Part 2: How long does it take?
This is a question I hear a lot from first-time dog owners and it’s not an easy one to answer.
There are many factors at play when determining how long it might take to train a dog.
Most importantly, how committed to training are the humans involved? In all cases, how quickly we can train a dog depends as much on the humans doing the training as it does on the dog’s ability to learn. As a trainer, I may be able to teach your dog to sit, down, stay and basic recall within a couple of weeks but if you aren’t consistently reinforcing those skills day to day they’ll be unreliable and underdeveloped (not much use in other words!).
So…, I can’t exactly say how long it will take to train your pup, but I can offer 8 insights to give you some idea of what may speed up or slow down the process.
Always remember though, you’re not on your own and taking your pup to well-run force-free obedience classes for their first year of life will pay you back so many, many times over.
1. Get everyone in the house on-board
Getting all members of the household on the same page is crucial. If, for example, we’re trying to teach a dog that jumping on humans does not reward a dog with the attention they seek, the human members of the family must agree to turn around, exit through a doorway or walk away if the dog jumps on them.
If everyone is on board, over time the dog will learn that they can jump ‘til the cows come home; they’ll never get the attention they seek unless they change their attention-seeking strategy.
Eventually, jumping will extinguish (disappear) and be replaced by more polite requests, as long as those polite requests are being rewarded. If one family member chooses to lavish the dog with attention when they jump up, the dog learns that the strategy works sometimes and has no reason not abandon it for something more polite.
2. Consistency over time is key
Along with getting everyone in the household on board with the training methods, those training methods must be enforced consistently over time.
Think of self-serving behaviours like jumping up for attention…. Four out of five times your pup jumps up, you withhold attention until he offers a more polite alternative to jumping (i.e., standing calmly with four paws on the floor or sitting at your feet).
The 5th time you forget or are distracted and you give your dog your attention when he/she jumps. If the odds of winning at a slot machine were one out of five, you might be willing to play a few games and try your luck.
Your dog makes the same calculation. If the fun, natural behaviour (jumping on you in this example) is rewarded one out of every five times, may as well try it first before seeking attention more politely.
3. It's easier to build a new habit from scratch than change a bad habit
Have you ever tried to break yourself of a bad habit? If you have, you know that breaking a habit that has been repeated dozens or hundreds or thousands of times is much more challenging than introducing something completely novel into your routine.
The same principle works for our dogs. Teaching a new skill will always go faster than trying to change your dog’s existing relationship with an object, activity or person.
4. Behaviours rooted in emotion take time to change
Depending on the individual dog, we can teach a simple beginning skill like sit or down with very little effort. Improving fear- or anxiety-based behaviours through training, on the other hand, is a long-term commitment.
When we are using classical conditioning techniques like desensitisation and counter-conditioning, we are trying to get at the root of a problem that is deeply anchored in your dog’s brain.
Imagine trying to overcome your own fear of spiders or heights or confined spaces or anything that frightens you. Would a single therapy session change your response to these triggers? What about ten sessions? Twenty sessions? There is no way to know.
How quickly the fear improves, if it ever improves, depends entirely on teaching your dog to trust you and giving them the space they need to work through their anxiety.
5. You can only train your dog as quickly as they can learn
Every dog learns at a different pace. Breed type and age can sometimes be a factor—young, malleable dogs frequently learn quickly, as do working breeds—but really it comes down to the individual, not maturity or genetics.
Your dog is likely to be more successful at picking up new skills if you can introduce them in quiet, familiar environments without distractions, such as inside the home.
Even in the best conditions, your dog may struggle with particular cues or with learning in general.
Since the quality of the teacher is also often a factor on how easily a student learns, ensure that you are communicating clearly and moving at a pace your dog can handle.
6. Dogs with a history of aversive training may have trouble learning
Aversive training techniques that intimidate or cause a dog pain such as alpha rolling or the use of prong collars can leave them with a lifetime fear of learning.
Dogs with a history of this kind of training are often easy to identify. They may be unwilling to follow lures because they fear what will happen if they get it wrong. They may be startled by marker words or clickers because sharp noises once predicted punishment. They may be unable to concentrate or become too wound up during training sessions out of anxiety.
These dogs deserve extra patience and care during training in order to help them to overcome a fear of learning.
7. High quality rewards = high quality learning
The better the rewards you offer your dog during training, the more motivated they will be to learn.
Kibble and packaged treats are okay (although in some contexts, they may not pack enough punch to work at all) but for faster responses, try high-value treats like tiny pieces of hot dog, chicken, or cheese. Remember: the reward is something your dog really values – his choice (not yours).
8. You're never really done training a dog
Just like humans, dogs are never really done learning. So even after you’ve taught them a bombproof down-stay and a rocket recall, their training isn’t complete. Throughout your life together, your dog will be carefully watching you for clues about how to navigate their world!
It’s up to you to attempt to communicate in ways that lead to behaviours you like versus those you don’t. Continuing to reinforce over time the behaviours you’ve taught with rewards regularly or even intermittently will ensure that your dog doesn’t abandon those teachings because there’s nothing in it for them.
What are you waiting for then? Have fun, get connected and enjoy training your dog!
See you soon,