place.
We start small and build the duration of the staying concept and we reward the duration rather than just the getting on part of the behavior.* (see footnote at bottom of article)
Once the dog is catching onto the concept of remaining, we add in distractions and this is where we need to get truly creative to build reliability. For the example above we certainly want to add in the chime of the doorbell, the opening of the door and the excitement of new people coming into the house. These variables should be broken into component parts. For instance, I don't have people coming in the door as soon as it is opened. I proof the dog to the door opening and closing, then add people to the equation. I ring the bell numerous times through the day and escort the dog to the Place. When I add in people, there is limited excitement at first but then we add in more realistic greetings and hoopla. It is all broken down into little slices that eventually will be put together into a completed behavior.
During the entire process I am paying attention and fixing the dogs mistakes as soon as they happen so the dog can understand the right versus wrong response. I'm rewarding the right response and interrupting the wrong ones. It makes the learning black and white and easy for the dog to understand.
But how long did it take to get to the final outcome?
It depends on all those things I mentioned in the beginning of this article. I've had dogs that learned the whole repertoire in a few days and those who took several weeks.
I'm going as fast as I can and as slow as I need to in order to help the dog understand exactly what it is that I want and expect. But trying to skip steps or push a dog faster than they are ready for will leave holes in the training and that doesn't expedite anything.
As fast as you can, but as slow as you need to.
I think it is a good mantra for achieving goals in all aspects of life.
*Note: I personally do not use the word "Stay" in my training. I teach the dog to continue to remain in the behavior until they get a permission cue to release.
Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thatís My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.