On several occasions, I’ve had people ask me how long it takes to train a dog. My first answer is “Well, it depends. What do you want this dog to do?”
Dog's Eye View
This weekly column about dog training publishes on Fridays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.
Training a dog is not like tuning up your skis before the season starts; it’s a continual process to keep their skills sharp and compliance dependable.
A dog is not just an addition to the family; she’s a lifelong project. My Skippy dog will be 11 years old next month. Our latest fun activity is K9 nose work. We practice nose work maybe twice per week. But for everyday “stuff,” we have daily mini-training sessions. I like to call one of our sessions meal time training — polite manners waiting for the food bowl.
With both Skippy and Max eating meals at the same time, Max is learning to wait patiently, while Skippy’s food bowl is placed in front of her. Then, Max gets to practice his “scooch” trick or “happy dance” before being released to eat his dinner.
How about training to help suit up for a walk? Holding still while getting a harness on can be a circus unless you take the time to teach your dog what is happening with this thing going over her head and under her belly.
Skippy has this down and slips her head in and lifts her paw to put through the harness. This, I did not train but, rather, shaped the behavior a little at a time through the course of several weeks. I started by holding a treat in one hand and the harness in the other. I lured her nose through the harness with the treat and slipped it over her head. I then took it off and practiced on and off for several repetitions until she put her head through the harness without the lure.
Then, I began to teach her how to lift her leg through. It’s become such a consistent part of our routine, she knows the drill. With patience and consistent practice, I have empowered my dog to control the timing. I hold out the harness and say, “Time to go to work.” They, I wait. I give her a few seconds to look over the situation and decide to put her head through the harness and get ready for our day. This empowers her to make a choice. My few quiet seconds allowing her to process what I am asking helps her control her choice to cooperate, and this, she does willingly.
Yes, I could hold her in place and make her do it, but I like the idea of allowing my dog to cooperate. It’s more fun, and she has kisses for me when we’re done.
Training has become such an integral part of my life, I really don’t even think about it. It’s a habit developed by consistent practice. I think that’s the hard part for new dog trainers.
We have to change up our schedule to devote consistent time. We have to think about it every day, and training never ends. I practice “heel,” or walk by my side to the car, and “wait,” while I open the door, and “kennel up,” The cue to get into her car crate. I also practice “wait” when I let her out of the crate or before she exits the car.
These little mini sessions take no extra time, and they serve to keep communication going between me and my dog.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by all the things you feel you need to teach your dog, then make a list. Prioritize what you want to teach in order of critical need.
I always recommend starting with something easy for both of you. That brings instant success and relieves any tension between trainer and canine student. Start a dialog with your dog each time you make eye contact. Take your time, but devote the time you have to building success. Consider attending a reward-based, dog-friendly training class to speed up and reinforce the process.
So, how long does it take to train a dog? For Skippy and me, approximately 3,825 days and counting. Have fun.
Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with more than 25 years of experience. She has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultant,s as well as Certified Nose Work Instructor through the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC in Northwest Colorado.