At puppy class recently, we started retrieve training. Students were shown this video (below), with the steps needed to train a reliable retrieve to hand. The video compresses quite a bit of learning (weeks of short sessions) into just under 2 minutes of demonstration. ‘How long did it take to train?’ they asked. I guess the answer is never straight forward and well, it depends.
‘How long will it take to train my dog?’ is a common question trainers and behaviour consultants get asked. To understand what influences a dog’s learning and just how long it might take to get a dog to where you want it to be, let’s tackle some fundamental issues. Because if explained, owners should have a far better grasp of what dog training is all about. And if that was understood, they may not ask the question of ‘how long will it take?’ at all.
It depends on what your dog’s natural instincts are like.
It’s not a new concept to admit that learned skills can be un-learned without regular practice. Let’s look at an example. A dog who adores attention from people, will likely always want to greet people, as doing so is a very rewarding. A family can spend some time in the early months training their dog to sit when meeting new people. However if as time goes by, the family let slip the trained routine, an enthusiastic greeter may always want to greet enthusiastically, as this is the dog’s natural instinct. If not practiced, a learnt un-natural behaviour (calm greeting) will usually be lost over time to an un-learnt natural behaviour (the enthusiasm to jump).
Every dog is different.
A clever, determined dog will often be easier to train. However this dog will also be more likely to make up his own games to get his kicks. While trainers love this type of dog, pet dog owners can find themselves frustrated. Their dog is super keen and easy to train when being actively engaged with. The same dog may be super naughty when left to their own devices. I once had a Border Collie who when asked to jump into the van (something he understood well), jumped onto the roof instead! Why? Because jumping was a self-rewarding behaviour to him and he loved the challenge. For such owners, they need to be doubly determined. They may need to get up each morning and explain all over again that certain behaviours are ok, whist others really won’t be rewarded. Bbetter still, owners of such dogs need skills in ‘good dog management’, where their clever dog isn’t given access rule break opportunities in the first place. Here’s my JRT Jellybean, who has a decent retrieve, show determination and initiative with a greater challenge, which needless to say he finds infinitely more rewarding than a boring ball throw.
You can’t rush maturity.
It’s common for people with pups and adolescents to expect their dog to ‘get it’ way before the dog is mature enough to do so. Parents teach, guide and remind their kids of acceptable behaviour all the time but it would be foolish to expect the child to make mature decisions before they are old enough or capable of this. Our dogs are no different. The goofy, adolescent large-breed who is trying to play with people or other dogs using giant paws and physical strength will likely keep trying this, until he’s old enough to make better choices, with an owner’s continuous guidance of course. My teenage un-castrated male is only now –at almost 2 years old-able to walk past another dog without feeling the need to investigate. He can plod, carry his ball and act like a grown up. As experienced dog owners know, this brings a great sense of relief but also a sense of regret, as puppyhood is over forever.
Think of training as daily interaction between you and your dog which enriches both your lives. It’s not a means to an end. Enjoy the journey. It takes as long as it takes…….
About the Author
Since 2005, Sue McCabe has provided behavioural advice and training for dogs across Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland and North East England. Her business, Muttamorphosis also offers puppy, clicker and Kennel Club Good Citizen training classes. Sue provides trained dogs for photoshoots, TV and film work. She also runs masterclasses including canine first aid courses; specialist seminars and workshops.