A while ago I had foot surgery and for several months couldn’t attend the weekly canine agility class at my local dog training club. I spent much of that time on the couch with my foot propped up, trying to heal so I could get back to all the activities I love to do. Unfortunately, that meant my dogs missed out on a lot of the activities they love to do as well.
During the time of my recovery, exercising the dogs mainly consisted of using the flirt pole in the backyard since I didn’t need to move much in order to do that. Enrichment for the dogs included snuggling, watching the two of them playing together, and handing out stuffed Kongs. Because it was hard to get up and around, I did very little training during this time.
When I returned to agility class a few months later, I was a bit embarrassed to discover that Whimsy would no longer remain in a stay. Stay had previously been a pretty strong behavior; in agility class I could have her remain in a down stay as I walked around the course to see the sequence of the obstacles before we ran. Now she popped out of her down as soon as I walked away from her and tried to follow me.
As disappointed as I was in Whimsy’s inability to perform a stay at the class when I returned, I recognized that the behavior had eroded through disuse. Those months of not practicing stay had caused her skills to deteriorate, and that wasn’t anyone’s fault. Nor was it a disaster – we just had to re-train stay.
How much training does a dog need?
There is no doubt that a trained dog has a lot of benefit. Families with ill-mannered dogs often say they can't wait until their dog is trained so that the dog is easier to live with. I get it, as does anyone who has had a dog in their life. It's difficult to live with a dog who doesn't behave in a way that fits in well with our lives, and often many of us think "I wish he/she wouldn't (fill in the blank with annoying behavior)"
Training a dog can be hard work. The person training needs to know how to communicate what it is they want the dog to know, to a species that doesn’t speak our language, and has a totally different set of natural behaviors from humans. It also takes consistency and patience and knowledge how best to motivate the dog. All that hard work is so worth it when you end up with a dog who fits in well in your home and doesn’t cause grief with poor behavior.
How much training does a dog need is a good question, with the answer being “it depends.” Just because I train my dogs to a certain level doesn’t mean that other people should aspire to that same level. If you have trained your dog to do a few behaviors and you’re happy with what your dog has been trained to do, then you’ve done as much training as your dog needs.
Training definitely makes it easier to live with the dog, and resolves a lot of behavior issues. But one thing a lot of people don't think about is the fact that training isn't ever a finished event. So many times I’ve been asked “How long did it take to train your dog?” as though I made something and now it was finished. But a dog isn't trained and then you're done forever – the truth is that you’re never done with training.
A good analogy is exercising to build muscle and strength. Most people have a fitness goal, and are happy when they finally reach it. But it doesn't mean you can stop exercising just because you've achieved that goal, at least not if you want to stay at that level of fitness. You need to continue to exercise in order to maintain what you've achieved.
How often should I train my dog?
This is true when it comes to training dogs as well. As a matter of fact, dog trainers call training behaviors "training exercises", which is really apt. Once you're satisfied with the level of performance your dog has achieved in their training you're not done forever if you want your dog to continue their ability to respond at that level. You need to keep practicing your training in order for your dog to keep their skills strong.
Fortunately, your behavior maintenance training sessions don't have to be on the same schedule as when your dog was learning the behavior. A minute or two a few times a week will most likely be enough to keep your dog's skills sharp. And you don’t need to necessarily go out of your way to set up a formal training session.
It could be as simple as working on recalls once or twice as you’re doing yard work and your dog is off doing his thing. Or practicing a short stay in the middle of your walk. Fitting a micro-training session in the middle of your normal routine is a great way to practice training. Not only does it not take too much time, but these practice sessions will often mimic real-life situations in which you’ll want to actually use it.
Additionally, integrating your dog’s already trained skills into your daily routine will be practice that doesn’t take any more of your time, will make your life easier, and strengthen your dog’s training. Some ideas would be asking for a wait at the door every time you go for a walk, requesting a down stay as you get on your jacket, and requiring a sit before you place your dog’s food bowl on the floor.
How do I know if my dog is trained?
However, dogs get very good at performing a skill when it’s performed and trained in specific situations, but they don’t generalize their training well to new situations. So don’t be surprised if you think your dog is very well trained in a behavior, only to struggle when asked to do it in an unfamiliar environment or situation.
As an example, most people think their dog knows “sit”. You may be surprised to find out that this behavior isn’t quite as strong as you think. My definition of sit means that when I say the word “sit”, you should get into a sit position without moving from where ever you are. Do you think your dog can do it?
There’s an illustrative exercise I have students in my group dog training class attempt to perform to test their dog’s knowledge of sit. Try it with your dog and see how you do:
· Ask your dog to sit in front of you.
· Get your dog next to you, so both of you are facing the same way. Ask for a sit.
· Get the dog behind you and ask for a sit.
· You sit on the floor, ask your dog to sit.
· Lie down on the floor, ask your dog to sit.
Because most dogs have been taught to sit with their person standing and the dog facing towards the trainer’s knees, most dogs will want to go into a sit in that specific position. If a dog won’t’ sit by your side facing in the same direction as you when asked, they aren’t being disobedient, they just haven’t ever been trained to sit in that situation.
An example of my dogs knowing something in one context, but not another is “leave it”. My dogs have a pretty good “leave it”. If I drop something on the floor by accident, leave a plate of food on the coffee table, or come across garbage on the street they will avoid those things when asked. Today as we were walking, we came across a dead bird that had been hit by a car. I asked for a “leave it” and they did not.
Leave it in that context isn’t something we encounter a lot. So even though they know leave it in most situations, my dogs couldn’t respond as I asked in this new scenario. I used today’s encounter as a training opportunity.
Both dogs were on leash, and I stood far enough away that when they got to the end of the leash, they were about 2 feet away from being able to actually get to the dead bird. The key is to stop all forward motion after you say “leave it”. I was therefore able to prevent my dogs from ignoring my request and getting what they wanted.
After about 15 seconds of thinking on their part one turned away from the bird, I praised him and gave him a few treats. The other one also turned away and got her treats. I was then able to walk them past the bird without the dogs trying to get it.
There are times where I’m aggravated at some of the situations the dogs and I find ourselves in, such as unexpectedly encountering roadkill. I’ve tried to change my mindset to look at those scenarios as opportunities to practice our training exercises. If things go well, I’m pleased. If things don’t go well, then I get information that tells me what we need to work on in the future.
Training a dog is teaching skills. Learning is something that happens over a lifetime and never ends. So, if you ask your dog to do something that he “knows” and his response is a blank look, you know you need more practice to rebuild the strength of his training. But don’t worry – that knowledge is still in that doggy brain and it will be easy to get your dog back up to speed!